A large part of the class involved analyzing mass media’s impact on society. One of the clearest ways to see how our culture influences the world around us is by looking at the images it produces, and ads are a particularly powerful example because they not only create, but also reinforce social norms and power constructs (ex. ideas about race, gender roles, etc). And because we are constantly bombarded with these messages from a young age, we often don’t even realize how much they affect us.
Professor Vigorito demonstrated this concept with harsh clarity on the first day of class that semester. When we came in, there were a series of print ads projected onto the screen in the giant lecture hall. The ads portrayed women and men in various poses and scenarios, normally with men in dominant positions and women in more submissive poses. Some of the ads showed women painted to look like the product being advertised, and others even went so far as to attach women’s body parts to the product.
We were told to write down our impressions of the ads, and share our thoughts with the class.
The responses varied, but most of the girls and a few of the guys said that the ads made them uncomfortable. Interestingly, however, while many people expressed strong reactions to the ads, no one was able to pinpoint exactly what it was that got under their skin.
I was one of those people who sensed something was off, but couldn’t quite determine what it was. I remember looking at the ads on the projector and having this kind of sick feeling in my stomach, but I couldn’t identify precisely why they made me feel that way. Some people suggested that it was the overt sexuality of some of the ads, but I knew that it wasn’t sexuality alone that was hitting a nerve in me. It wasn’t the sexual nature of the ads that was a problem, but rather, the context.
After we discussed and debated the ads as a class, Professor Vigorito had us watch Killing Us Softly 4, a documentary about the ways gender is used to advertise products. If you haven’t already seen it, I would highly recommend watching it. Here’s the trailer:
Since learning about this concept had such a profound impact on the way I analyze ads, I wanted to use my notes from my Sociology class to share a brief overview of objectification for those who aren’t familiar with it.
So what is “objectification,” exactly?
It’s essentially making someone into something. It’s normally carried out in ads by giving the properties of an object to someone who is, in fact, a person.
It can be hard to explain in words exactly how objectification works, so I’m going to try to explain by giving examples of some of the most common ways it pops up.
In these pictures, human beings are presented as inanimate object. These are some very obvious examples, but it's not always this black-and-white.
Then there's objectification by dismemberment. Some ads take this kind of objectification one step further by not only dismembering the body parts of the person, but also presenting these parts as inanimate objects.
Sometimes it’s slightly more subtle, with the body being compared to an object rather than explicitly rendered as the object itself: Here, the enlargement of a woman's breasts is used as a really awful "metaphor" (if you can even call it that) for the difference between low and high definition photos.
I wish I could say that's the worst of it, but it's not. There are also a disturbing and growing number of ads that depict the abuse and murder of women, usually in a cynical, mocking light: Women in these ads are often objectified as corpses, and sexualized on top of that.
But perhaps the most damaging message they send is that violence against women is not only acceptable, but “cool.” And that is a really scary message to be sending to young, impressionable men, some of whom will do just about anything to fit in.
While it's true that most victims of objectification are women, that doesn't mean it never happens to men. It’s less widespread, but men definitely get objectified to an extent as well.
A particularly common theme with the objectification of men is presenting them as animals:
In some ads, this human-to-animal objectification is reversed. This Trojan ad uses actual pigs (well, computer-generated, but you get the idea) behaving like men, instead of men posing like pigs. But the message is the same.
Another common form of male objectification is body dismemberment (although they normally aren’t presented as inanimate objects). Teen outfitters like American Eagle and Hollister are notorious for this.
So what’s the problem with objectification in ads?
For one, repeated exposure can lead people (women especially) to internalize objectification and begin to view themselves the way they are portrayed in the media — as objects of desire.
Another negative effect is that sexually objectified women are seen as being less human and less competent by both men and women alike. Some studies have even found that long-term exposure to stereotypical media portrayals of women is correlated with greater tolerance of sexual harassment and acceptance of rape myths among men.
But we can’t possibly know the full extent of how these messages effect us, since we’ve been bombarded with them our whole lives. The consequences probably reach a lot further than we’re able to measure scientifically. The media plays such a huge role in influencing and reinforcing social norms, and we have all been impacted by the mass messages we see, whether we want to admit it or not.
The first step to change is admitting that there’s a problem to begin with. It’s easy to dismiss the issue, since we’ve never known anything else, but if we take a step back and look at what our society from the perspective of someone who isn’t constantly immersed in it, the cruelty and harmfulness of the media's "objectification habit" becomes clear. We have to demand for it to stop now, before it takes on a life of it's own.