The “alienated spectator” is now a driving force for the way in which ads are constructed and the meanings that are ascribed to them and inherent in them (Goldman & Papson, 1996, p. 83). One of the ways in which marketers have attempted to regain the attention and focus of viewers in today’s saturated markets is through ads that utilize, reinforce, and glamorize patriarchal norms of violence targeted at women. Given the universal scale of the issue of violence against women, these aggressive and sexist images of gender relations in advertising has the potential to set the stage, promote and naturalize all forms of abuses including physical, and sexual. This paper will provide an in-depth analysis of the approaches and ramifications of four print ads that illustrate violent images and vocabulary in order to market to consumers and sell products. These include ads from: Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Redwall, and Gold Disk.
The effectiveness of these ads is primarily due to their shock value. Shock value is a technique “of grabbing the spectator’s attention that turns alienation into both the subject and the framework of discourse” (Goldman & Papson, 1996, p. 88). I aim to show how these advertisement campaigns also use shocking material as a “creative” way, through their references to physical and sexual abuse against women, as a means to invite and direct the interest of the cynical audience member. In the first part of the paper, a brief background on the global issue of violence against women will be provided followed by an analysis of the ads and the techniques they employ to normalize aggression and ferocious attitudes towards women as an acceptable form of male-female interaction.
Violence against Women: A Global Issue
Violence against women has and continues to be a global crisis with severe consequences. Violence targeted at women is defined as anything that “may result in death, injury or permanent disability, unwanted pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, and/or emotional trauma” (“Violence Against Women & Children”, n.d., p. 2.) Continued and repeated exposure to violence could also lead to many other forms of chronic illnesses. For all women around the world between ages 14 to 44, violence is now the second cause of injury (Woodruff, 1996). Between 1998 and 2002, in Canada alone, spousal violence constituted the most significant category of civil matters in adult courts. In more than 90% of these cases, the offenders were men and in particular men that were known associates to the women (“Violence Against Women & Children”, n.d.). Furthermore, approximately 51% of Canadian women “have been victims of at least one act of physical or sexual violence” with the most prominent age group being 25 to 34 year-olds (“Violence Against Women & Children”, n.d., p. 6-7). Although these statistics allude to the severity of the problem that exists, many corporations still try to cash in on this sinister phenomenon by portraying women in ways and positions that make references to them as being victims of violent acts which reinforces dominant patriarchal ideologies that views women as weak and inferior to men.
Two factors have been identified as unique to the belief system of men who are perpetrators of violence against women. These include: 1. “the belief that violence is a legitimate way of solving problems and 2. a belief that it is okay for a man to control women” (Woodruff, 1996, p. 331). If these are some of the underlying attitudes of male batterers, then it is of no doubt that cultural and social vehicles contribute to laying the grounds for promoting and influencing these types of aggressive behaviours. For instance, from childhood, men are taught to be strong, tough, and in charge, especially in respect to women. Furthermore, they are socialized to believe that violence and aggression are the correct answers to all of life’s barriers, circumstances and frustrations (Woodruff, 1996). Thus, violence is not only tolerated, in today’s society, but it is also sometimes even propagated, encouraged and glamorized through various service sectors such as the mass media and advertising.
The Ads: Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Redwall, & Gold Disk
Here are four examples of ads that are shocking due to their glorified depictions of violence against women.
The first is a poster by Louis Vuitton which shows a woman’s hands, legs and feet wearing a pair of multicoloured Louis Vuitton heels, standing firmly against an oversized, red and pink dartboard (Gender Ads.acom, n.d.). In addition, four knives (signifiers) which are there to represent darts (signified) are resting on the dartboard inches away from the woman’s bare, tanned legs. The faceless female as well as her willingness to be used and positioned in a demeaning and dangerous manner advocate the powerlessness of women and justify their treatments as objects. By situating the woman alongside the game of darts, which tends to be a male-oriented activity, this ad aims to serve to a male audience in more than one way. The woman is being equated to an inanimate object while serving as another source of entertainment. By changing darts to knives and adding a woman to the picture, it appears that Louis Vuitton is trying to transform an otherwise boring sport into a thrilling, violent and sexually fuelled game. Unfortunately, this glamorization of violence does injustice to women and their worth and dignity.
Secondly, at first glance, an ad for Dolce & Gabbana clothing and shoes illustrates a woman being restrained on the ground by a shirtless man while being watched and surrounded by an additional four half-clothed males (signified) (National Organization for Women Foundation, 2008). What this ad portrays are the asymmetrical power relations that exist between genders in today’s society. The positioning, angles and the arrangement of the woman’s body versus the men’s, in this picture, reinforces power differences amongst men and women where women are submissive and inferior to their male counterparts. The male figures are communicated to be powerful and in charge through the way they are standing above the woman and looking on. The way the woman is being surrounded and outnumbered by men, further alludes to a romanticized gang rape (signifier). The man holding down the young woman appears to be the first of many perpetrators of sexual violence. Other clues are also used to illustrate a woman who is being attacked and dominated against her will. These include: her turned head, closed eyes, arched back and upward pointing knees and hips which signal a lack of interest and fear. By combining sexuality and violence, this ad’s message is both inappropriate and disturbing.
Redwall, an Italian handbag brand, shows a woman cornered, wearing a see through, plastic mini-dress and heels holding a red leather purse in-front of her face while a semi visible man, wearing all black, aims a gun at her head (Gender Ads.com, n.d.). Clearly, the audiences’ attention and focus is supposed to be directed at the only colourful and normal thing about this ad which is the bag; however, one cannot and should not ignore all the other elements apparent in this picture. The Italian slogan below the image reads: “La Borsa è la Vita” which when translated means “your money or your life” (Revers, n.d.). In other words, the woman in this picture is being robbed at gunpoint by a man; either known or anonymous to her. The purse (signified), in this image, is being used as a shield (signifier) for the woman. In other words, what the brand is trying to communicate is that this bag is strong enough to protect even a woman from strong, tough men. Thus, women are left to their imagination as they ponder all other forms of violence and abuse they can be saved from if they purchase this durable purse which seems to be the only answer to unwanted aggression towards them. Essentially, enormous power is accorded to an accessory to make it seem more appealing and desirable to female consumers.
Finally, Gold Disk’s VideoDirector ad offers “alienated spectators” a different, yet equally similar celebratory perspective on violence against women. At the top of this poster, a heading (signified) in an extra large font reads: “Cut your wife’s head off? Not a problem” (signifier) and right below this obscure and allegedly “humorous” statement, is a picture of the packaged product which displays a grinning and smirking middle-aged man (Gender Ads.com, n.d.). The use of humour is further distasteful and insulting as it desensitizes the seriousness of the issue of spousal violence. It appears that VideoDirector is a video editing program that allows one to cut, delete, and rearrange captured footages. Apparently, the only thing approach this brand could take in order to differentiate itself in today’s “promotional culture”, as termed by Andrew Wernick (1991), was to offer their male buyers a quick and easy way to behead their spouses, even if it is just in their subconscious (p. 182).
Dehumanization of Women and Glamorization/Rationalization of Violence
Additionally, all the ads listed above support wide-held ideas of women as objects that can be subdued, which gives an indicator in the direction of violence towards women. By minimizing the humane side of women and/or portraying them in inferior ways, these ads justify acts of aggression against women. Shock or cognitive dissonances are two responses a viewer can have when first exposed to these ads. For those who are shocked, the advertisers’ goal has been met. As mentioned previously, “shock value” has become a prevalent marketing strategy in “hailing the alienated spectator” (Goldman & Papson, 1996, p. 83). Whether one’s offended or taken aback by these vulgar images and words, their attention has been grabbed and redirected towards the ad. On the other hand, those who experience cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person simultaneously holds two conflicting ideas, may feel uncomfortable until one or both of those cognitions are rationalized (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002). This is where dehumanization plays a role. By depicting women as objects, weak, faceless, it becomes easier for audiences to tolerate these depictions and also convinces them that somehow these women “deserved” the treatments they received (Aronson & Pratkanis, 2002, p. 47). Dehumanization, through the use of innovative images and vocabulary, is seen in the Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Redwall ads, where women are either sex objects, disfigured or are subjective to violence.
Another problematic message these ads send is that “they grant permission” for everyday household products to be used for an execution of “a range of abusive behaviors” or to “protect” one from these acts of aggression (Woodruff, 1996, p. 333). This is most evident in the Gold Disk poster where it is suggested that a video editing program can effectively enable men to “cut their [wives’] heads off” which supports and reinforces beliefs that violence is an acceptable form of interaction between spouses. In addition, in the Redwall ad, a red shiny purse is presented to as the best weapon a woman can have with her at all times as it can provide effective protection against even the most deadliest weapons.
Lastly, Henry Giroux (1996) argues that violence in the mass media today is “stereotypically masculine” (p.19). One genre of violence that has become commonplace in advertising is what he terms “ritualistic violence” which “is racy, sensationalist, and testosterone laden” (p. 19). Ritualistic violence appears in most ad campaigns discussed above with the exception of the Gold Disk poster. Within “ritualistic” violent ads, pornographic references are adopted in order to make violence against women appear tasteful, sexy and pleasurable. The most prominent example of this is the ad discussed above for Dolce & Gabbana, which presents a fantasy world of “gang bang.” These allusions to multiple rapes are vulgar, hostile and aimed at shocking consumers. Louis Vuitton and Redwall also depict violence in an attractive manner in their ads through the use of sex appeal. Kim Gandy, the President of The National Organization for Women Foundation, proposes that brand name corporations use these outrageous and “provocative” illustrations solely to get publicity (Gandy, 2007). Therefore, “getting publicity” appears to be a more significant goal for these well-known advertisers than offending and degrading women.
Violence against women is a global issue that needs a global solution. Majority of women have been a victim of at least one act of physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime (“Violence Against Women & Children”, n.d.). As Giroux (1996) points out, everyday acts of violence stem from somewhere; they are “neither...innocent nor [do they] emerge outside of existing historical contexts and social relationships” (p. 78). Advertising is one social dynamic that plays a role in presenting women as conventional targets of violence as seen through the campaigns of: Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Redwall, and Gold Disk. Such advertising significantly contributes to reinforcing, rationalizing and legitimizing existing, ideological myths about the inferior positions of women in society and the belief that men can and should control women. This is done through the techniques of dehumanization, shock value, “ritualistic violence”, as well as the glamorization of violence. It is time for marketers to accept a degree of social responsibility and to challenge hegemonic ideas about gender relations and hierarchies. One way to do this is to eliminate and replace ads that exhibit gender inequality and violence with more positive and equal representations.
By: Sonia Ejtehadian
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