The Advertising Report in The Wall Street Journal typicallly appalls me, probably because the ad executives interview show no shame over what they do and talk openly about how they’d like to bamboozle unsuspecting victims who are sucked in and exposed to their pitches. They ordinarily make sweeping and ludicrous generalizations about what drives people and reduce individuals to two or three fairly base motives—vanity, boredom, anxiety. If advertisers had their way (and they pretty much are having their way; they fund most of the public sphere we see and are in contact with, they underwrite the arena in which our lives play out and subsidize the symbols we use to make meaning for ourselves) we would all be in a perpetual state of anxious boredom, worrying about what others think of us and how we can trick them into thinking we are something more—just as the ads attempt to fool us.
Yesterday, the Report featured an interview with Silvia Lagnado, who devised the Dove soap campaign that uses “average” women in their underwear to hawk the product. This is tantamount to high treason in the advertising world, because it might actually serve to reduce the anxiety some women feel about their appearance. The Journal‘s interviewer rightly gives her the third degree: “Do you believe that by embracing full-figured women in your advertising you may be sending the wrong message to address the obesity problem?” It boggles the mind that this question could have been asked. Think of the absurd assumptions built into it: a. that the cause of the obesity problem is that too many fat women are being celebrated in the media. b. ads aren’t sufficiently “aspirational” to motivate women to lose weight. c. soap manufacturers are making people fat. d. advertisers are serving as the nation’s moral police, advocating useful and laudatory behavior except in the rare instances like this immoral Dove ad. (Hell, advertisers probably believe this, that they perform a moral duty, and in a sense, in a consumer society, buying stuff you don’t need is one’s civic requirement.)
It seems like Lagnado wanted to do something progressive and distinctive with this ad campaign, but her answer to a previous question shows what she is up against, in the corporate environment and in her own mind. “People thought we were trying to say ‘be ugly, be happy,’ but that’s not what we were trying to do. We are not disputing the fact that women are hard wired to want to feel beautiful.” Fact? Hard wired? Where’s Judith Butler when you need her to call bullshit on this kind of gender essentialism? There’s probably some dubious evolutionary psychology behind such a claim, trying to universalize something that’s widespread in our current era. People want recognition, and attractiveness is the main women are recognized in our culture—that’s not hard wired, that’s carefully contrived by a patriarchal orde that is always evolving to maintain its dominance. And what would be wrong with a message of happiness, by the way? Well, happiness doesn’t sell snake oil. Hence, it jeopardizes the whole economy. Anyway, this anecdote hopefully illustrates the folly of the idea that advertising could be reformed from within to support a more progressive culture or be used as a tool to promote social good. The content of ads can’t redeem their formal function—to exploit unhappiness—nor can they redeem their purveyors, who are already lost to its ideology.