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The vanity pitch

A brief article in the WSJ's Advertising Report today rehashes a familiar conundrum. The piece identifies a recent trend in advertising aimed at women that uses tropes drown from beauty-product ads to sell non-beauty items such as cars and sleep aids and fast food. The gist of these ads is that these non-beauty products can have the same effects as beauty products are alleged to have -- smoothing awawy wrinkles, making one seem more youthful-looking, that sort of thing -- thus women should of course want them. Whether you interpret them as ironic takes on cosmetic ads or mere facsmilies of them depends on where yu are coming from -- this is likely part of their appeal; they play to different market segments for different reasons.

Ironic or no, the ads posit women as creatures desperate to have wrinkles removed above all else, so much so that the actual function of any given object is secondary to this primary goal. The car should make you beautiful first, and transport you second. In some ways this is not different from associational advertising in general, ads that attempt to link a brand or a commodity with qualities that ahve nothing to do with its function -- the way liquor ads try to conjure sophistication or fragrance ads try to glom on to images of sexual potency and charisma. But these are slightly more offensive in the way they construct gender roles and aspirations. And they seem to be indicative of a shift in the audience, that the only appeals we understand and respond to are one's related to surface beuaty -- rational appeals don't matter anymore, we may have reached a point where our imaginative lives are so irrational and fantasy-based and youth-driven that rational appeals simply no longer work. Ad agencies won't even try them. The ads suggest the only thing we recognize as valuable (women especially, it seems) is how we look, and everything else -- whether we can move, sleep, eat, etc. -- flows from that, relies on that prime desire.

The conundrum lies in the way cultural evidence of women's presumed preoccupation with vanity is seen both as a sign of cultural oppression and female liberation simultaneously: "There is no reason to apologize because we are doing it all," says one of the female executives whose company is running one of these ads. The idea apparently is that women have achieved enough power to talk about their concerns in a more public way, to have it saturate the culture more visibly. But for critics, that these are women's concerns is precisely the problem -- real gains in power would have allowed women to transcend such trivial preoccupations. Men rest most comfortably in power when they know that society cannot emotionally manipulate them over something so trivial as how they look -- society tries certainly to suck men into the vanity game, but it also affords them sources of psychic well-being and social leverage that allows them to ignore the calls to be more worried about being attractive and young. Women, alas, have no such recourse; hence these ads, which agencies know will still play on women's very real fears of becoming irrelevant with age.

This evokes another conundrum: ads like these are made because they work, and critics complain these ads work because ads have laid the groundwork and perpetuated the kind of gender constructs that enable them to be so efficacious. This cyclical sort of argument leads to nothing being done about the situation, as something as basic as who would have to be responsible for the doing is unresolvable. Then these unresolvable dilemmas are naturalized -- either we argue they can't be resolved because the are naturally obscure, connected to innate drives that can't be adjusted or accessed, or we say there is no problem because we are simply acting out of instinctual desires that are then reflected in the society we have fashioned for ourselves.

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