Cosmetics, age-defying cream, weight-loss products, and revealing clothing—these are all products almost exclusively marketed to women. The marketing of beauty products to women is not a new practice. Several decades ago, products were marketed to women with the assumption that they were housewives or were looking for a husband. The product being marketed was designed to assist them in either of these endeavors. Betty Crocker made women’s lives easier if they were struggling to do the laundry, feed the children, and put a decent dinner on the table by 5:30 p.m., when their husbands came home from work. Other products addressed the woman who was either trying to stay youthful or trying to be attractive in order to get a husband. Even cigarette companies employed tactics targeted toward this group of women. During the mid-1920s, it was unacceptable for women to smoke in public; however, the tobacco companies saw women as a large target segment of the population that was virtually untouched. The American Tobacco Company began a campaign for its brand, Lucky Strike, targeted at women with the slogan, “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.” It was the first cigarette campaign that featured a picture of a woman in the ad and that began to associate the idea of smoking with having a slim body (Cigarette Century).
I. The Impact of Social Change
II. What is the Ad Selling?
III. A Cause for Alarm?
IV. The Emphasis on Beauty
V. What is the Effect on Young Girls?
VI. On the Other Hand—The Benefits of Advertising
The Impact of Social Change
In the 1970s and 1980s, social convention began to change with regard to the role of women, possibly due to the rise in women’s participation in the work force. Advertising changed and began portraying women as confident individuals who could effectively balance their personal and private endeavors. One such ad campaign was for the perfume Enjoli, by Revlon. Debuting during the late 1970s, its jingle began, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and make you never forget you’re a man. ’Cause I’m a W-O-M-A-N” (Vranica 2003). In recent years, advertising strategy has reflected the success of women as breadwinners, executives, and business owners. Many products that were traditionally marketed to men, or to the household as a whole, are now marketed to women. Sellers of automobiles and homes and investment banking advertise to women specifically, acknowledging their status in the marketplace. However, despite the movement toward affirming women as self-confident and successful, there is also another trend that appears to discredit their accomplishments and demean them as sexual objects. Marketers present the idea that women must be physically perfect in order to be truly accomplished. This quest for the perfect body has made it now socially acceptable to openly discuss one’s latest cosmetic surgery. The negative impact that this pressure from the media has on women may be filtering down to their daughters, even those of a very young age.
What is the Ad Selling?
Those who have browsed the pages of Cosmopolitan, Vogue, or GQ have most likely perused page after page of half-naked women advertising various beauty products. In some, just a silk scarf is strategically placed across the woman, who is selling a product such as moisturizing lotion, shampoo, or even men’s cologne. Airbrushing and other technologies provide the magazine glossies with perfect-looking models, devoid of any blemish or cellulite. There is no doubt that sexy photos of women can help sell products to men, but how do women and girls respond to this marketing technique? Clearly, the photos used in many ads have no connection to the actual use or purpose of the product. For example, diet products and exercise machines should be used only for health-related reasons and should only be used under the direct supervision of a doctor. The ads rarely present this aspect of the product’s use and instead focus on the physical attractiveness of the user.
There is a growing concern about the effect this type of advertisement has on women’s and girls’ self-images. One doesn’t have to look far to see the impact that this type of body consciousness has on young women in the movie industry. Tabloids contain story after story discussing how a young star is looking extremely thin after losing weight, some to the point of anorexia. Even a 2006 television advertising campaign for a health insurance company stresses the physical appeal rather than the health-related benefits of physical exercise programs for young girls. HealthMark, a BlueCross BlueShield affiliate, had a young girl playing soccer while talking about how she used to hate to shop for clothes because she was “big.” Now she doesn’t mind shopping and loves her team picture because she doesn’t look “big” anymore (HealthMark 2006). In an effort to diminish the obesity epidemic in the United States among children, the ads promoting increased activity should be applauded. It is questionable, however, whether they should focus more on a child’s appearance than the health benefits that result from exercise.
A Cause for Alarm?
Advertisements reflect and shape cultural norms, selling values and concepts that are important to daily living. The trend of using objectified images of the female body in the media is not a new area of research, nor a new area of concern. Consumer activists and some researchers believe that marketers have gone too far in their advertising strategies to women by presenting an unattainable or unhealthy image. One voice of criticism back in 1963 was that of Betty Friedan, who railed against the “feminine mystique.” Friedan reported that, by the end of the 1950s, women who had once wanted careers were now making careers out of having babies. Manufacturers sold bras with false bosoms made of foam rubber for girls as young as 10. Thirty percent of women dyed their hair blonde and dieted so they could shrink to the size of the super-thin models. According to department stores at that time, women had become three to four sizes smaller than they had been in the late 1930s in order to fit into the clothes that were marketed to them (Friedan 2001). Freidan believed that women were being manipulated into becoming the ideal housewife—a Stepford-type housewife—and were feeling a great sense of emptiness in their lives.
The fashion industry may be turning a corner, however. In 2006, the organizers of Madrid’s fashion week in Spain banned models who were deemed to be too skinny. After a model died during a fashion show in South America in August 2006, the subject of extreme dieting became a topic of discussion, resulting in the ban. The typical runway model in the industry is reported to be five feet nine inches tall and weigh 110 pounds, with a BMI (height-to-weight ratio) of 16. She wears a size 2 or 4. The organizers of the Madrid show required the models to have a BMI above 18, which is closer to five feet nine inches tall and a weight of 123 pounds. In contrast, the average American woman is five feet four inches tall, weighs between 142 and 165 pounds, and wears a size 14 (Klonick 2006).
The Emphasis on Beauty
Critics of advertising suggest that the use of nonfunctional aspects in advertising creates an artificial need for many products that do not fulfill a basic physiological need. They believe that the use of perfectly airbrushed models and those with extremely thin bodies suggests to women that they should be just as attractive as the models. This quest for perfect beauty has contributed to the explosive growth of the plastic surgery industry in the United States, where women account for almost 90 percent of all surgeries. In 2008, surgeons performed 12.1 million cosmetic procedures, up 3 percent (even in a recession) from the previous year. Cosmetic surgery is becoming so commonplace that plastic surgeons are seeing increased numbers of men giving it to their girlfriends and wives as Valentine’s Day gifts. Experts such as John W. Jacobs, a Manhattan psychiatrist, believe that the gift can be romantic if the recipient longs for it (Kerr 2006).
What is the Effect on Young Girls?
This focus on the emotional and sexual enhancement that products or services offer feeds into the problem of distorted body image and the low-self esteem of many young women. The fascination with the feminine ideal can develop early and can be seen as early as age six, according to data collected for an Oprah Winfrey Show a few years ago. “Children are becoming obsessed with external beauty at a much younger age,” Winfrey noted, “and the consequences are going to be shattering.” One story was about a young toddler, only three years old, who was obsessed with her looks. The young girl demanded lipstick, makeup, and hairspray in order to look beautiful. When refused these items, she looks into the mirror, cries, and says that she doesn’t look pretty. The young girl’s mother fears what the youngster will be like in another 10 years and worries that her own insecurities have added to the problem (“Healing Mothers” 2006).
A study by the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty found that 57 percent of young girls are currently dieting, fasting, or smoking to lose weight. And almost two-thirds of teens ages 15 to 17 avoid activities because they feel badly about their looks (Etcoff et al. 2004). Girls at younger ages are also feeling the need to diet. One four-year-old girl studied skips breakfast and eats only fruit for lunch because it will make her skinny. While her mother thinks that other children’s comments about her daughter being fat are to blame for the young girl’s behavior, interviews uncovered other possible reasons. The girl’s mother reported that she measures out exact portions of her own food at mealtimes and exercises at least once each day, sometimes twice (“Healing Mothers” 2006). Robin Smith, a psychiatrist, says that mothers unconsciously hand down their insecurities to their children. Parents, as well as peers and the media, shape children’s self-image and must work to break the curse that is handed down from generation to generation (Etcoff et al. 2004).
During adolescence, a girl’s obsession with her body becomes even more apparent. This is accompanied by increased attention to what her peers think and increased attention to the media and advertising. Not only are younger girls and adolescents using cosmetics and dieting, but they are also turning to plastic surgery at younger ages than ever before. Like their mothers, they are in search of the perfect body, and it shows in the numbers of surgeries done on girls under the age of 18. In 2003, the number of plastic surgeries performed on children under 18 was almost 75,000 in the United States, a 14 percent increase over those performed in 2000. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of breast augmentation surgeries done on girls under 18 tripled in just one year (Kreimer 2004).
This focus on the perfect and slimmest of bodies may also be the root of the increase in cigarette smoking by girls. The number of teenage girls who smoke and abuse prescription drugs has now surpassed that of boys. In 2005, more girls began smoking than did boys (Connolly 2006). One reason for this increase may be body image. These young women have not seen the advertisement for the Lucky Strike cigarettes that urged consumers to “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet,” but they are getting the message that cigarettes can help you stay slim. Girls as young as nine years old have been reported to take up smoking in attempts to lose weight (Greene 1999).
On the Other Hand—The Benefits of Advertising
In today’s fast-paced society, marketers play an important role in educating consumers about new products and processes available to them. The average consumer has a plethora of choices available to him or her in an infinite marketplace. If each person had to personally evaluate each product, no one would ever be able to make an informed or timely decision concerning the functionality of a product for a certain purpose.
This is particularly apparent in the cosmetic and beauty industry. Technology is constantly evolving so that new products providing better health rewards without potentially damaging consequences can be created. The marketing of these types of products allows consumers to quickly evaluate the products in a company’s product line. This type of marketing strategy only shows the consumer what is available in the marketplace. It does not make consumers purchase the product or buy into the idea of the marketing message; it is purely informative. Marketers assert that they cannot make someone buy a product; they can only influence people. It makes sense to market to women, because 80 percent of discretionary consumer spending in the United States is by women. Women buy 90 percent of all food, 55 percent of all consumer electronics, and over half of all cars sold (“Hello Girls” 2009).
The companies that market beauty and fashion products suggest that the healthylooking models in beauty advertisements provide good role models for girls and women to aspire to. The products they are advertising provide women the means to achieve whatever level of beauty and healthiness they desire. Therefore, they say, marketers are actually providing a public service to today’s busy woman.
The dynamic nature of marketing allows the consumer to make the decision to listen to the message or to move on. Advertisements on television and in magazines clearly give the consumer the opportunity to change the channel or fl ip the page if he or she does not approve of the message. Ultimately, it is the consumer who chooses to listen to or ignore the message that is presented.
Phylis M. Mansfield and John D. Crane
- American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, http://www.aafprs.org/
- Centers for Disease Control, “Body Measurements.” http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/bodymeas.htm
- Cigarette Century, http://www.cigarettecentury.com/gallery4.html
- Connolly, Ceci, “Teen Girls Using Pills, Smoking More Than Boys.” Washington Post (February 9, 2006).
- Etcoff , Nancy, Susie Orbach, Jennifer Scott, and Heidi D’Agostino, The Real Truth about Beauty: A Global Report. September 2004. http://www.clubofamsterdam.com/contentarticles/52%20Beauty/dove_white_paper_final.pdf
- Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001 .
- Greene, Alan, “Preteens Start Smoking to Control Weight.” Pediatrics (October 1999): 918–924. Grogan, Sarah, Body Image. New York: Routledge, 2007.
- “Healing Mothers, Healing Daughters.” Oprah Winfrey Show (April 28, 2006).
- HealthMark advertisement, Broadcast on NBC, May–September 2006.
- “Hello Girls: Recession-Hit Companies Target Female Customers.” Economist (March 12, 2009).
- Kerr, Kathleen, “Plastic Surgery Becomes Hot New Gift for Valentines.” Newsday (February 13, 2006).
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- Klonick, Kate, “New Message to Models: Eat!” ABC News Internet Ventures September 15, 2006. http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=2450069&page=1
- Kreimer, Susan, “Teens Getting Breast Implants for Graduation.” Women’s eNews. June 6, 2004. http://womensenews.org/story/health/040606/teens-getting-breast-implants-graduation
- Lamb, Sharon, and Lyn Mikel Brown, Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.
- Vranica, Suzanne, “Marketing and Media Advertising: Stereotypes of Women Persist in Ads; Bikinis Still Sell the Suds, as Masculine Views Reign; Agency Gender Gap Blamed.” Wall Street Journal (October 17, 2003)
- Wykes, Maggie, and Barry Gunter, The Media and Body Image. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005.