Dovetailing nicely with my last post, Alternet today republished a piece by Alex Leo originally posted on the Huffington Post on December 8 entitled “Five Sexist Trends the Advertising World Just Can’t Shake.” Examining examples of misogynistic advertising imagery and messages in categories like “Bondage,” “Rape,” and “Sluts,” Leo writes that “the advertising world has not caught up to the advances of half our population and continues to use stereotypes and violence to prey on our most vile desires.” She illustrates her points with examples of the kinds of advertising she discusses, ads for products by companies like BMW (above), Nikon, and Remy Martin.
Leo makes some great points. My only point of contention with the piece is with her argument that “The fact that these trends are so widespread is not the fault of the advertising world,” that “these people are paid to appeal to our ids, they are often self-aware in their tendency to make the world harder for women, that’s the life they’ve chosen.” She contends that the blame lies instead with “mainstream companies like BMW, Mitchum, Nikon, mainstream publications that host these images, and mainstream readers who use these products despite their appalling treatment of women.” I don’t disagree with this second statement and on one level, I understand the distinction she is making. But, personally, it seems to me that there is more than enough guilt to go around. Those at every level of production and consumption of these images and messages are complicit on different levels, for different levels, to different degrees. The argument that advertisers are merely “react[ing] to client demands and consumer activity” just doesn’t hold water for me.
Change, if it is to occur in a real, substantive way will have to be systemic and not selective. No single part of the system can be truly reformed without the complicity of the the other parts. As writer and activist Audre Lorde put it so well, “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house” –consumers and companies can’t be expected to change their patterns of consumption, values, and behavior in a system where the “master’s tools,” of the advertising industry still largely dictate the terms of the discourse. This is not to suggest that change cannot start within a smaller group, that we as consumers should not exercise the power we have in resistance of negative, sexist messages in advertising. But giving advertisers immunity from their share of the blame is counterproductive to enacting broad-based, systemic change in cultural discourses.