Growing up, I was in love with advertising. No cable meant that, oftentimes, the best thing on TV were the commercials. Sunday mornings and sick days spent on the couch were prime times for catching up on the world of consumerism. I’d spend entire mornings watching infomercials, imagining what life would be like if my family had a blender that could blend roof shingles, or a special pan that doubled as a panini press. Pretty much everything I know about classic rock has come from the ten-second clips of concerts they’d play on those hour-long ads for CD box sets. While most kids were memorizing Pokemon stats and *NSYNC lyrics, I was memorizing prescription drug names and fast food jingles.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of evenings spent with my little brother after school, flipping channels to get to the commercial breaks. We’d make a game of it. Sometimes we’d play The Price is Right, trying to guess the number and price of payment installments for an item, or the value of the special gift that you’d get if you’d call in the next 12 hours. We’d keep a running tally of who could name each brand before the logo or tagline appeared on the screen. We were pretty good at it, too. We were like little Tai Fraisers, singing along to the Mentos commercial in Clueless. We knew that Lunesta moth like we knew the Cialis bathtubs.
I stopped watching commercials for fun when I moved out of my parents house. I haven’t owned a television since, and most online streaming services have either eliminated advertising or offer an option to skip them after a mere few seconds. When I do turn on a TV, I barely register the ads. I’m usually vaguely shocked when I discover that what I knew as a fibromyalgia treatment is now used as an asthma drug, but otherwise I’m more focused on where my show left off. Still, every once in a while, a commercial will cross my path that completely diverts my attention. These are usually posted by a friend on social media or mixed in with movie trailers before the feature film. More often than not, they’re pushing some form of “female empowerment.”
Recently, I was sitting alone in a dark theater, waiting with a greasy bag of popcorn for the previews to start so I could see Moana. The lights dimmed, the “silence your cell phones” message faded to black, and then it happened. The ad opened with a flood of daylight and the pounding of pink sneakers on pavement. As the camera zoomed out, it captured women putting their bodies to work, running up and down streets, jumping rope, punching stuff. The constant beat of footsteps set the rhythm for a female voice, reciting a poem of strength. The overall message, “I am woman; hear me roar,” was impossible to miss.
By the end of the 60-second spot, my mascara was already running.
This was not the first time an advertisement had made me cry, nor would it be the last. Dove, with their commercials featuring women feeling confident in their bodies, has brought me to tears for over a decade. Those Pampers commercials about motherhood around the world are worse than onions, and the Like A Girl campaign by Always just plain squeezes my heart to the point of bursting. A few years ago, Pantene released an ad in Korea about perceived female bossiness that required at least a dozen tissues. The list is infinite.
Besides making me snot all over my shirt sleeves, all of these commercials lit a fire in my belly. They made me want to stand up, and cry out, and put my foot down, and… and… and… and… and what?
That’s when I realized that commercials that make me cry also make me uncomfortable.
Never underestimate the power of woman, says another ad. But that power was, and is, underestimated in America. Or, rather, it is only estimated in terms that can be manipulated at the point of purchase
– Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
I came across this quote yesterday as I was finishing a chapter in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the role of advertising in pushing young women towards suburban housewifery. The chapter, called “The Sexual Sell,” features numerous interviews with advertising consultants about the process of identifying the struggles and afflictions of American women, and how they spun brands as panaceas for the “problem that has no name.”
Ironically, advertisers seemed generally to recognize that women’s emptiness had to do with the boredom and meaningless of housework; yet, instead of imagining a world where a woman could be more than a wife and mother, they concocted a narrative in which housewife was the most honorable, most creative role a woman need ever fill. This new cleaning product makes mom a scientist, picking new wallpaper makes her an artist, working a fancy, electric appliance makes her an engineer… The more glamour that was attached to a housewife’s role, the more hollow women felt at home…and the emptier a woman felt, the more likely she was to buy silverware or baking mix or a new sofa to satisfy the innate human need to create.
(As an added layer, the ads were also spun to capitalize on a woman’s guilt, making the product about the good of the family, so that women need not feel selfish for buying a thing to fill the void…)
As I finished the chapter, I began thinking about all those advertisements that have made me cry. We’ve certainly come a long way from the 1950s, but is advertising a different game? What are these companies saying when they tell me to stop apologizing, when they tell me to love the skin I’m in? Is the message about my confidence or selling a product? Has feminism finally won over advertising? Or has advertising hijacked the female empowerment bandwagon as a way to, again, make consumerism a point of superficial prestige in a society that has, in many ways, moved beyond the feminine mystique of an earlier age?
If I want to love my body, will buying a certain brand of soap make that easier, or will it simply fill a fleeting role in sating my psyche? Once the soap is gone, will I have changed, or will I need to buy more to prove that I am as empowered and body positive as I want myself to be?
Do these commercials solve anything or are they a part of the problem?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. For every Miki Agrawal there is also a Janet Champ. All I know for sure is that advertisements are, at the most basic, atomic level, about pushing a product. Shinier hair alone won’t change the discrimination women face at work. Buying stuff isn’t the only way to feel empowered or to show yourself love. But I also know that advertisements are powerful vehicles of societal messages, and it’s likely a good shift that so many companies are chasing down the bandwagon. So, I suppose I’ll just have to go on crying with a critical eye when tampons tell me to love my period and sneakers tell me I’m a goddess.
I suppose I can live with that.