Advertising: Commodified identity and selling gender roles

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McDonald's sign with Minneapolis skyline in the background

Advertisers today hold a keen sense of what their consumers want. Identity, social acceptance, love. These intangibles define our identity– how we view ourselves and others. Marketers use that to their advantage.

As briefly mentioned in our last article in the advertising series, ads personify consumer goods– they attach these narrow ideas of personality and identity to whatever it is they are trying to sell. A cologne commercial may signify what it means to be a man; while an alcohol commercial may show you the only way to ‘let loose’ and have fun. They weave these intangible ideas into their products until we no longer carry the distinction between the intangible and the good.

A photo of a Red Bull advertisement that says "gym bod been in hibernation?" with a polar bear
Advertisements are everywhere, and regularly misleading. I’m not sure that a 168 calorie drink with 37 grams of sugar is ideal for a “gym bod.” Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

We can’t overstate the ubiquity of advertising. An American may see 5,000 ads in a day, according to a New York Times article and other sources. Strip malls litter American suburbs and a majority of the population can immediately recognize major brand logos. Whether or not we’re consciously consuming these marketing schemes, there is a definite subconscious impact to our psyches.

Social group identity

Advertisers specifically target group identities: Patriotism, ‘the gay lifestyle,’ women. Where advertising once broadly appealed to patriotic sentiments or generalized insecurities, advertising today appeals to “unique aspirations, experiences, and resentments of particular social groups,” as stated by Bartholomew.  Marketers use the VALS (Values and Lifestyles) test as a way of discovering these target demographics with greater precision and predict market trends.

This targeting creates a feedback loop. Advertisers pull from a group identity to alter it and sell it back to that group. Individuals within that group then use these goods to signify group membership. Consumer goods become an individual’s voice.

The consequences of this are numerous and varied. Objectification of people, commodification of identity and a society obsessed with consumer goods.

Targeted Demographics

Gay Community

Advertisers use social group identity to signify what it means to be a person within a certain demographic or social group. This is extremely obvious in how marketers target the gay community. In fact, over one-third of Fortune 500 companies marketed to the gay community by the year 2004.

The gay community represents the perfect example of a niche-marketing target market, according to Mark Bartholomew in ‘Advertising and Social Identity.’

Advertisers are no longer advertising a product, but rather appealing to the community by telling them the necessary tools (consumer goods) for the “gay lifestyle.” This denotes and commodifies a group identity, while reinforcing a sense of social division and individual comparison due to advertising and consumption. Some of this consumption may be because gay consumers may find that ads targeted specifically to them signify corporate support or are a marker of social progress.

While it is acknowledged that there is not just one gay identity, but a myriad of components to an individuals’ identity, these practices provide a “mirroring function” that may affect how gay and lesbian people think of themselves and behaviors related to social interest.

Women and Gender Roles

A woman suggestively posing in front of a sub sandwich from Burger King, another marker of what a woman's identity "should be."
Women are constantly sexualized in advertisements, even if it’s an advertisement for a sandwich.

Gender roles are also a major target for advertisers, and women experience the brunt of this. Marketing conglomerates especially target the media-naive adolescent market. They create social schemas for young girls to apply the archetypes of femininity and womanhood.

Examples of these archetypes are visible everywhere in magazines, billboards, and toys like Barbie. Her aesthetic appeal as skinny, with long legs, blonde hair, and a wide array of consumer goods, teaches girls that these are necessary attributes to be a successful woman.

Many of these tactics use the ‘male gaze’ to direct their advertisements towards women. They show women as attractive and vulnerable, and teach her that her value is only in a man’s opinion of her. “Sex sells,” and women are often placed into a passive or submissive role when marketers are using sexuality to advertise products.

Effects on individual identity

Creating these idealized archetypes has placed a heavy burden on the mental health of society. Advertisers build many of these archetypes with serious ethical digressions, such as doctoring photos and relating products to unrelated intangible desires.

While using consumer goods to signify social group membership, marketers build on the fears and anxieties of individuals. They separate us into easy-to-digest groups and bring caricatures to the forefront. Weighted snapshot images simplify our individuality into easily-marketed groups. These images lose the gradience and fluidity of identity.

Stay tuned for future articles on advertising. Deeper discussions of post-war advertising and specific marketing campaigns are in store.

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