Advertisers in popular culture today possess almost every trick in the bag to further corporate sales. The creators behind commercial advertisements no longer hesitate to graphically depict whatever product they are selling in extreme ways, often exploiting social taboos in the process. Apart from selling products to their intended audience, social paradigms are often influenced heavily in the wake of capitalism. In the text, Reading Popular Culture: An Anthology for Writers, Mark Crispin Miller warns in his essay, “Getting Dirty”, that advertising can “tell us something more than we might want to know about the souls of men and women under corporate capitalism.” (Keller, p. 158) This warning carries much more weight when we realize how often we are surrounded by corporate advertisements. Jean Kilbourne argues that “Advertising is our environment. We swim in it as fish swim in the water. We cannot escape it.” (Keller, p. 113) Ignoring corporate advertising is impossible, however, so is denying that it has a huge social impact. To evaluate how advertisements might affect individuals on a deep, psychological level that has adverse social and cultural impacts, you must assess advertisements for deeper meanings behind surface messages. In this instance, I evaluated a car advertisement in Forbes magazine. Forbes, a periodical aimed towards successful business men, was bound to have underlying messages that uphold certain values used by corporate capitalism to oppress.
The ad (which I am trying to find an electronic version of… I’ll eventually get a picture of the ad up) displays a hospitable man, entertaining two guests. It is a beautiful, clear day, and the guests are enjoying the exotic weather, as the house foliage and the sandy terra insinuate the setting is in a warm, tropical climate. The relaxed position of the guests depict them enjoying a leisurely afternoon, as their host grills them large slabs of steak, seasoned with oils and spices. The grill looks very expensive and modern, as does the house in the background. The guests, one a black male, the other an Asian woman, are wearing light, passively colored clothes, sitting at a table set with a white tablecloth, nice table settings, and a glass of what appears to be white wine. The chef is wearing a blue polo, nice jeans, and an expensive watch, while he wields tongs in one hand and a knife in the other. Overall, the setting looks very classy and sophisticated, which would cause any hard-working person to envy the high quality service being provisioned to the guests. Overall, the scene does a lot to ensure that the audience notices the sophisticated nature of the situation, down to every detail presented, from the white wine to the steak spices. Every minute aspect displays that the host is obviously a wealthy, successful, attractive, white male.
Above the graphic, the article reads “Introducing the Equus Service Department Waiting Room,” the first three letters in much smaller font than the latter four. Below, it continues, “See what it’s like to not have to visit the dealership at HyundaiEquus.com Think about it.” The first sentence that is depicted clearly imposes the consecutive words “Service Department Waiting Room” in a threatening way. This little trick serves to have the reader unconsciously despise Service Departments, but more importantly waiting, as the two words “Waiting Room” are even slightly larger. Moreover, the second sentence distinguishes the product’s “reliability”, as it assumes that the Hyundai Equus, not surprisingly absent from the ad, will never have to visit the dealership. The pretentious, condescending finisher, “Think about it,” dares the audience with a witty remark, mocking the audiences intelligence.
It is important to keep in mind this whole while, that the target audience is mostly comprised of business men and women. Forbes magazine’s content consists of articles ranging from new advances in medicine to financial tips for investors. According to research from “America’s MediaMarketing”, a company designed to help advertise in leading magazines, out of 4,288,000 Forbes readers, 68% are male and their average household income is $217,067 (ABC, 2006). The men reading this magazine are obviously successful, so advertisers want to appeal to them with their ads. These men are seeking to enjoy class and sophistication, and the ad is looking to exploit that with the scene they are creating. What’s ironic is that their product isn’t even depicted. In fact, the ad looks to exclusively portray a classy and sophisticated lifestyle even above what the company can provide with their product.
On the surface, the ad innocently attempts to appeal to wealthier men seeking reliability and comfort in their car. However, holistically, the ad implies so much more. First of all, what is especially troubling about the ad is how large the host of the scene is in contrast to the two guests. He is precariously positioned in the forefront of the picture, just to the left of the two guests. His bolstered chest and his emasculating tools, the tongs and the knife, impose his dominating nature. Moreover, his guests are much smaller than him and are displayed with a feminine appeal. The black man is sitting with his legs crossed, a pose that is typically assigned to femininity. The Asian female is laughing with her shoulders exposed as if she’s wearing a night gown, making her look vulnerable. The hosts arm seems to encompass his guests within his domain. This provides two distinct portrayals. As Susan Bordo would agree, the depiction of the host upholds masculinity with a sense of dominance over the two guests, both portrayed in a feminine nature. However, the masculine host is also a white male, whereas the feminine guests are two passive members of minority groups. These depictions force assumptions to be made by the reader, implying that the white male is the successful, responsible, and dominating presence. He, after all, is cooking for the guests. On the surface, the scene looks as though the minority groups are being serviced, which would appeal to vulnerable, oppressed groups. However, if you dig deeper than this superficial depiction, the tools in the cooks hand suggest that he is the wielder of power, and in complete control over his guests. Miller would agree that this is a “clever instance of inversion.” (Keller, p. 155) This appeal to a minority audience, only further subjugates them to the white male after the advertisements implications have been unconsciously noted. Furthermore, the host is holding the knife backwards, as if he were about to stab someone, rather than cut red meat. This suggests that the guests are at his mercy. Moreover, the scene is upholding stereotypes and the proverbial “glass ceiling”. Because the guests are waiting patiently for their food to be cooked for them, it implies that only white males can be given responsibility as a care-giver. Otherwise, the guests would be doing their part to help prepare the meal. After all, they are all enjoying the leisurely afternoon.
All of these are symptoms of capitalist ideology serving to oppress individuals while advancing the interests of corporations through advertising. While addressing this capitalist framework, specifically about matters of racial oppression, Robert Young argues “race oppression dialectically intersects with the exploitative logic of advanced capitalism, a regime which deploys race in the interest of surplus accumulation. Thus, race operates at the (economic) base and therefore produces cultural and ideological effects at the superstructure; in turn, these effects—in very historically specific way—interact with and ideologically justify the operations at the economic base.” (Young, 2006) He continues to argue that race is present in almost every social dialogue, including advertising. However, race is such a touchy subject that it is hardly ever discussed. Not only does that allow advertisements, like this one in Forbes, to exploit race, but it also exacerbates racial suppression. Depictions like these are omnipresent within the capitalist machine, “a system which produces difference (the racial/gender division of labor) and accompanying ideological narratives that justify the resulting social inequality.” (Young, 2006)
Ads in popular magazines are full of rhetoric and depictions that urge customers to buy products. However, in most cases, that is not all the advertisement accomplishes. In most cases, ads have so much influence over their audiences, they can influence social and cultural beliefs without ever letting the reader know. In a magazine like Forbes, aimed at successful businessmen, ideologies that uphold capitalist oppression are forced on their readers. In many other cases, depictions of masculinity and femininity are exploited to continue the cycle of consumerism. Corporate advertisers are very aware of what they are doing. Miller assures, “advertising agencies do plenty of research, by which we can assume that they don’t select their tactics arbitrarily.” (Keller, p. 155) It is very alarming that the environment we are surrounded in every day can influence opinions so heavily. It causes you to wonder whether or not we’re all subject to the decisions of corporate capitalists, whether we realize it or not.
1. Keller, Michael, 2007: Reading Popular Culture: An Anthology for Writers; Jean Kilbourne, 1999: “’In Your Face… All over the Place’: Advertising Is Our Environment’” p. 113; Mark Crispin Miller, 1982: “Getting Dirty” p. 155-158; Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Second Edition 2007
2. ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations); June 1996-June 2006: “Forbes”, AMERICA’S MediaMarketing; accessed online: http://www.americasmedia.com/mediakits/FORBES_MediaKit.pdf, February 10, 2011.
3. Young, Robert, 2006: “Putting Materialism back into Race Theory: Toward a Transformative Theory of Race”; New York University Chairman; accessed online: www.redcritique.org, accessed February 10, 2011.
4. Hyundai. Advertisement. Forbes 28 Feb. 2011: 41+. Print.