Beauty adverts contain increasing symbols of sex

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This essay will discuss Double-Coding in Post-Modernism in beauty advertising and the theory of psychoanalysis and by defining culture and cultural theory show how this has affected beauty adverts across time. By looking at the history of beauty advertising and when it became a global industry and by contrasting new adverts with old ones it will hopefully show whether sexual images are becoming more prominent in contemporary advertising.

Culture is defined by Stuart Hall in his work on cultural studies as, Hall (1986 p.39)

“...both the meanings and values which arise amongst distinctive social groups and classes, on the basis of their given historical conditions and relationships, through which they 'handle' and respond to the conditions of existence; and as the lived traditions and practices through which those 'understandings' are expressed and in which they are embodied”.

This learning is usually done through enculturation which is a process where individuals learn about their culture through instruction and observation. This is normally introduced by the older generation so that the younger generation can carry on the beliefs and values of that culture. Your culture that you have learned to live by can exist at such an unconscious level that you very often do not even think about it because it is deeply buried into your way of life. Nancy E. Bernard when looking at cultural behaviours states (2000 p.19)

“What this means is that we assume we do things a certain way because that's what people do, or because we simply choose to act that way. But this isn't entirely true. Where animals engage in species-specific mating rituals, humans engage in culture-specific mating rituals.”

Cultural change is the process where different present cultures around the world are changing and evolving due to different forces. These forces can be named as colonisation, globalisation, advances in communication, transport , Infrastructure improvements and military expansion. Colonisation can be described as the spreading of a species in a new habitat. Globalization is to extend to other parts of the world and to make something worldwide. This can be done in terms of culture through 'acculturation' when people from different cultures come into contact with each other and exchange cultural features which then adapts the original cultures of both groups or individuals. Some would say that advances in technology have shaped different human societies throughout history and it is these advances that propel humankind forward. A major technological advancement was the development of the internet which allowed societies to access information that was never widely available before and the use of electronic mail allowed communication between different cultures. These developments in technology have assisted greatly in the advancement of communication, the internet and similarly the invention of the telephone allowed people to keep in touch between different societies and countries. 

Cultural theory can be defined as an attempt to conceptualise and understand the dynamics of culture. These involve the relationship between culture, nature and society and the different levels of cultures. Raymond Williams and E.P Thompson's theories which looked at culture in terms of it being the way a society lived opened up a new way of thinking about culture. This was very influential although it came under scrutiny as other theorists believed it important to look at it from more of a structuralist approach which concentrated on the symbols of the language and codes of culture rather than the living of it. The theory that will be applied in this essay will be double-coding in Post-modernism and how this applies to beauty advertisements, when de-constructing examples of adverts other theories may apply and briefly be examined as well. Double Coding can apply to many things including media and advertising, it is when something appeals to two audiences simultaneously on different levels a good example of this is the television show 'The Simpson's' , many would believe this to be a children's programme as it is an animation and has slapstick comedy in the form of 'itchy and scratchy' which appeals to a younger audience but some do not realise that it is as much for adults as it is for children. It contains parts which in terms of Post modernism can be described as 'knowingness' when you know its funny but you do not actually know why its funny because you do not understand the original context that they are referring to, this is known as intertextuality where one text refers to another. This technique is being used all the time to make things appealing to different types of people as well as different age groups on different levels of intellectuality. Also I will briefly discuss them in terms of psychoanalysis and how the explicitness of the images is interpreted by the viewer.

The use of cosmetics nowadays is worldwide and has turned into an industry that has a turnover of some $300 billion dollars a year, but the use of cosmetics has a long history that has developed through time. From at least the ancient Egyptians, societies have used cosmetics in an attempt to make themselves more attractive. Egyptian women believed their appearance had direct relevance to their level of spirituality so obviously they wanted to look their best, they started to make their own cosmetics using ingredients such as copper, ash and ochre to make all sorts of concoctions including what they called Kohl which acted as an eye-liner. Moving forward through time a pale complexion is something that has always been desired it was seen as a symbol of your status it was thought that if you had a tan it represented your level of class and that the only people who had tan's were those who had to work outside in the fields etc. In the 19th Century using zinc oxide a face powder was made to achieve a pale complexion. Cosmetics were always seen as something that were used to make you look younger and more beautiful and with the opening of beauty salons this made products much more available to women. The ideals of beauty were reinforced during the 19th Century as western cultures were seen to be the 'ideal' this uniformity was worldwide and was strengthened in the 20th Century by the constant bombardment of images from Hollywood which displayed mostly Caucasian women. The early 20th Century saw the opening of a beauty salon called 'Selfridge's' this was at the beginning of the rise of the beauty industry this saw cosmetics being widely sold to all classes of women. Due to shortages during world war two the use of cosmetics lowered but after the war women started to buy the products again reviving the industry.

Within the beauty industry there have been key figures throughout who saw the industry evolve thanks to their contributions, François Coty was a pioneer in the perfume industry which saw him develop two new types of fragrance, soft sweet floral and chypre which he sold in elegant glass bottles and was the first to do this within the perfume industry.  Madam C.J Walker found a solution to control African-American women's hair by developing a solution that straightened their hair. Elizabeth Arden is a well known name within the beauty industry it was with her help that beauty salons developed a new reputation for being somewhere sophisticated that you could go to for all your beauty needs rather than having the reputation of something akin to a brothel, this made beauty products more available to women. This fascination of making ourselves more attractive is something that is biological and some say it can be found in mating displays between primates. Two important stages in the evolution of the beauty industry was the use of soap and the change in availability of perfume. Soap is something that has been made for thousands of years but it was rarely used for actual washing as people believed it to be unsafe to wash in water after the black death especially Europeans. By the 19th century water was starting to be distributed into homes and with the growing concern of hygiene soap became a product that was widely used. Perfume has transformed itself in the modern industry. In its first form it was rarely applied to the skin but more usually applied to items of clothing and was only available in a limited number of scents. With new technologies this was something of the past as perfumers were now able to extract scents from actual flowers and invent smells that were not necessarily floral. These different scents opened up a new market for perfume where men and women were able to wear different fragrances from each other defining what was feminine and what was masculine in terms of scents. This evolution was helped by its advertising which turned perfume into more of a branded product that had separate markets, sold at different prices and appealed to different genders and class levels. This worldwide industry has grown from strength to strength and the globalisation of it has seen mega-brands and the celebrity culture of endorsements grow into a uniformed structure that promotes the 'western ideal'.

Advertising played a big part in propelling the Beauty industry into the 20th century and  made people aware of the products that were available 'off the shelf'. It is said that advertising is more than a billion dollar industry with advertisements that bombard the general public approximately 2000 times a day. Beauty advertisements started to make an appearance in 1890 and were increasingly familiar in women's magazines by 1910. Unlike today's adverts these were hand drawn images with a large amount of text explaining what the product was and the 'miraculous' things it was suppose to do for you. In comparison to modern beauty adverts where the text is kept to a minimum and the majority of the space is taken up by the model or 'celebrity' who is advertising the product. Although these adverts existed they did not really come into their own until the thirties and forties, this was due to the new public interest in film and television. It was about this time that celebrities became the main targets for endorsements for cosmetic companies which lead the public wanting to be like their favourite film stars and wear the branded make-up that they wore. These vintage adverts were more artistic and imaginative in comparison to the standardised versions of modern culture. A seemingly new attempt in modern adverts is the use of scientific language or 'jargon' which attempts to entice the audience into thinking that these products have some kind of 'super power' that has been scientifically proven.

When discussing sex in advertising Steven Heller states, (2000 p.xii)

“SEX. The word is so graphic. One syllable, two soft, seductive letters ending in a hard, throbbing X. What could be a better locution for evoking pleasure and passion, sin and taboo...No wonder sex sells”.

It is well known that within the media that sex sells and advertisers use this to its fullest extent as a selling point for their products. This 'knowingness' allows them to portray to the audience the ideals of beauty whilst always having subliminal sexual references that appeal to a culture that is said is obsessed with sex. When looking at beauty adverts that contain these messages the gender that is being targeted is sometimes questionable or doubtful as they may appeal to both male and female audiences for different reasons, this is known in Post-Modernism terms as Double-Coding. This term links with whoever it is that is viewing these beauty advertisements and if the images overtly appeal to men for more sexual reasons than women, do these said women have to adopt a male gaze in order to appreciate the images? To apply these theories five images have been chosen from different time periods to compare and contrast the way they are selling their products using sex and whether in modern culture these advertisements contain increased symbols of sex. These images are:

Looking at the above images do some seem more obviously sexually explicit or are they both seemingly suggestive but the style in which they have been composed and the use of 'flesh' makes the modern adverts 'seem' more explicit. When discussing the state of sex and nudity in advertising Steven Heller states (2000 p.xv)

“SEX is a fact of life, and sex appeal is a matter of fact. It pervades every facet of mass communications, from art to commerce, and it is such a common component in advertising and graphic design that its existence goes without saying. However, its very recurrence is the reason for continual reinvention. What was once shocking- and shock is the key to grabbing consumer attention- quickly becomes ordinary. Nudity never ceases to interest, but in an advertising environment where skin is no longer hidden, flesh alone is not a priori a turn-on. Allure is not longer determined by the degree of exposure, but by how hot or cold the body appears”.

Illustration 1: Displays a women tightly hanging onto what appears to be a lipstick but the implication is more of a phallic symbol. Although this product is for women as they would generally be the ones buying the lipsticks, the way that the model is clinging onto the 'lipstick' is very suggestive to men and by having a male figure in the image there is a certain level of dominance suggested between the two characters as the male is suggestively glancing towards the female implying that he has her wrapped round his finger or more his 'penis' as the image suggests through the use of phallic symbolism. The overall image although quite feminine with the use of pink colouring has quite a masculine feel to it with several phallic shaped lipstick images ready to 'launch', although noticeably she is clinging onto what appears to be the biggest one, boosting the ego of the male figure. Illustration 2: Shows an attractive woman bending over a lipstick which standing tall acts as a phallic symbol within the narrative The way the models head is positioned is very suggestive of the act of oral sex, when applying 'lipstick' this is not the way you would do it which gives further implication that the lipstick is not just a lipstick but a symbol for the male power within advertising. Apart from this phallic symbol the rest of the image is quite feminine with the jewelled ear and collar of what appears to be an evening dress all of which would appeal to women, highlighting the elegance of the product but by having the suggestiveness there suggests to men what she is doing with the 'lipstick'. Illustration 3: May be the most obvious as a phallic symbol but it is shown in a different way as the product design itself is the phallic symbol. Rather than the symbolism of the lipsticks the bottle design actually quite clearly resembles the shape of the male genitals. The name of the cologne is MACHO which is quite ironic as the shape of the bottle is a penis which is the symbol of masculinity. In terms of psychoanalytic theory this could be seen in Freudian terms as 'penis envy', as women lack a penis so they allegedly according to Freud feel inferior to men, this theory fits well into this advert as the sign of masculinity is so dominant. This makes the advert male biased and when women look at it they are reminded of their lack of a penis. The tag-line 'Macho is b-a-a-a-d and that's good' falls in line with the stereotypical image of the bad boy character that every man secretly wants to be and every women secretly wants to be with. The two modern adverts that are shown in comparison are both for 'Davidoff cool water'. One for the male aftershave and the other for the female perfume 'wave'. In illustration 4: you can see the model laying in shallow water on a beach in a rather skimpy almost see-through outfit with her head thrust back and her long flowing hair draping down her back. Although she is wearing clothes the white dress does not leave too much to the imagination and hugs her figure showing off her breasts. The positioning of her hand and the expression on her face suggests that she maybe masturbating,   this coupled with the frothing of the water could symbolise her climax. Something to note in comparison with the male advert of this fragrance is the shape of the bottle. The women's bottle is slim but still curvaceous and is tapered from one end to the other. When looking at the bottle from the front it resembles a phallus standing erect and the closeness of it to the model's lower half is another interesting point. Also when the bottle is inverted it then becomes a receptacle being capable of receiving things which could represent the female sexual organ. In terms of Double-Coding although this product is for women and appeals to them by making them believe that by using this fragrance they will feel fresh and beautiful, the subliminal symbols of sex surely appeal more to a male audience but unlike the lipstick adverts perfume is maybe a product that men would  more readily buy for their female companions, so in terms of selling the product this image works well in appealing to both sexes in different ways. Illustration:5 shows the male version of  'Davidoff cool water' which again shows more flesh than the older adverts, the male model is seen topless jumping out of the water with such energy that it gives the impression that this fragrance will make you feel and look as the model does. The way In which the model is bursting out of the water with such force could be symbolic of an orgasm, this is reinforced by the way that the water is splashing up around him and the apparent expression of satisfaction on his face. Although this product is for a man's aftershave the imagery that is used could be interpreted as being their more for the gaze of women as it features a muscular young model who is good looking. This is an interesting point to make as in advertisements for women's products the images do appeal to women as they create an ideal of beauty, but in terms of the sexual symbolism this seems to be more aimed for at the 'male gaze'. Whereas advertisements for men's products seem to show these ideal muscular men and when trying to sell these products this does not necessarily appeal to average men which raises the question 'is this type of imagery more for the queer gaze than the heterosexual male gaze?'

From looking at these images and how symbols of sex have been portrayed, it is important to mention the context in which these adverts are used and the products that are for women's use would have appeared in women's magazines. So although the audience is female it is also important to remember who it is generally that run the companies and magazines, this will most commonly be men, so the selection of adverts that are chosen for women's viewing is decided by men. Making men the decision makers on how certain beauty products are advertised to both sexes. When looking at these different adverts it is easy now to laugh at their obvious displays of sexual symbolism and in terms of psychoanalysis this 'jokey' behaviour covers up the embarrassment that the viewer really feels when seeing these types of images as they are explicit but because they are being used in a 'subtle' way people do not think anything about it. This embarrassment of the viewer can be a cover up for their own inner desires. In conclusion from examining these advertisements from different periods of time it is obvious that sexual symbols/innuendo have always been used in beauty advertisements and that they are both openly explicit, it is only now in modern culture where displaying more scantily clad models has become more acceptable, and this has been used by advertisers to its fullest. Although modern adverts may contain more flesh, the suggestiveness and symbols of sex are just as apparent whether in new or old advertisements.   

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