Progressive objectification: American Apparel’s Next Big Thing

American Apparel has never been progressive. It has never been pro-woman and it has never made much of an effort to hide it’s founder, Dov Charney‘s, pervy ways. Last year, Melanie Klein at Feminist Fatale outlined the myriad of ways in which the company has long been a terrible place for women. Charney has been accused of sexual harrassment a number of times and their consistently pornographic advertising speaks for itself.

The imagery is often defending as being ‘artsy’, as though objectification is ok when it is ‘provocative’ (like we’ve never seen women’s bodies represented in this way before, like if the photos are grainy they instantly become ‘artistic’). It’s interesting how badly we want this kind of imagery to be ‘ok’. How badly we want to justify ads that sexualize rape, that sexualize very young women, that do the exact same thing advertising and porn have done for decades, that is, use women’s bodies to sell sexism and products, all at once. We are willing to defend misogynist corporations till the end because we have been made afraid, as though true freedom of speech is coming from American Apparel’s marketing department.

But I digress. A couple of weeks ago, the company launched The Next Big Thing contest, looking for ‘curvaceous bods’ to sell their new ‘XL styles’. So now, I suppose, we are supposed to cheer them on in their progressive attempts to objectify ‘big[ger]‘ women. Wheeee! We can’t see your ribs and we will still treat you as fuckable! The future is here, feminists.

So perhaps the company has a history of completely ignoring the fact that women who are above a size 10 exist and now they are oh-so-generously trying to get into the pockets of those women too, but can this move really be viewed as anything near progress?

Apparently the answer is yes! People are indeed making this argument – that diversity is progress, meaning that if we are including ‘alternative’ bodies in sexist advertising this is a move towards a healthier body image for women. In a wee debate on the topic which took place on Hugo Schwyzer‘s Facebook page (where all great debates happen), he responded to my argument that ‘objectifying ‘big’ women is not progress.’, particularly within a context of a company that uses a ‘rape mekind of esthetic on a regular basis in their advertising, by saying: ”BUT there is something genuinely progressive (at least potentially) about expanding the diversity of images that we all see.”

While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don’t think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying ‘curvaceous bods’. I mean, it’s not as though bigger women aren’t objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It’s not as though bigger women aren’t raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don’t think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it), in fact, I think that we are missing the point entirely if we think that including the token ‘alternative’ body in places where generally the bodies are all very similar (thin, white, flawless) challenges anything substantial in terms of the ways in which our culture views women. Isn’t this the same argument made around burlesque? And ‘alternative’ porn? And by the Suicide Girls? ‘No, no, this kind of objectification is healthy! Look! These ladies have tattoos! This is art. Not porn.’ And, as Jill Filipovic wrote: “christ on a cracker, it’s American Apparel, and it’s for a contest where users rate applicants on a scale of 1 – 5, so I’m not sure their audience is thinking through the complexities of fat girls and food and sex any more deeply than “Look, titties.” Is it really subversive if no one cares? If people are still viewing you, a human being, as consumable?

What is so progressive about sticking a woman with a big butt into a porny advertisement? As far as I’m concerned, nothing.

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What do women have to do with Soccer? Nothing, unless they’re naked.

A recent marketing campaign for the Vancouver Whitecaps has gone viral, garnering a lot of attention which, I suppose, was their intent. And what better way to promote anything than to use women’s naked bodies! Works every time.

First, it was announced that there would be a ‘find-the-billboard’ contest; the billboard, which went up last week, featured a model who has a Whitecaps jersey painted onto her body:

and then, a video was released, showing the model being painted:

As pointed out, aptly, by Vancouver forestry executive and novelist, Anne Giardini: this is not what women who are interested in soccer look like. They, rather, look like they are playing soccer. And more often than not, they are clothed!

Using women’s bodies as accessories in advertising, and as entertainment for sports fans, rather than allowing them to just be participants in the sport, or simply to be fans, without the focus being on their sexualized body parts is so unbelievably typical that it is hardly surprising at this point. But enough already. Not only is this the least creative way of ‘getting the word out’ about a sports team, but it completely marginalizes women and makes painfully clear what their role is in sports. The role, being, of course, decorative.

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Intimate ‘Connection’? Be their guest

I came across an ad for a Vancouver luxury hotel, the Loden, in a national newspaper over the weekend and was very surprised by the imagery and the message it conveyed.

Take a look at the ad below:  the text reads ‘Intimate Connection, Be Our Guest’. We see a young, attractive women undressed in sultry, expensive-looking lingerie, applying perfume while gazing, disinterestedly, at her male companion who is watching her, (and who is, of course, nearly fully clothed), blurred and seated in the background. My immediate reaction to this advertisement was that this hotel is inviting men to use it for prostitution. Hired an escort for the evening? Use the Loden!

Using sex to sell a product, or an experience, certainly isn’t new; it’s used to sell everything and anything.  This ad uses sexual imagery to market the hotel as a place for sex, encouraging its (male) guests to use it for discreet, ‘intimate connections’, as the ad terms it. Hotels have always been more than just a place to sleep; they offer a private, anonymous space in which people can ignore the social and relational obligations they have in public—and the law, for that matter, as prostitution isn’t really legal in Canada. Hotels have been used as a space to engage in prostitution for a long, long time, but it’s not something they talk about very much, so I was very surprised to see this ad seemingly actively promoting it.

Maybe I’ve read it incorrectly? Maybe this is a rich, heterosexual couple having a romantic weekend? Or maybe they’re having an affair? Mayybeee.

I did contact the hotel, and spoke with the sales-coordinator who stated (I’m paraphrasing here) that the ad was meant to show a feature of the room in which the wall between the bedroom and the bathroom opens up (so that you can be watched while half-naked in the bathroom?!??) and that the hotel does not encourage prostitution.

Marketers usually have a pretty good idea how their ads will be construed, and I doubt they could have missed the message here. Although they may have been attempting to highlight the features of the room, that intent is not at all apparent from the image.

The medium is the message, and I read this as a promotion for the use of the Loden Hotel for prostitution.


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The best commercial of the decade is…a sexist beer ad?

I feel that Leslie’s previous post is an appropriate segway into this one.  It came across my desk, so to speak, that Marketing Mag “the voice of Canada’s marketing industry” is about to announce its Best Of The Decade awards. So, the best Canadian advertising in the last TEN YEARS.   You’d think that some pretty impressive and clever advertising would be in the running. Like, half of the Tim Horton’s commercials that make me cry for no logical reason: “<sniff> I know it’s not fair trade coffee and shuts down local business but…<sob>…I’m so touched to see immigrants drinking Timmy’s coffee at the airport…”

But! I’m not here to talk about Tim Horton’s. Today, profiled one of their top contenders for the Best of the Decade. And, that would be Bud Light and its “History” commercial.  The gist is that, over the decades, the Bud Light Institute has “created” a number of activities and movements to keep women busy while their men drink beer. Check it out:

Despite playing off the most..TIIIIREDD..gender stereotypes (tupperware?) the part that got me the most annoyed is when they stated, “In 1971 we invented feminism.”  First of all, 1971!? Second of all, it is beyond belief condescending to make such a statement no matter how jokey you go about it.

The reasons Marketing Mag gave for its praise of the commercial? That it really bucked the trend of just slapping on a logo at the end of a commercial. It really proved that you could use the brand throughout. Holy crap, I’m SO impressed. Also, apparently women really loved the ad because it was so “absurd.”  Absurd is a good word to describe it.  Too bad they didn’t realize that absurd isn’t synonymous with creative, clever, witty or original.

However, all is not lost. An American equivalent online marketing magazine recently criticized a Heineken commercial for portraying a woman’s uterus as a beer keg. For reals.

Also. Women. Do. In fact. Drink beer. So, we represent a huge real (and potential) market. Let’s support companies and micro brews that refuse to stoop to such low levels of cheap advertising. Check out our podcast on women in the brewing industry here.

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