America’s media has been colonized to the puppets of culture. Professor Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation informs us that the average American sees around 3600 ads per day. And with all the technology of the 21st century at the hands of the media, the 313 million people that populate America are at their mercy. (CIA World Fact Book.) Who are the individuals consuming the ads? How much mindshare have the brands of society taken up? More important is the question of what images and values is the media using to sell their product? Advertisements are culturally driven, and what America as a society advertises is a reflection of their culture as a whole.
More and more prevalent through advertisements today is the use of objectification, the symbolic use of relating people to objects. Most common is the objectification of women, but objectification of men, of sex, and self-objectification is used as well. Objectification is not a term unheard of. Throughout history women have thought of and portrayed as an object. An object signifies possession, vulnerability, and when used on women, dehumanizes them. From the video Ways of Seeing, John Berger’s analysis of women, how women think, and how women are portrayed through art helps explain how they are objectified. He says, “Men dream of women, and women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women, and women watch themselves being looked at.” “From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others and particularly how she appears to men is of crucial importance. For it is normally thought of as the success of her life.” Through the study of women in art since the 1500’s, Berger has successfully gotten into the heads of women around the world. He understands that everything women see, they absorb and constantly objectifythemselves. A specific study of Berger’s is of nude paintings of women dating back to the 1500s. He differentiates the words naked and nude, explaining that, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude, is to be seen as naked to others and yet not recognized for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object to be nude.” (54) This is an example of how women are sexually objectified, where people (men in particular) regard women as an object of sexual gratification. From his studies of art from the 1500’s to modern art and advertising, he concluded, “the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed.” (63-4)
How is the objectification used in advertising today? An adman Jerry Goodis says: Advertising mirrors how people are dreaming or fantasizing…In a sense, what we’re doing is wrapping up your emotions and selling them back to you. “I want that body. “If I drink muscle milk, I can bulk up and more women will notice me. “If I use a Venus Razor, my legs will be smooth and men will be able to touch them and be aroused.” For women, it is suggested that these women take on the “male gaze,” looking at themselves through the eyes of an imaginary male judge. In another ad, featured in Maxim magazine, Muscle Milk encourages men to “Build up lean muscle, and your little black book.” This magazine that usually objectifies women is encouraging men to self-objectify themselves. (Sociological Images.) Self-objectification is becoming the main theme to advertising as brands get more and more desperate to gain attention from consumers.
Ellen Willis writes this for pornography, “Fantasy, after all, is more flexible than reality, and women have learned, as a matter of survival, to be adept at shaping male fantasies to their own purposes.” More and more of the feminist literature is starting to recognize this quite fundamental point that we all objectify men and women in some way at some time, that it can fulfill a socially positive function. Sut Jhally makes an argument that depends wholly on the understanding of the context of social phenomenon. He says, “While there is nothing wrong with a little objectification, there is a great deal wrong and dangerous with a lot of objectification-that is when one is viewed as nothing other than an object.”
The effects of objectification hit hard with teenagers and up. The American culture is continuing to define and redefine what beauty is, and what sexy is. In Images that Injure, written by Paul Lester and Susan Ross, talks about the images that create expectations about women’s looks and behaviors, which carry some negative side effects. The first expectation of a beautiful or sexy woman is thinness. The negative repercussions are eating disorders and starts self-objectification at a young age for women. The second is breast size, in that bigger is better. They record that breast augmentation surgery is the third most popular form of cosmetic surgery for women. 14% of the women partaking in this surgery are from the ages 18-24, and 17% are 25-34 years old. In 2001 women spent over $721 million in breast implant surgery alone! Women who invest in breast implants are less likely to be able to breast feed, which then punishes the children. The large percentage of women who invest in breast implants are women who are convinced that they need bigger breasts to get the attention of men, which again is subjectified to objectification through the eyes of men.
Will sex always sell? In Sut Jhally’s video, Advertising and the End of the World, he says that advertising speaks to us through our bodies and "smacks us in the mouth" so people don't think. He says that advertising’s goal is to provoke certain feelings, and not necessarily thoughts, which is why he believes that society will continue to see more and more sexual imagery through male-dominated vision. As society becomes more and more cynical, advertisers will use more extreme versions of sexual imagery to get consumer’s attention. According to Sut Jhally, producers will use “nightmares” to sell their product after attacking the “dream world” has no effect. It’s not about pleasure, but about panic. A clothing brand, Merry Go Round, used the nightmare of being naked in public to sell their clothes.
People are objectified as fragmented parts, food, animals, and many objects used to grab people’s attention. Men, women, the upcoming generation, they are all victims. Berger showed how objectification was present in paintings dated back to the 1500s and embellishes on the woman of today as she constantly surveys and self-objectifies herself. Ellen Willis and her piece talked about how women today take advantage of their objectification by men to have power over men and others. She acknowledges the fact that there is objectification and said that objectification can serve as a socially positive function. Sut Jhally disagrees with objectification dealt on extremes and chooses to interpret it based wholly on the context of the image. Lisa Wade provided a number of articles and ads as evidence of objectification from the woman and man’s point of view. Objectification is an important and dangerous topic as it becomes more prevalent in advertising and more of a reflection of society’s ideals as a whole.
1. Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972. Video
2. Jhally, Sut. The Codes of Advertising. New York: Routledge, 1990. Video
3. Jhally, Sut. Whats Wrong with a Little Objectification? Sut Jhally website. Article. Retrieved on April 23, 2011 from http://www.sutjhally.com/articles/whatswrongwithalit/
4. Wade, Lisa. (Feb, 2009.) Male Self-Objectification. Sociological Images. Retrieved on April 23, 2011 from http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/02/28/male-self-objectification/
5. Lester, Paul and Ross, Susan. Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media.
6. Westport, Ct: Praeger Publishers, 2003. Retrieved on April 24, 2011 from
7. Willis, E. Feminism, Moralism and Pornography. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983. Print.