How Corporations Objectify Women To Maximize Profits: A Feminist Critique of the Market

TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA - 2015/03/07: Capitalism is bad for women sign during protest march the International Women day in Toronto. Thousands gathered in Toronto on Saturday day to mark International Women’s Day. The main themes of this year’s march were fighting for the rights of aboriginal women and raising awareness about sexual violence and racial discrimination. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Capitalistic markets, by their very nature require infinite (arbitrary) consumption so in order for companies to be economically viable, they have to produce variations of already existing products, and artificially convince consumers that they are “incomplete” without their companies merchandise.  In our current form of global financialized capitalism, consumers now can spend money they do not have, on items they often do not need. Corporations use manipulation to draw on an audience of potential consumers by cleverly leveraging emotions and exacerbating internal insecurities to create a value and a relative desire for their product. Capitalist markets link their products to people’s’ identities, desires and insecurities in an attempt to increase their market share. Corporations will oversell the value of inanimate objects as well as harness women’s sexuality, hyper-masculinity, and beauty standards to convince the consumer that their products will make them better versions of themselves.

We can see this dynamic in full play when we look at underwear advertisements. Below we identify three stereotypical women’s underwear advertisements and their relevance to manufacturing desire.

The Agent Provocateur ad directly confronts the archetypal female identity through the introduction of young women who possess a seemingly strong sense of sexual prowess and dominance. The ad does so through presenting a woman in very delicate, feminine lingerie as she is helplessly harassed and intimidated. The intimidators are the women in edgy, black lingerie who promote sexual discovery and confidence. Marketers often use the tool of “Shockvertising” to shock viewers through extreme intrusiveness as this “…stimulates people to think about themselves…” (Meijer, p 246–247). With such provocative images of aggressive, leather lingerie-clad women and occasional camera shots of breasts, the viewer is suddenly exposed to images that they are unaccustomed to. The viewer may begin to see the women in different lights, possibly reflecting upon their own sexuality. Although this ad could be about sexual empowerment through a new style of lingerie, one can criticize that the aggressors in the ad forcefully change this woman into an ultra-sexual being unwillingly and that in that case, the ad is perpetuating the idea that we must force ourselves to look and act a certain way to be truly “sexy”; that sexuality is no longer delicate and feminine, but maybe more aggressive, dominant and up to our own control.

Although Masculinity is not inherently a desire of men, the My Package advertisement perpetuates the societal norm, that “real” men have to fit this fake physically dominant caricature of a human being, whose value comes from saving poor helpless women.  This ad plays on the expectation of male dominance masculinity and defines success as a male having the ability to exert physical dominance in line with the pervasive white male patriarchal status-quo. The men in the ad are shown to accomplish their unrealistic goals with ease, creating an association with the underwear these actors are wearing.  This ad targets the subconscious male ego and provokes the curiosity of the average man, who will generally see they have room for improvement and aspire to be like the characters in the advertisement. Interestingly, it is only at the end of this random advertisement that the underwear brand is mentioned. This helps the audience suspend their disbelief that this ad is not just a corporation trying to ram their product down the viewer’s head,  at the same time indirectly creating a subconscious association with the product and greatness.

The My Package men’s underwear commercial effectively targets the average male and challenges their masculinity which creates the false need to prove it, and without giving any explanation on how one can be like the people in the ad, just displaying the product right after the sequence of events creates the illusion that the product itself is what is preventing the viewer from achieving his true masculine potential. It is very similar to a majority of the female underwear advertisements, by playing on the assumed role a certain gender is supposed to play. According to Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez: in their work, “Gender Race and Class in Media”, our class structure and gender order creates these fake masculinities (aspects that makeup masculinity) that are stratified by socioeconomic class and the prevailing ideology which the author alludes to being white male patriarchy.

The advertisement  “I’m No Angel” takes a significantly different approach relative to the other advertisements, instead of creating an artificial female or male persona associated with their product; they decide to be inclusive, speaking in terms of acceptance of all types of women. However it is important to be noted that the sexualization of these women is still prominent throughout the ad, meaning it is only inclusive to the extent that it connects with a more broader audience, but will not decide to step away from sexualizing women’s breasts and bodies, for the same reasons the other companies create false narratives.  However as a general theme, it is just an inverted attempt to draw attention to a brand through a negation of the overplayed typical beer or underwear commercial.. However, considering the examples we discussed in class, even the same company can produce two ads with polar opposite messages; a clever way to target the maximum amount of viewers.  

In our system of capitalism, the need to perpetually grow calls for the overconsumption of products. Companies look to producing inelastic and generic products with artificial distinctions that will lead consumers to purchase the more expensive products because of the social and psychological appeal of those brands.  These commodities such as underwear cannot possibly have much meaningful variation, so it is the job of the brand marketer to create a persona for a particular brand’s underwear. Many of these advertisements do not even clearly indicate that they have any relationship to underwear until the very end. This fits very well considering the ads themselves have very little connection to giving a description of the advertised product, and rather resort to manipulating emotion. This is why companies in general spend more money on advertising, than the actual production and maintenance of their product (Eichler). Capitalist markets perpetuate social norms and beauty standards that are unattainable and toxic for society by toying with the emotions of the consumer until they give into the system that is consumerism.

If Women truly want to push for true gender equality in the long run, the patriarchal system of corporate capitalism needs to be replaced. Only in a new economic system that does not commodify women’s labor less than that of men, only where they are given paid maternity leave can we truly have equality among sexes.

Works Cited

Dines, Gail, and Jean McMahon Humez. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995. Print.

Eichler, Alexander. “Pharmaceutical Companies Spent 19 Times More On Self-Promotion Than Basic Research: Report.” The Huffington Post., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.

Parry, S., Jones, R., Stern, P. and Robinson, M. (2013), ‘Shockvertising’: An exploratory investigation into attitudinal variations and emotional reactions to shock advertising. J. Consumer Behav., 12: 112–121. doi:10.1002/cb.1430