[CW: misogyny in advertising]
Once again, I am here to offer you my visual rhetoric post for the week. It’s a cheap and easy way to get some actual content on this blog and sometimes I actually sound like I know what I’m talking about.
Reading Diane Hope’s chapter in Hill and Helmers, “Gendered Environments: Gender and the Natural World in the Rhetoric of Advertising,” got me thinking about some of the absolutely bonkers ads that came out of the ‘50s and ‘60s “Mad Men” era. There were just so many that were horrible and completely stripped women of all agency, even when the products were meant for use by women. If they were specifically for men, they could be so much worse. I went on a search for something that would fit with the readings and I came across this list, by Business Insider, of some of the absolute worst ads from this period. While they were all terrible in their own ways, there is one that speaks almost directly to Hope’s belief that “Some ads go further and explicitly merge images of nature with the female body or body part to claim that woman and nature are one” (159):
This is an ad for pants, y’all, literally. It’s advertising men’s pants. That’s it. And for some reason, someone in that ad meeting thought “What if we show a man from the waist down, wearing these pants, and have him standing on a tiger-skin rug with a woman’s head…” and someone else said “Brilliant!”
The text in the image is a bit hard to read and also gross, but if you can’t read it, here you go:
Though she was a tiger lady, our hero didn’t have to fire a shot to floor her. After one look at his Mr. Leggs slacks, she was ready to have him walk all over her. That noble styling sure soothes the savage heart! If you’d like your own doll-to-doll carpeting, hunt up a pair of these he-man Mr. Leggs slacks. Such as our new automatic wash/wear blend of 65% “Dacron” and 35% rayon–incomparably wrinkle-resistant. About $12.95 at plush-carpeted stores.
As I said, it’s gross and offensive on so many levels.
In her chapter, Hope expressed the idea that “…visual rhetoric depends on strategies of identification; advertising’s rhetoric is dominated by appeals to gender as the primary marker of consumer identity. Constructs of masculinity or femininity contextualize fantasies of social role, power, status, and security as well as sexual attractiveness” (155). In this instance, the male figure is quite literally dominating the female figure, who has been rendered helpless, “tamed,” with his foot on her head. His pants are apparently so sexy that she has been completely felled by the sight of him wearing them.
The woman in this ad isn’t really a woman. She’s a thing to capture and subjugate, and according to the ad, subjugation will be easy if one is wearing these pants. She has no will of her own, and no ability to say no to a man in a particular pair of pants. She is, in fact, so weak-willed that pants are all it will take to let him “walk all over her.”
Hope’s article specifically focuses on the ways in which women are often portrayed as passively interacting with nature, while men are often portrayed as fighting back against nature. Her examples point out how ads with women generally involve water and plants, while men are often shown in hard, uncompromising settings involving rock and stone. Her point isn’t lessened by this ad, however, in that the woman has been merged with the tiger, a creature very much of nature. The pants-wearing “hero” has taken on this fearsome beast, and conquered it, allowing him to do with her as he will; the aggression is his, the passivity is hers and that is the right and proper way of the world.
This isn’t the only Mr. Leggs slacks-ad from this period, however, and the others are almost as bad. While they don’t speak directly to Hope’s article about gendered environments, I thought it was necessary to include them because the imagery is important. And they do touch on some of the ideas that Bulmer and Buchanan-Oliver discuss in “Visual Rhetoric and Global Advertising Imagery.”
In all four of the ads, the men are only seen from the waist down. Doing this allows any man viewing the ad to see himself in those damn fine pants. The women, on the other hand, are quite beautiful and concerned only with the pants. In every single one, the women’s heads are below the waist-level of the man. Of course, in some, there’s only the head, and not the woman’s body. This also speaks to some implicit ideas about women, their heads, and their function when it comes to a man’s pants. Essentially, “Campaigns need to meet the usual criteria of being memorable, eye-catching and relevant to the target audience” (Bulmer and Buchanan-Oliver 49). These ads definitely qualify as memorable and eye-catching. I can’t know how they were received when they first appeared but the fact that they remained a part of our cultural memory certainly says something. As to how relevant they were to the target audience, well, ads have always targeted our need, as people, to be physically appealing to other people. These ads may be more overt, and frankly offensive, then some we see today but the general idea hasn’t changed. There is a thing that can be had, and if you buy the right product, you will have that thing without having to change anything else about yourself. All you were lacking was this one thing to make you attractive to the person/persons of your choice.
Bulmer and Buchanan-Oliver believe that “Marketers and their agencies connect with customers by constructing brand imagery and linking experiences in advertising that offer the consumer a means of connecting with other people (Cova, 1997)” (53). In this case, with Mr. Leggs slacks, the consumer is being offered the opportunity to connect with, and be in command of, all the women. Now, there may very well be a tongue-in-cheek aspect of these ads that I’m missing but given the fact that so very many ads from this period were of a similar style, I don’t think I’m missing anything. In fact, I think I got the intended message loud and clear.
Bulmer, Sandy, and Margo Buchanan‐Oliver. “Visual Rhetoric and Global Advertising Imagery.” Journal of Marketing Communications, vol. 12, no. 1, 2006, pp. 49–61., doi:10.1080/13527260500289142.
Hope, Diane S. “Gendered Environments: Gender and the Natural World in the Rhetoric of Advertising.” Defining Visual Rhetorics, edited by Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers, Taylor and Francis, 2012, pp. 155–177.