Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Try this one cool tip for eternal youth dreamt up by someone's mother somewhere

You've all seen the kind of adverts I mean. The poorly-executed, poorly-designed scam ads which are plastered over certain websites, bearing horribly-written slogans ("one trick of a tiny belly") that anyone with a basic command of grammar can barely parse. Or the ones which show screenshots ripping off the BBC/NBC/Fox logos, to give the gravitas of television news to whatever confidence trick it is they're advertising. The ones which claim that a British mother has invented a formula for everlasting youth. They're close kin to the most recent round of Twitter spam, the direct messages with a link, saying something like, "hey, I can't believe the nasty things that someone is saying about you on this blog." They're stupid and badly-done, so badly-done that you almost can't believe anyone falls for them, and they're probably best ignored. However, I believe that this family of adverts aims itself primarily at women, and for that reason I find them particularly odious and offensive.

The crudely-drawn shrinking figure in the "tiny belly" ads, for example, is always a woman. It's always someone's mother who has discovered a snake oil to rid you of wrinkles. And the 'products' they're pushing - acai berries, and goodness knows what other awful crap - are usually related to weight loss and beauty, two areas of both traditional and non-traditional advertising where women = goldmine.

The problem with these ads is not simply that they prey on vanity. Almost all advertising is intended to exploit a combination of vanity, envy and self-loathing; I've just about made my peace with that fact (although I still think it's a toxic cocktail to feed for multiple hours on a daily basis to everyone who has senses). The fact that many people can tune all advertising out reasonably well isn't a mitigating factor or excuse. What bothers me about these adverts in particular is the specific type of (mostly female) vanity they are intended to prey on. They work on the basis that all women with money to spend want to look younger or be thinner (or in the case of the "someone said a terrible thing about you" spam tweets, the idea that people are being mean about you behind your back, which is not so much vanity as insecurity, or, as previously mentioned, self-loathing), or some other similarly ubiquitous and reductive generalisation of femininity. There's also the implicit competitive element - "person x has discovered secret x and won't share it with anyone but us, and we'll sell it to you but only if you get a move on" - which is equally unsavoury, in that it encourages individuals in the target audience (women) to regard the rest of the target audience (other women) with suspicion and fear, in case the other women get to the magical slenderising/anti-aging treatment first.

And, of course, it perpetuates the notion that beauty and the ideal body and being worthy of love and respect are all concepts which are in finite and severely limited supply, which is just as much bullshit as the rest of this pernicious trash.

Look past the poor execution and hideous copy for a second. The fundamental message of all of these adverts is - like so much of Western advertising, but vastly less subtle - "you're not good enough, and you hate yourself because you're not good enough, and you hate yourself enough to pay money to make yourself more acceptable to our pre-determined standards, which were decided upon without your consultation." The ads are spectacularly brainless, which makes them easy to disdain or ignore out of hand. But they've bothered me for years, and it wasn't until I began to articulate this irritation that I realised how deep it went, or why I felt it.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but hear me out anyway: ladies, you are good enough. And dudes, you're good enough too. Everyone is fine, and no one should have to pay £6 to look twenty years younger, or whatever drivel it is they're peddling. No one should feel as though they have to look twenty years younger at all, but that's not a very popular opinion in advertising/media/fashion/cosmetics/plastic surgery circles, and I can't see it gaining any more traction any time soon.

The problems I have with this specific subsection of ads are inextricably bound to the problems I have with advertising, particularly when targeted at women, in general. I think it's a battle worth fighting in its entirety, and I've picked these specific examples as both an easy target and as an incidence which is particularly stupid and offensive. There's an inherent dishonesty and subterfuge in all of it, especially these: a little voice whispering in the ear which says, "you can be what you are not and should not be. You can be young when you're old and skinny when you're fat, and the only cost is money." And that's true of a lot of advertising, but nowhere is it more unashamedly open about this than in these particular ads.

I don't know when advertising changed from "buy x" to "buy x because it is better than y for these reasons" to "buy x because it is the only thing that will make you an acceptable human being." I'm not sure it was as linear as that - there are hints of lifestyle-aspiration even in pre-Bernays Victorian advertising - but the progression has been made, and carefully-engineered self-loathing is the lot this century's ordinary (and even extraordinary, for none of us can escape it) men and women are dealt.

In twenty years, I'd like adverts which rely on women (, people) feeling bad about themselves to be as utterly and universally reviled as those from decades past which sold cigarettes by making smoking look cool. Failing that, I'd like some adverts intended to make women competitive and jealous about wanting to be the best lawyers and doctors and entrepreneurs and developers and writers and artists and scientists and WOMEN as they can be, and not just about being pretty and youthful and thin. That would be awesome.


  1. That would be awesome! This is a subject that has vaguely plagued me (I made a rhyme!) for some time. However, I never stopped to think about how gendered it is.

    1. Neither did I! And then I was like...wait a second...