In a 2012 advertising campaign, high-end jewelry designer Alexis Bittar decided to take a rather unconventional approach in promoting its product. The ads show actress Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley posing with a Devil-may-care attitude whilst wearing the jewelry, their faces being drastically different from the usual youth-dominated billboards. And while some may praise the campaign for abstaining from using from the usual stick-thin and extremely young models, some aspects of the advertisement may hint at a darker side.
Like every other advertisement, the Alexis Bittar ad serves as what is known as a cultural intermediary or, according to the authors of Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace, a factor that “[unites] the cycle of production and consumption, economy and culture” (Botterill, Jhally, Kline, and Leiss 48). In other words, a cultural intermediary serves to attach cultural meaning to objects like, say, an advertisement with the product it’s attempting to sell. In the case of Alexis Bittar, the advertisement is attaching the concept of eternal youth through jewelry. Of course it is still an ad targeted at a younger demographic based on the sheer design of the jewelry and the partying aspects which are included. Yet older women have now been drawn in to the demographic now through the use of both Saunders and Lumley. The advertisement seems to tell them that age shouldn’t stop you from acting like you’re twenty, no matter what previous doctrines may say. And this eternal youth is now associated with Alexis Bittar jewelry.
This sentiment stems from the concept that ads help the consumer control their sense of self or personal identity. According to cultural and intellectual historian T.J. Jackson Lears, there is a “therapeutic ethos” component to advertising and goods in which consumers find both these elements to be some sort of materialistic therapists. If they feel uneasy in their lives, this product or advertisement gives them a way to change their current identity and start anew. The Alexis Bittar advertisement does just that: older women discontent with their image as those past their fun and fancy free days may put themselves at ease through viewing the advertisement if not actually buying the product. Through the advertisement’s style, their lifestyle has now changed. And while a more whimsical outlook on aging is certainly refreshing, it may cause a new form of stress and, hence, negativity to arise due to new social expectations.
With the concept of style in advertising comes what anthropologist Grant McCracken calls the “rapid obsolescence of style.” Due to the wide array of options people have and the constant changing of goods in the market, people feel pressured to keep updated in the goods they wear or keep. From this “democratization of luxury” comes what Michael Schudson calls the “democratization of envy,” or the jealousy felt by people who see others in possession of objects they are not able to obtain. When looking at the Alexis Bittar ad with its carefree older women and their snazzy ensembles and champagne, those women of the everyday world may feel envious and, thus, disappointed with themselves for not appearing as hip as the advertisements suggests they should. Being older women, they may even feel confused as to why the need for them to feel like partying past their thirties is necessary. The ad, then, inadvertently created a new social problem and pressure: if you have succumbed to a frumpy lifestyle due to your age, you’re not nearly as stylish or beautiful as these two women wearing this jewelry are.
Despite the overall positivity of Alexis Bittar’s 2012 campaign and the delightful newness in its use of older women, there is still potential for negative feedback. Yet this is the Catch-22 of advertising in general: no matter how good the intention or positive the imagery, there is always room for offense. Although many middle-aged women may look at the advertisement and feel inspired to have fun while wearing fancy jewelry, there’s one soccer mom that feels like the odd-man just because she wants to wear sweatpants and be in bed by nine o’clock.