During the mid-twentieth century, the United States experienced a significant surge in the population as a result of the baby boom that occurred after the second world war. As the baby boom generation grew past childhood, they became recognized as the adolescent or teenage demographic. For the first time in American history, teenagers became a sought after market because of their ability to pick up on trends and their tendency to use spending money on leisure products. Although teenagers are past the childhood phase of life, they are still an impressionable group which makes them attractive to advertisers. The adolescent market still proves to be a very coveted demographic in the eyes of ad agencies today. Adolescents are bombarded with advertisements related to music, fashion, food, health, and television on a daily basis.
Although teenagers are the most advertised-to demographic in the country, some argue that this kind of constant advertising can play on the self-esteem of adolescent consumers in a negative way. Advertisers have found a way to circumvent this criticism by taking on products that deal with the one issue that most teenagers deal with: Acne. In most acne advertisements, the main narrative suggests that by using the product featured in the ad, the adolescent consumer will feel more confident in their own lives, whether it be in school or with friends. By examining the three different acne advertisements above aimed toward teenagers, I will examine how accurate and necessary these ads are, the kinds of ideologies they promote, and discuss whether or not these ads are harmful or helpful while trying to connect confidence with normative ideas of beauty.
The first advertisement featured is a commercial for the acne-prevention brand Clearasil. In order to draw a connection between the items used in the ad and the ad’s overall meaning, advertisers use semiotics (as discussed in Roland Barthes’ “The Rhetoric of the Image”). The young kids, students walking around lockers, and ringing bell are all signifiers that suggest the ad takes place in a school setting and is aimed at the average American teenager in high school. The ad also uses signifiers of fast moving airplanes, trains, and trucks to signify how fast the Clearasil product is supposed to work. Using the phrase “fast” as the main metaphor in the commercial, suggests that urgency is a key factor that teenagers look for in an attempt to tackle their acne. The normative idea promoted in this ad is that acne is seen as a detriment and is supposed to be taken care of immediately for fear of judgement from other people. This normative vision of the adolescent world is reflected in “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Marketing” from Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson.
The second advertisement featured is a commercial for another acne-prevention brand, Clean&Clear. It features adolescent women of various ethnic backgrounds insisting that the Clean&Clear product has cleared up their acne and changed their lives for the better. Clean&Clear uses testimonials (as mentioned in the Communication Strategies section of “Social Communication in Advertising”) to reach the adolescent consumer. However, Clean&Clear does this in a more creative way by using a diverse array of smiling, relatable teenage girls to give these testimonials instead of doctors or other skin and health experts. This ad does a good job of connecting the ideas of confidence and self-assurance to their product.
The third advertisement is a commercial for the brand Epiduo. Unlike the other brands, Epiduo is a prescription-based product and not something you can buy at the counter of your local drugstore. The teenagers in this ad are seen trying to use ridiculous home remedies to get rid of their acne, before finally trying and succeeding with Epiduo. Not only does Epiduo connect confidence to their product, but it promotes a normative vision of the world where most teenagers can easily gain access to their prescribed product. What it doesn’t acknowledge is that most teenagers in America often do not have easy access to doctors and healthcare so it might be a lot more difficult for them to be able to use their self-proclaimed life-changing product.
No matter what the angle of an advertisement is, the message is always the same: in order to fix the problem you’re having or replace what you’re lacking, you must buy our product. Since advertising’s main goal is rooted in consumerism, alternative organizations often use culture jamming as a means of reaching both naive consumers and alienated spectators. As discussed in Vince Carducci’s “Culture Jamming,” the act of culture jamming challenges the idea that consumerism is the answer to all social and political issues. If I were to create a proposal for a web video, I would use the theory of culture jamming to make a spoof video of acne commercials targeted at teenagers. The video would focus on one teenager walking through the halls of a high school describing all of the ways in which a specific acne product has changed their lives with confidence being the main factor. They’d start by saying that their clear skin has improved their confidence and that this newfound confidence has improved their performance in school. A teacher would then return a test on the teenager’s desk with a high F on the top. The teenager would then walk through into the cafeteria claiming that their confidence has helped them to be more friendly with their peers. The teenager would then sit down at a table of fellow students and the students would vacate the table upon their arrival. The last part would feature the teenager claim how their newfound confidence has helped them to perform better at their game. The teenager would then be shown in a soccer match as a goalie and completely miss the ball as it flies past them into the net. All of the scenarios in the spoof ad would show that the connection between beauty and confidence that these acne companies try to promote are irrelevant and that confidence should come from other places.
My main critique of acne advertisements geared towards teenagers is their usage of the term confidence. Connecting confidence to beauty (from clear skin) is harmful because it suggests to consumers at a young age that beauty is most admired quality in our society. Instead, we should acknowledge the confidence should come from other places, like our personal skills and personalities. If acne advertisements want to be more accurate, they can start by focusing on the health advantages that their products have and not focusing on the adolescents’ insecurities about beauty.