Aging is a natural process that every person must go through, although you wouldn’t think so based on the advertisements we see today for women of all ages to prevent, slow down, or downright stop the aging process. Why? Because old age and the physical markers that come with it are not part of the beauty ideals our society holds.
There are countless anti-aging products in the beauty industry these days. They are marketed mainly towards middle-aged women in the 40-60 year range, although women are expected at younger and younger ages to already start caring for their appearances in ways that are conscious of future aging problems. The following are some examples of anti-aging commercials that exemplify the obsession society has with age, and how to reverse the process in the name of “beauty.”
This ad uses a mother figure to represent the effects of Garnier’s Anti-Aging BB Cream. Some buzz words that come up during the ad to draw the viewer in are “wrinkle-fighting,” “results,” “evens,” “hydrates,” “protects,” and “firms,” among others. These words negate our associations with the aging process and they all associate with images of youthful beauty. The representational tactics used in this ad are reason-why and the signifier of the mother and motherhood. The reason-why example is the beginning of the ad, when the model points out that Garnier Anti-Aging BB Cream both perfects skin, and has anti-aging qualities. This is meant as a distinction from other products, that are either simply foundation or an anti-aging cream without tinted full coverage capabilities. By pointing this out in the beginning of the ad, the audience is enticed to continue watching as they are made aware of a product that is unique, and doesn’t compare to other products on the market. As discussed in “The Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes, ads are made up of signifiers and what they signify. Images are considered signs, that we have some culturally formed opinions about prior to seeing the images. The daughter in the commercial is there as something that the mother’s new skin can be outwardly compared to, but she also signifies something deeper – what it means to be a mother. One can connote from the cheerful image of the mother-daughter relationship that in order to be a good mother, one must be beautiful and youthful. This plays into a traditional idea about femininity, where beauty is nonnegotiable at any age and must be there to perform any function in a womanly way, even motherhood.
This ad features Ellen Degeneres and Covergirl/Olay’s Simply Ageless Foundation. Some buzz words from this ad are “wrinkle-face,” which is how Ellen first greats you as the commercial starts, “simply ageless,” “baby,” and “floats above lines,” among others. The most obvious tactic used in this commercial is the use of a well-known celebrity. Her presence endorses the product and ads an extra layer of encouragement to purchase the product. The commercial also compares old and aging skin to dried apricots and prunes. Apparently, if you don’t use Covergirl’s Simply Ageless Foundation you’re going to end up looking like a wrinkly-skinned old fruit. Once again, beauty is portrayed as specifically youthful and aging is something you must prevent, or else fail to live up to traditional standards of feminine beauty.
Diane Lane is featured in this last example, an advertisement for Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair. Some now familiar key words: “clinically proven,” “wrinkle repair,” “younger-looking,” and “fastest formula.” This spot uses celebrity endorsement to market its product. Reason-why is used in this ad when Diane Lane points out that it’s the “fastest formula available,” setting it apart from the competition and giving the audience a reason to buy Neutrogena anti-aging products over any other brand.
While these ads go about selling the same type of product with different tactics, they all promote the same ideologies about feminine beauty. Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson discuss the ideological qualities of advertisements in their work “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning.” They state that “advertisements are structured to boost the value of commodity brand names by attaching them to images that possess social and cultural value” (81). The images and cultural values represented in anti-aging ads are beautiful, middle-aged women who look like they’re 25. Viewers are expected to understand these images as signifying that youthful beauty is essential to femininity, and that the product represented will provide this for them. Goldman and Papson determined four ideological functions of ads, all of which apply to the above anti-aging commercials.
All three ads socially and culturally construct a world where women are expected to prevent aging at all costs because old women are not considered beautiful. Similarly, the ads promote a normative vision of our society and our beauty standards as youthful. They also disguise inequalities in the audiences of these commercials – not everyone who sees the ads will be able to afford the expensive products they advertise. This excludes a large number of women, and therefore implies that it is not possible to succeed at being a beautiful woman unless you are from a certain class status. Lastly, the ads reflect the logic of capital in that they attempt to make the consumer decide that purchasing the product will bring them social happiness and success.
The normative vision that these ads present is specifically gendered. Susan Bordo comments in her essay, “Hunger as Ideology,” that “today, all we experience as meaningful are appearances” (104). This is a good summary of the reasons behind the tactics advertisers use to sell their products. While there are usually accompanying endorsements about the features and functionality of a product, the main concern when presenting an advertisement is how it looks to the consumer. Women especially feel the pressure to maintain appearances, given the beauty standards that are reinforced through the media and the advertising world. Women are expected to control themselves and maintain their beauty, and even into old age they are bombarded with products to maintain the appearance of youth, which is an essential ingredient to the beautiful woman. Bordo mentions that in contrast to ads directed at women, in ads for men, “the message is almost always one of mastery and control over others rather than the self” (105). Men are expected to dominate over other people, while women are expected to control themselves and thereby are implied to lack the ability to have control over others. This is a difficult problem for aging women to face, since getting older will never be something anyone has control over. For fear of losing the appearance of beauty as they get older, women are forced to turn to these serums and creams that claim to prevent, slow-down, and even reverse the aging process, at least outwardly. There is no message that it is okay to get older, and that wrinkles are simply a part of nature, and beautiful in their own way. Men don’t worry about outward age markers, and if they do develop some gray hairs it is considered distinguished, not ugly.
Anti-aging advertisements are ridiculous simply because of the implication that age is something one can control. A spoof video would have to play on this fact, that women have no control over turning into wrinkly old prunes eventually, and that their wisdom and history are what make them beautiful now, not just their appearances. An idea for a parody would be a woman in her late-30s who comes home from an unsuccessful date and examines her wrinkles in the mirror. Then, she would pick up the product and put it on. In the morning, she feels rejuvenated and confident and heads out the door without checking the mirror. As she’s walking, she notices people staring at her oddly and finally stops at her reflection in a store window, only to see that the cream has worked a little too well and her face is that of a baby! No one can control their age, and products like Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair are never going to change that. The spoof proves this and also points out that consuming is not the solution to all your problems.
Spoofs are an example of culture jamming, which aims to appropriate brands and images to subvert them and to challenge the prevailing ethic, which in this case is consumerism. My spoof is specifically an example of détournement, which Kalle Lasn says “involves rerouting spectacular images, environments, ambiances, and events to reverse or subvert their meaning, thus reclaiming them” (417). Culture jams are effective for products like these because it is not debatable that age is something we can’t control. Because this fact cannot be argued, a culture jam is effective in reaching a broad audience of people who can immediately understand the irony in it. Culture jamming is less effective when used on concepts that are more opinion based than actual facts, but the process can nonetheless continue to help spread awareness and open up conversations about prejudice and conformity.