There has been a recent trend in advertising where companies include “real women” or promote the idea that the “real you” is beautiful and that using Photoshop or retouching images is not necessary. Though these advertisements seem very progressive and appear to challenge the strict definition of what it means to be beautiful by showing women who are not models or would not typically be placed in ads, they are still ideological in a number of ways and still work within the larger themes and framework of the advertising industry. This is true because instead of showing that women have flaws, the ads end up conveying a message that “real women” look like models and that the ideal version of femininity that is presented in advertisements is attainable for all women. These ads also affirm that all women should strive to fit into the strict and accepted version of attractive, rather than promote the idea that beauty is subjective and that outer beauty is not the most important thing.
The “real women” advertisements reflect Goldman, Heath, and Smith’s idea of commodity feminism, as they are putting forth the facade that they depict real women that have broken out of the typical and traditional gender roles and who are not the embodiment of conventional femininity, when in reality, these “real women” shown are not progressive representations and do not subvert norms that are associated with the female gender. The advertisers who create these ads try to put forth the message that they are more attentive to “what women want to hear about themselves,” but fail to do so because they still affirm that these beautiful women have self-worth mainly because of their physical appearance and the acceptance that they can obtain from their appearances (388). In particular, this is seen in the Aerie advertisements where the girls in the ads who have not been retouched still have perfect skin and are thin, and thus these women still reflect norms of what is considered attractive, ideal, and feminine. This argument can be further elaborated upon through Johnston and Taylor’s beliefs on “feminist consumerism.” Though these ads put forth the appearance that they are promoting real beauty and self-acceptance, they actually “institutionalize gender inequality by placing an inordinate emphasis on the personal appearance of women,” which reproduce the “largely unattainable aesthetic standards” of beauty placed on women in society through a number of media (946). Because of this, the advertisements for “real women” attract consumers who believe they are supporting a feminist cause, when in reality, the feminist cause is being exploited and losing its criticalness.
Furthermore, these “real women” advertisements perpetuate and reproduce ideology in a few significant ways. According to Goldman and Papson, advertisements socially construct the world and disguise inequalities and contradictions in society. The “real women” ads socially construct and also reaffirm what it means to be a beautiful woman and fail to depict women who do not embody the strict characteristics of feminine and beautiful. In addition, the injustices in society can be seen particularly well in one of the Dove “real beauty” advertisements. The ad below features a variety of women who are not hair models, but all have hair that has been styled and looks beautiful. Therefore, even though Dove is saying that all women’s hair is beautiful, they are still affirming that it needs to be styled and done up in order to exemplify what is attractive and look feminine. Moreover, it assumes that all women would have the time to do their hair and the money to buy many beauty products, which is not the case. This is important because it points out that there are inequalities in society and that these advertisements fail to consider the great range of experiences among and between different groups of women.
In order to draw attention to the problematic aspects of these advertisements, I would create a spoof advertisement campaign that claimed that “real women” are depicted, but included women who look even more like models than the women in the Aerie and Dove advertisements. By claiming that these models with perfect skin, hair, and bodies are “real,” it points out that the corporations using this type of campaign are still socially and culturally constructing what “real women” should look like and by doing this, are still buying into the traditional ideals of femininity and beauty. Furthermore, in order to make sure that the audience understands that these ads are a parody, they would have phrases like “Do you know women who look like this?” or “You do not have to look like this to be a ‘real woman,’” which can help convey the message that even though thousands of advertisements show this example of women, it is not what women actually look like and that people should be more critical of these ideal and normalized representations of women.
Through the creation of this parody advertisement campaign, a “culture jam” is being produced. According to Carducci, a culture jam works to “achieve transparency” by “mitigating the asymmetrical effects of power and other distortions in the communications apparatus” (118). Culture jams also work to “expose the ‘backstage’ of the brand” and hold these corporations accountable for their claims of authenticity (122). I think that the socially constructed idea of “true beauty” needs to be exposed because many people do not think critically about the possible negative implications of companies claiming that the “real” girls who are in their advertisements that look almost exactly the same as the usual models can have within society. The parody that I proposed could enable the “‘true’ message” of the advertisements to be revealed” because people will begin to understand that even these “real women” are a social construct created by the advertisements and not necessarily what women have to or should look like (125). My critique is important because in addition to exposing the lack of truth in these types of campaigns, it also can show some of the larger issues in society including the obsession with consumerism and consumer culture, and the many inequalities and injustices that still exist, though many of the them are repressed in advertisements and other media representations.