Targeting Women – The “Diet” Market

Judging from the examples above, it is easy to spot the common denominator in all three ads: women. Following the creative revolution in advertising that took off in the 1960s, women became a crucial target market for consumer companies. Today, women are bombarded with products that are supposed to make them the perfect woman, according to society’s standards. Aside from decades of being sold hair-volumizing products and skin-perfecting makeup, the female consumer has faced years of being sold the idea that she must have the perfect skinny body to be beautiful. What better products to convey that ideal than the sum of diet foods pushed onto women? In this age, where advertising is more about the lifestyle than the product itself, advertisers are targeting this niche market of women who buy into the lifestyle of skinny as sexy.

Prom is coming up and you need to fit into that form-fitting dress you bought a few months ago. You have a beach vacation planned but aren’t bikini ready yet. We have all faced a similar situation at some point in our lives and it makes us feel less than confident. This is where diet, “lite” foods come in, femininity’s saving grace against being fat. All ads carry ideologies, according to Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson, and the idea of having a binary gender system–where gender ideologies distinguish between what is masculine and what is feminine–is an ideology in itself. There are “proper” ways of being feminine and proper ways of being masculine, with the two genders being mutually exclusive. Within the ideology of femininity stands the idea that women should obtain the perfect, slim body to be beautiful. Of course, this ideology is culturally specific (although it is shared by many cultures around the world). It is what fuels the ads of this niche consumer market in a perfectionist, American society.

The Yoplait Light and Special K commercials are excellent examples of the typical ads utilized by these marketers because they highlight the terror and embarrassment associated with being overweight or less than perfect. They tend to push the ideal of “skinny” onto femininity, as does the Diet Pepsi ad. However, the ads are sneaky because they don’t outwardly say, “You need to lose weight, so eat our product and become skinny”. Rather, in this age of accelerated meaning, the ads convey an image or lifestyle associated with skinny, so the female consumer is buying into that image rather than the actual product. These ads make women relate to the situation and take advantage of their vulnerability.

There are a number of problems with the ads targeted at this young and middle-aged female consumer market. First, let’s take a look at the Yoplait Light “2 Week Tuneup” commercial. It shows a woman who startlingly realizes she needs to lose some weight before her big high school reunion. This, of course, all stems from the gender ideology that women are sought-after, sexualized beings that always need to look attractive for the anticipated male gaze. The woman in the ad needs to look good not for herself, but for the people at the reunion that will potentially be judging her and comparing her to what she used to look like in high school (like the man at the end). And honestly, who would want to bear two weeks of replacing two meals a day with an unsatisfying yogurt? The Diet Pepsi ad is just as bad; without using much print, it manages to say so much. The slogan “the new skinny can” obviously draws audiences’ eyes to the “skinny”. The fact that a diet soda has to exist on the market already says enough, so why go further to make the cans themselves skinny? The reason is, they make being slim a lifestyle, a glamourous thing to look forward to. The sleek can simply looks more appealing and may be a motivator for women to look better so they can hold it. The fact that they use a famous celebrity, Sofia Vergara, to be the face of the ad, is a strategy pushing women to strive to be like her. What they don’t realize is that being a celebrity is ideological in itself, and the Sofia they see in the picture is not the same Sofia that posed in front of the photographer that day. She too is idealized to be the perfect feminine figure enjoying the perfect feminine beverage.

The ad I have the most problems with is the Special K ad. Much like the commercials of the Dove Beauty campaign, this ad utilizes what Robert Goldman, Deborah Heath, and Sharon Smith call “commodity feminism”. In “Commodity Feminism” the authors introduce the term as a play on Marx’s commodity fetishism, where advertisers attempt to redefine feminism through commodities and endow aspects of it onto their products to advance sales. The Special K ad exploits feminism (and its idea of female empowerment) to sell cereal, telling women that beauty is so much more than a number. This is absolutely true and is what all women should be told. However, when this message is attached to a product that is aimed to make women lose weight, the message loses its value and the company begins to look hypocritical. The ad turns feminism and empowerment into something you can buy.

It is hard to believe that so many women would–and have–bought into this ideology. Looking at the ads, one would think it takes an educated, ethical consumer to be interested in losing weight to fit society’s beauty mold, and especially to be able to afford it. However, in her essay “Hunger as Ideology”, Susan Bordo discusses the stereotypes of women in advertisements and society’s acceptance of health-destructive habits they bring with them (unhealthy dieting, smoking, etc.). The Taco Bell diet menu ad shows just how deeply into society this female image ideal has seeped, no longer just a fantasy of middle-class suburban white women. Now, even the lower class women with a much smaller income who live mostly off fast food can strive to be skinnier. Obviously, skinny here does not mean healthy, as eating “healthy” food from a fast food chain probably isn’t the healthiest option here. Health is clearly not the concern here, looking good is. So women ultimately sacrifice their health for a chance to look perfect.

Culture jamming is an effective tactic used by many anti-consumerists to turn existing ads and ideologies on their heads and subvert their meanings. The kinds of ads I listed above need to be critiqued and exposed because they belittle women who aren’t model thin. They make it so that there is only one “right” size and look when in reality, women come in all shapes and sizes. They also assume that all women WANT to be thin, when many women appreciate their curves and strive to be more shapely. That is why my spoof video would play on these ideals, having women who aren’t perfectly thin attempt to eat the Yoplait Light or the Special K cereal, only to spit it out and exclaim how horrible it tastes. Women in households all around America would be shown ready to indulge in these delicious looking products and ending up throwing them away. It would then show these same women reaching in the refrigerator for what looks like other diet foods and instead grabbing “fatty” treats, like desserts and fried foods. This kind of parody would remind consumers of the controlling hold of the capitalistic consumer market and that they don’t have to buy into it to be beautiful.

-Vanessa Zdesar



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