We have every reason to believe that advertising is highly effective at getting its message across. The world's most successful businesses do not spend huge amounts of money without expecting and getting results. However, it is also likely that the results they produced are mixed. The days of straight forward ads, saying "buy product X it tastes good" are long gone. The long experience of consumers with advertising has rendered more straightforward approaches to advertising largely ineffective. Today's advertising trades in lifestyles, images, ideas every brand has a set of images ideas and values it wishes us to associate with it. The advertising industry is paid to form these associations in our minds.
When you talk to people about advertising, few people doubt that it is effective, and that business uses advertising because it works. However there are a great many people who refuse to believe that advertising works on them. It seems that there is a stigma associated with being influenced by advertising. It is seen as an admission of mental weakness, and any suggestion that advertising influences our thoughts and behaviour signficantly is patronising. This is especially true of people who think of themselves as intelligent and educated. For them the idea of a group of people being able to sit down in an office somewhere and influence they way they think,is disturbing, perhaps rightly so. But at this point, too many people find it easier to deny the effectiveness of advertising than to take time to consider its effects.
Because of the need to form positive associations with the product the advertising industry has always tended toward using the most beautiful people they can find to promote their products. This is especially the case for the "health and beauty" and fashion industries. This is an entirely natural choice; clothes look better when hung on a shapely body, and if you want to sell your range of cosmetics it helps if you apply them to a face that was already beautiful in the first place. It could even be argued that by filling our TV screens and our shopping streets with images of beauty, that the advertisers are providing a public service. Its fair to say that there aren't many people who can honestly say that they don't derive pleasure from looking at images of attractive members of the opposite sex. This is true even for those people who would never consider buying such pictures for their own consumption.
The old saying goes that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." However this isn't strictly true. If it were we would seldom be able to agree on who is good looking and who isn't, but the fact is that most of the time we do. If you take a group of people a set of photos of members of the opposite sex and ask them to take turns putting them into order of attractiveness, the results will show a good deal of consistency between individuals. There will be differences, but the broad pattern will be the same. Further anecdotal evidence that we generally agree on human attractiveness is that the images chosen for magazines are generally ones which most people do find attractive. This all makes sense, because beauty in humans is a less subjective concept than for example beauty in Art. When we look at someone of the opposite sex, we are essentially judging whether they would be a good mate. We are looking for features which indicate health eg. Good skin, symmetry or which indicate reproductive fitness e.g. breast size and shape, or the shape of a woman's hips.
Even when we look at someone of our own sex and judge their attractiveness, we do so based on the criteria which a member of the opposite sex would use. For example, ask a woman whether she thinks another woman is attractive; her decision will be based on her knowledge of what men find attractive in a woman, rather than some more abstract measure of beauty. That said, human mate preference is a complex subject. There are a huge number of fit, healthy and reproductively successful men and women out there who look nothing like models. The link between looks and fitness is certainly there, but it is not an entirely direct link. Perhaps our tendency to make similar judgements about attractiveness is also partly a product of the homogenous images we are exposed to. Certainly other societies often have very different ideas of what makes a person physically attractive. If advertising is tending to homogenize our views on who is attractive it is a real problem, because when we all want to mate with the same 1% of the population a lot of people will be sorely dissapointed.
What does all this matter? It matters because all of us have some idea of how attractive we are, and this is based on looking at ourselves, and looking at those around us and comparing. Our perception of how attractive we are is entirely relative. The same person could feel either attractive or unattractive depending on the attractiveness of those around them. As Robert Heinlein once commented:
"I never met a woman who didn't know exactly how attractive she was."
For reasons we will soon see, this is probably an overstatement of the fact, but it is certainly fair to say that men and women are constantly looking around, and comparing their appearance with other people of the same sex. I believe that this is probably something we have evolved to do, and has a strong influence on our behaviour and self image.
The problem now lies with the fact that when we look around us we see not just people, but also the images presented to us by the ad industry. These images have always been, images of a select few, those who have had the good fortune to be born beautiful and who also spend a huge amount of time and effort on the looks that are their livelihood. Also, since for the model appearance is their livelihood, it makes sense for them to have various "enhancements". Among female models breast implants are very common, they provide the combination of extremely low body fat, and full breasts that the industry demands. For the male models, steroids and diuretics are the norm, along with the endless sun bed hours that are demanded of both sexes. The process does not stop here. The images of this beautiful minority are not shown to us directly. It is now the rule rather than the exception that images are "airbrushed" that is to say edited on a computer before being displayed. Imperfections of skin are airbrushed away, the legs of female models are often made longer, to make the already tall thin models taller and thinner still.
So where is the harm?
If we were talking about abstract art, there would be no harm. The industry has simply taken people who are already beautiful and made them more so, brought them closer to some unattainable ideal. The problem is that these are pictures of people, and whatever we do we cannot help but compare ourselves to them. It is as if we have been transported to a land filled with beautiful people, and we are suddenly the ugly duckling here. We are rational animals, we know in our minds that these are just images, we know that they aren't real in the fullest sense: But the part of our mind that does the comparison, does it just the same. So all too often we meet people who are needlessly worried about their shape and looks, and eating disorders and steroid abuse (the male equivalent) are on the rise. Although all the industry wanted to do, was to sell us the product, the end effect has been to undermine our self-esteem. Increasingly both men and women are likely to find themselves looking in the mirror and not liking what we see. Worse than that, what effect does this have on human relationships when all the people that you meet during the day, our husbands our wives and our lovers are all remorselessly compared to billboard perfection.
There was a time when I believed that all this was a conspiracy, with the "beauty" industry deliberately undermining our self-esteem, making us all feel ugly to sell us products to hide our faces behind. But this doesn't ring true. No single company has enough power to carry out such a piece of social engineering. Although the damage to the self-esteem of so many people has occurred, it was never part of the plan, merely a useful side effect. It is unfair to say that the "beauty" and advertising industries deliberately made us insecure, however they have certainly benefited from the process. Women and increasingly men too have spent large sums of money in pursuit of beauty, trying to reclaim their lost self-worth and never was a pursuit more in vain. Whatever we do we will never be able to compare to the standards of billboard beauty and the pursuit of shallow surface appearance is itself largely fruitless. Physical beauty is largely an accident of birth, and fades quickly with age. Because beauty is largely an accident, it is not an achievement, nor a goal to be worked towards. Cruelest of all for those who take physical beauty as their goal, is its fleeting nature, it is self-destructive to get hung up on the idea of physical beauty because, regardless of what we do, it will fade with age.
The effect of the advertising industry on our self-image has been observed for some time, but it has traditionally been the battle ground of feminist groups. For example a feminist group decided that the computer extended legs of the models in Sloggi's latest "string-time" set of commercials were a bit too unreal for them, and worthy of a little parody. The original advert can be seen here . The adbust can be seen here. However the importance of this issue will only grow as advertising itself continues to grow and insinuate itself into every part of our daily lives. This is an issue that concerns every town and city dweller and has repercussions which are wider still.
For those who want to know more, reading No Logo is a good place to start. The book takes the lid off of the modern brand based economy. If you have ever wondered why you can buy five different brands of beer and they all taste of nothing, why it keeps getting harder to find a good job and what you can do about it, this is a good place to start.
Marshall Mcluhan also deserves honorable mention for his analysis of advertising.
Lastly, any time you feel insecure, look at the other people around you. If we have to compare ourselves to something, it should at least be to other human beings, and not to the unreal world of adverts.
I think that the advertising industry, should be better regulated, to improve the signal to noise ratio of modern life. Advertising like the media has the power to influence public opinion, and this brings with it some level of responsibility. Just as most countries have rules governing media ownership, to ensure that the press remains free and impartial; advertising must also be subject to some degree of control. However, there will always be issues like those in this article which are probably too complex to legislate on, and whose solutions lie elsewhere.
This might sound terribly new age but to solve these kinds of problems the changes have to be within ourselves. As long as we base our feelings of self-worth on our appearance, it will always be a source of insecurity for those who aren't born beautiful. The way out of this insecurity lies not in buying products, but in finding value in other things. Value your achievements, value the way you treat other people, instead of trying to be beautiful, try to create beauty.