I recently read Slate writer Katy Waldman's piece in reaction to Models Who Can't Decide, a tumblr that collects stock images of women looking quizzically at apples and donuts, among other foods, trying to decide if they should eat healthily or indulge. In the piece, "We Can't Decide How We Feel About 'Models Who Can't Decide'," Waldman talks about the representation of food as good and evil and our obsession with women's relationship to food. After all, there is only one man looking quizzically at food on the tumblr page.
Then I remembered that I wrote a paper about this for a media class I took in my sophomore year of college for a Mass Media class. We analyzed advertising images and the one I choose happened to revolve around a woman struggling to decide between good and evil: A protein bar and dessert. I don't have the image and I couldn't find it, but I describe it below. I bolded the parts that I think are most relevant. In total the message is that a) overindulgence for women is bad no matter what the indulgence is, b) women feel more guilty about eating "forbidden" foods, and c) beauty is always emphasized over health.
"Eat Good. Look Great."
Flipping through the pages of Redbook I found an advertisement for protein bars in candy and ice cream flavors. The ad contains at the very top two panels of the same woman. In one panel, she is a devil and in the other panel, she is depicted as an angel. In the devil panel the woman is wearing red against a red background, computer imposed devil horns growing out. There are small differences between her and the angel on the other side that you may not notice until you look for a while.
The devil wears black eyeliner, heavy blush and red glossy lipstick. Her hair is tousled and looks enlarged with hairspray. She’s wearing large silver earrings shaped like a paper clip. Her look is trendy not classic, maybe on the trashy side. Her tongue and bottom teeth stick out as she makes a wide grin and her eyes are dilated, with the eyebrows angling downwards. Frequently women wearing a lot of makeup are associated with promiscuity. The tousled hair and modern jewelry juxtaposed with the angel suggest that all of these aesthetics are “bad”. Since the common theme of this ad is guilt, it’s no wonder the stereotype of the “bad” woman looks this way. Since the devil represents evil, this just further perpetuates the stereotype that evil in women is represented by promiscuity.
The devil is holding a pie, which is topped with whipped cream in and gobs of fudge. The red cherry on top is close to her face; its bright red popping against her crimson lips. The Janice Dickenson style smile is supposed to look seductive, just like the dessert. It’s quite possible that the dessert and sex are correlated. Bryan Wilson Keys explains in his book, “Subliminal Seduction,” that sex and death are both issues we constantly repress, so ads look to bring out these feelings in order to convince us to buy the product. He derives this idea from Freud’s theory that sex and death are repressed ideas that always exist in the subconscious [i]. The idea is that overindulgence in sex can lead to guilt, and so can overindulgence in food.
In contrast, the angel is wearing a grey shirt and a necklace of gold and pearls. The hair is neat and tidy. The makeup is minimal and the lips are salmon pink, not red. The look is very classic and the virginal absence of over-embellishment may symbolize a re-purification of your life through the product. She is holding the dish in a praying gesture. Her posture is upright, not hunched slightly like the devil and her centered body brings attention to the panel with the product, a wrapped protein bar. Her face is calm and demure. The centered body suggests renewal of balance in your life.
Guilt is a huge motivator when it comes to persuading women to buy a product. Women tend to stay focused on their guilt longer then men and it’s likely to make them more depressed and feel helpless. A 2004 University of Minnesota study showed that women are twice as likely as men to be depressed, and tend to turn to sweet desserts for comfort, resulting in guilt, which could lead to more eating [ii].
The guilt-relieving protein bar is then very attractive to a good number of women, especially when it suggests immunity from indulgence as this one does. The angel’s protein bar is called chocolate peanut butter, offering great taste without the consequences. The consequence women worry about is the weight gain associated with desserts. But in its clever packaging and label, this protein bar doesn’t seem gluttonous at
In the large font under the panels, the slogan reads “Eat Good. Look Great.” The word “Great” is underlined. Looking great is obviously going to be more emphasized than eating well because women are motivated to eat well only for the purpose of looking great. Looking great will always be the primary reason for selling products to women in ads. These ads are tailored for pre-existing beliefs, perpetuating and exaggerating the “need” for women to look great. The image of what is “good” for women in this ad is to be aesthetically pleasing, a common theme in every medium.
In the type below the slogan there is the use of words and phrases “like high-quality”, “protein”, and “active lifestyle” to convince the reader of its health benefits. The immunity from guilt is repeated with “sinfully delicious” and “heavenly flavors,” reminding the reader that it is possible to combine chocolate and health. The emphasis of the phrase “high protein” is the effect of the Dr. Atkins Diet on the marketing of food. Protein is much desirable than carbohydrates now in the weight loss department, so women have been looking for protein to lose weight [iii].
“According to a study published last year by Morgan Stanley, ‘19 per cent of U.S. adults are either currently on a low-carb diet or have tried one earlier this year, which is three to five times higher than many previous public estimates.’”
Ads for protein bars aimed at women have always reinforced the conventional beauty ideal: slender, young or young-looking, and most typically white. In 2001, EAS protein bars, normally advertised to muscle-seeking men, were pitched to women. Christie Brinkley and Cindy Crawford were portrayed in the television ad as soccer moms leading busy lives, showing you can have the perfect body and be a busy mother [iv].
I chose this ad because the contrast between the panels grabbed my attention. When I saw the obvious differences between the women in the panels and the message of guilt, it reminded me of ads women see in beauty magazines. It is a “before and after” type of ad because the message is carried through it’s juxtaposition of the same woman in different panels. This juxtaposition is much more obvious though than “before and after” ads because its idea of what is good and bad is shown through the devil and angel. The ad’s message is direct and simple which makes it more effective.
The ad’s suggestive details, like the difference in makeup and hair have underlying messages but they don’t qualify as being a part of the traditional idea of what subliminal advertising is. In the book, “Advertising and Popular Culture” edited by Sammy R. Danna, a researcher suggests that subliminal advertising hasn’t been shown effective to the mass media. “Procedures for the development of commercial exploitation appear so unlikely that subliminal stimulation can initiate subsequent action, to say nothing of commercially or politically significant action.[v]”
While the elements of sex and death we may be repressing are part of the emotional appeals found in advertising, they probably do not constitute as subliminal advertising but as more of an unhidden subtext.
[i] Wilson Bryan Keys, Subliminal Seduction. Illinois: Prentice Hall, 1981 : p113-115
[ii] Academic Premier (3/24/07) Denise Foley, “lose weight like a guy”. Prevention May 2006: p158-217.
[iii] Academic Premier (3/28/07) Donald Coxe, “Sex is Out, Carbs are In”.
Maclean’s February 2, 2004:p.34.
[iv] Academic Premier (3/28/07) Goetzl, David, “New EAS Ads Aim to Attract Women”. The Advertising Age January 1, 2001: p.4.
[v] Eric J. Zanot, Sammy R. Danna, Advertising in Popular Culture. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992: p.61