The Gender Ads Project

Advertising, Education, Activism

Background: In presenting many versions of the Gender Ads Project over the years, I inevitably here the phrase, "What's wrong with ads?" As in the case of many other aspects of popular culture, individuals are often unable to understand the significance of our culture and even in the case of their being able to do so, they are under-prepared in knowing how to react to culture. As bell hooks suggests, individuals are generally incapable of developing and applying a visual literacy. Without it, she continues, we will be unable to enact meaningful social change. Just like learning skills in mathematics or basic English, citizens desiring a free society will have to learn new critical skills. I have suggested some of these in a related website. Ultimately, controversies arise in the study of popular culture, and I believe it to be important to address a few I have encountered over the years.
Controversy #1 - Ads are Fun - Many people suggest that ads such as the ones in the Project are fun forms of entertainment. Perhaps no one takes them seriously, or they are simply presented as objects for amusement in a capitalist society.
Response: Although many forms of popular culture may be "fun" (which itself is a cultural construct), we know that fun for one person can often be pain or death for another. As I hope the Project will illustrate, the stakes of our culture are too high to simply relegate the discussion of it to realms of entertainment.
Controversy #2 - Ads May Contain Troubling Images, But You Know What?, They are Simply Reflections of Advertisers Who Want Us to Buy Things - A very common criticism of the Gender Ads Project is that it overlooks the primary purpose of advertising - the selling of products or services. Many people have told me that because advertisers want to sell their products, any content, including violence, rape, death, is acceptable grounds for our advertising culture.
Response: This argument is very prevalent and it is an indication of the troubling nature of our society. Since childhood we have been indoctrinated to believe in the importance of materialism. Life in a capitalist society is governed by money, competition and various forms of violence (state-based and individual), and the preservation of our society is maintained through the illusions that tell us to consume and essentially respect our commodities.
Controversy #3 - Ads May Contain Troubling Images, but Individuals (Models) Chose to Play a Major Part in Their Creation - This argument relies on the idea that because an individual chooses (i.e. free will) to be a model in a particular ad, we should be less critical of advertising.
Response: This argument is often raised in discussions of numerous gender topics. You are probably familiar with it: There is nothing wrong with pornography because women are choosing to play roles in pornographic films. Theorists of gender have suggested that women can also be complicit in their oppression, and as Allen Johnson has written in numerous texts on patriarchy, we should focus on the system issues of oppression in our society. In this case we should recognize that the mere presence of women in situations of oppression cannot justify oppression.
Here is how you can read about stopping domestic violence and violence against women. Here is a collection of resources related to violence against women.
Controversy #4 - Ads are Harmless - I have also heard viewers of the Project tell me that ads may contain offensive imagery or themes, but that essentially they are harmless because no one takes them seriously and no one's behavior is effected by them.
Response: Ads, like any form of popular culture, are complex semiotic, political and cultural constructs that operate in an equally complex system. Cultural theorists would never relate the viewing of an ad, or an MTV video as in the case of Dreamworlds II, to an act of violence, rape, sexual assault, hate speech, etc., but it is clear that popular culture is one of many influential elements in our socialization and living. By more critically viewing our popular culture we might come to realize that ads are never harmless. Here is
one website that offers statistics on rape. Here is a second.
Controversy #5 - You Are Over-Reading the Ads - The suggestion is that an analyst of popular culture is over-reading ads by interpreting various meanings and symbolizations in them.
Response: The argument is a reflection of the problems associated with the interpretation of popular culture. Namely, our inability to critically read the culture around us. It will be important for the free society to develop more resources to interpret and respond to our world.
Controversy #6 - By Implication of Addressing the Negativity of Ads, You are Suggesting that They Be Censored - Many people suggest that the analysis of ads will ultimately lead to a censored of them and the media.
Response: There is a major debate related to the media and the issue of censored that continues to inform our public culture. Indeed, in understanding pornography one has to be open to the many voices that argue against the censorship of pornography while at the same time focusing on the negative effects that pornography produces in us and our society. Personally, I believe that some of this debate has been miscast. In fact, as Sut Jhally suggests in Dreamworlds II, in a truly open society one would expect to be presented with multiple and diverse views about gender and sexuality in our popular culture. The truth is that our society presents only a limited view of these important social constructs. So in a sense we are already the victims of censorship and what we might encourage, if we desire a true free and equal society, is the presentation of a multiplicity of views on any subject.