Sunday, September 16, 2012

Death and the Salesman: The Use of Morbid Sexism in Advertising

As I was reviewing magazine and newspaper ads in preparation for class this week, I was struck by this ad:

Ad in Elle for Louis Vuitton;
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Summer 2010)
Why on earth would any company want to advertise its product by displaying it with a dead woman?  I couldn't understand the motivation here -- what were the advertisers thinking?  On the face of it, associating your product with death just seems like a bad idea.  I can just imagine the conversation in the marketing department --  I know, Bob, we'll show our bag with a dead woman, so everyone will think that our accessories can kill you!  Ok, maybe this ad is just a fluke, one of those advertisements that miss the mark.  But then I found more.

Ad in the New York Times Style Magazine for Cesare Paciotti;
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Spring 2007)
In casting about for some rationale for these ads, I wondered whether they reflected an effort to apply Terror Management Theory.  This theory claims that when death is more salient, our self-esteem is threatened, and we engage in various psychological defenses to protect our self-esteem (this is known as the mortality salience hypothesis; Burke, Martens, & Faucher 2010).  In other words, the presence of death in these ads makes us feel threatened and anxious, so we do something to feel better about ourselves. Hmm . . . would that include purchasing an expensive fashion accessory to try to boost our self-esteem and enhance our status?  Many ads strive to make us feel bad about ourselves and then offer their product as a guaranteed path to self-worth (are you unpopular because of your bad breath? Our mouthwash will make you popular!).  Indeed, low self-esteem tends to make us more susceptible to persuasion (Kassin, Fein, & Markus, 2011).  By this logic, while including images of dead people in ads runs the risk of associating your product with death, it *might* prompt increased purchases through an effort to raise self-esteem.  But it seems like a risky gambit, quite frankly.  And if this is the advertisers' reasoning, why are all these images of dead women?  Where are the images of dead men?  In fact, when men enter the images, they are alive and well  -- and prepared to dispose of the women's bodies.

Ad in Elle for Jimmy Choo;
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Winter 2007)
So this isn't simply a matter of including images of dead *people*; we have to include a gender analysis here to explain why these are images of dead *women*.  It turns out that high fashion photography often includes images of dead or dying women (note that these links include potentially disturbing images).  What motivates advertisers to include images of dead (or dying) women?  One could argue that this is a rather obvious example of hostility toward women; the advertisers are providing a fantasy outlet for their anger and resentment toward women through the vehicle of the ad imagery.  (I wonder, though, whether this resonates with the women who are the primary consumers of these fashion products.)  This might explain the presence of men enacting violence against women in some of the ads.  

Ad in City Magazine for Duncan Quinn menswear;
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Winter 2009)

In addition, the imagery of dead women invokes the themes of passivity and powerlessness that are common in media images of women (Collins, 2011; Conley & Ramsey, 2011; Mager & Helgeson, 2011).  Women are more likely to be posed in passive positions of lower power in the media than are men.  Death is the ultimate example of passivity and lack of power.  I'm reminded of Andrea Dworkin's analysis of Grimm's fairy-tale mothers:
When she is good, she is soon dead.  In fact, when she is good, she is so passive in life that death must be only more of the same.  Here we discover the cardinal principle of sexist ontology -- the only good woman is a dead woman. (Dworkin, 1974, p. 41)
The advertisers themselves typically deny that sexism drives these ad campaigns.  Instead, they argue that they are striving to be "edgy"; by including extreme images of dead women or women as victims of violence, they are pushing the envelope so as to be "cutting edge."

I'm not buying it.

Images of dead or dying women are so widespread that they have long ceased to be cutting edge.  Not only is this a frequent trope in fashion photography, but images of violence against women are commonplace in the mainstream media (e.g., crime dramas).  While these images are horrifying, they are hardly new.  It would be far edgier to include images of dead men (I don't condone this approach, mind you, but it would be much more unusual and therefore more cutting edge).  Or here's a radical idea -- how about active, powerful, happy women?  That is a much less common image in the media, particularly in fashion photography.  I would argue that the use of images of dead-looking women is far from edgy.  In fact, these images are in many ways utterly conventional -- they reinforce our view of women as passive and powerless victims of violence.  (Not to mention that these images typically represent the dead woman as attractive and sexy, which is even more disturbing.)

In short, we can only understand these images as a reflection of broader stereotypes of women as passive, submissive, and powerless (or less powerful), sexualized objects. 

And this is why any analysis of the media must include a gender lens.  An awareness of the cultural meanings of gender is essential to understanding what these images mean and why they persist.  A critical examination of the ways in which males and females are represented in the media serves to illuminate the pervasive presence of gender stereotyping in our culture.  It also raises some unsettling questions about our cultural attitudes towards women. As one of my students in Psychology of Women wrote, "Most of the time I don't understand why [the advertisers] pose [women] in such ways but reading this chapter helped me understand that it is a power problem." 

It's all too easy to see advertising as trivial.  Most of us don't think much about ads -- we might find them funny or stupid or puzzling, but we let them pass without much comment.  After all, it's just an ad.  Even if we do take advertising seriously, we might be tempted to see these particular ads (and others like them) as extreme and unrepresentative examples.  Certainly, many ads do not include images of dead-looking women.  But such images are a consistent theme within fashion advertising, and we can't afford to ignore the messages being conveyed.  These images matter -- as I've discussed before, the media does affect us, even if we are not aware of it.  As Mager & Helgeson (2011, p. 239) note, "Advertising reflects and recreates the social world in a manipulated way."  In the world created by advertising, dead-looking women serve as sexy and attractive advertising props. 

We do not need to accept the world of advertising, however; we can change it.  Changing the media representation of women and men will only happen if we speak up.  Be a critical consumer of the media and encourage those around you to question the messages being conveyed.  Contact the advertisers to let them know how you feel:  Complain about the problematic ads and praise the positive ads.  We can do better than this.  We *need* to do better than this. 

Thanks to Q who provided the title of this post (and patiently read multiple drafts, making cogent suggestions for revisions).   

Resources & References:

Dr. Jean Kilbourne explores the images of women and men in advertising; her documentary, Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising's Image of Women is a classic and well worth watching (you can see an excerpt here, or the whole documentary here).  Her website has quite a few resources related to the media representations of women (check out the Resources for Change section). 

Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 14, 155-195.

Collins, R. L. (2011).  Content analysis of gender roles in media:  Where are we now and where should we go?  Sex Roles, 64, 290-298.

Conley, T. D. & Ramsey, L. R. (2011).  Killing us softly?  Investigating portrayals of women and men in contemporary magazine advertisements.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 469-478. 

Dworkin, A. (1974). Woman Hating.  New York, NY:  E. P. Dutton.

Kassin, S., Fein. S., & Markus, H. R. (2011). Social Psychology, 8th Edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Mager, J., & Helgeson, J. G. (2011).  Fifty years of advertising images:  Some changing perspectives on role portrayals along with enduring consistencies.  Sex Roles, 64, 238-252.  


  1. Thank you for reminding me about this pervasive,negative effect of advertising and stirring me to action.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! I think we all need a reminder at times -- it's all too easy to become desensitized to the negative effects of advertising.

  2. This is the very thing that is disturbing me the most. Things so innocently fed to the unconscious mind. when looking at a t.v. show or an ad... This is where we as women we can wage the strongest war against sadism in the public arena... we are teaching people , by allowing such junk. to regard human beings as a disposable. for your own pleasure. I Feel that we have become the protect the wealthy perp... as long as he makes money all eyes will be turned.
    thankyou for your blog. I came to look at kyour beading work and ended up an activist... Mary

    1. I agree that the message of human beings as disposable is very dangerous and we definitely need more activists to battle against such messages. I'm so glad you enjoyed my blog -- I hope you come back again soon, Mary. Thanks for reading and commenting!