Why are Women Alienated by Advertising?

Elusive 'Insights'

On Tuesday I went to listen to some ‘Noisy Thinking’ on “Why Women are Alienated by Advertising,” courtesy of the APG. The quality of the speakers’ delivery was enviably faultless. I personally find speaking in front of more than four people fucking daunting. The comically large, yellow foamed mic handed around during the Q&A session was even more intimidating and so I refrained from asking any questions. I also hate forcing a room to listen to me. With this blog you have the option of switching internet tabs when you don’t like what I am rabbiting on about.

Let me just say clearly now that my delight that planners have decided to tackle the taboo of ‘woman’s problems’ in advertising definitely outweighs any criticism that people might interpret this blog to contain. This post is not meant to be critical. I am merely evaluating each of the speakers’ positions, not even with my own views, but with the views of some feminist writers. Unfortunately, I am in the process of shaking off being brainwashed to be an insufferable academic. Academics think critically. Blogging is part of my healing process. Its a sort of voluntary solitary confinement for my intolerable intellectual alter ego that means I don’t bother people in the office with my sometimes grandiose, sometimes pedantic, waffling.

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For me, a great talk results just as much from what was said as what was left unsaid. And there was much unsaid given the breadth and depth of the topic being squeezed into two hours or so. This post is meant in the spirit of Voltaire’s “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” but more in the spirit of saying that Voltaire is often misquoted to have said this. In short, I am going to shift the discussion a bit. I’m spring-boarding from what I heard on Tuesday evening in order to give you mine, and some feminist philosophers’ two cents worth.

Adland – Full of sniggering white, middle-class, middle-aged men?

The old tried-and-tested advertising formulas have persisted when it comes to representing women throughout the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, ’50s and even ’40s despite society having changed beyond all recognition. This was something I felt that Richard Huntington from Saatchi & Saatchi believed strongly. He voiced his concern during the Q&A session that advertising was not only not leading the way when representing gender or LGBT or racial identity, but also stuck in the middle-ages considering the seismic cultural shifts of the past century. Planners might benefit from being up to speed with philosophical developments on identity, and feminism in particular, so that societal change doesn’t simply pass the industry by.

Planner’s often undertake a quest for ‘universal truth’, or a ‘big fat insight’. The most integrated campaigns, such as Snickers’ “You aren’t you when you’re hungry,” have so much mileage partially because they come from one of these golden nuggets: a great truism. This should be fine and dandy as it is looking at the broadest possible identity: being human and being hungry. Unfortunately, Adland is a bit dozy when it comes to recognising sexism/racism/ageism: Even identity-neutral adverts still find ways to irritate and alienate people. Is calling a hungry-man-transformed-into-a-woman a ‘diva’ derogatory for women? Er, Yes. Have you had a sense of humour failure if you are offended? Possibly. Alienating women can be a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy, one that Yorkie and possibly Pot Noodle bravely leveraged.

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It is, however, these small and seemingly innocuous instances of casual sexism, like Snickers’, that help to reinforce the layperson’s view that advertising agencies are full of puerile men ogling at a line up of potential MILF’s or busty babes to feature in their next supermarket or car advert. Sometimes it genuinely feels like Adland is full of men who think women are really, really thick.

When it comes to targeting specific audiences, and finding specific insights about these audiences, advertising appears to me to be stuck in ‘Modernist’ thoughts about identity. Modernist thought is all about categorising. We categorise along cleanly fractured dividing lines such as rich vs poor, young vs old, male vs female. Post-modernist thought is all about relativity. Wealth is relative to those around you. Age is not a measure of how many years you have been in existence for, its how old you feel. ‘Gender’ boundaries are dissolving: men and women can both have long hair, wear jeans and suits or use face-cream. A man may love a woman, a woman may love a woman, a man may love a man, a man may love a man who’s had a sex change to look like a woman ect ect.

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I think that our old arch nemesis, hierarchy, might be to blame for advertising’s woeful representation of ‘identity issues’. Hierarchy is considered a quintessentially male structure, however, women are equally liable to desire to be the queen bee or an alpha female.

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For me, its not about the ‘glass ceiling’ or lack of women in creative departments.The underlying problem is something that by its very nature is deep-rooted and self-legitimising: traditionalism. People who have got to the top of the hierarchy are there because they have accrued ‘experience’. ‘Experience’ = ‘tried-and-tested ways of doing things’ = ‘conservatism’. There are some brilliant people who feel that, no matter how long they have been in the game, their past experiences count for nothing given the rate of change in our world and the audiences we want to reach. There are some egomaniacs.

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(By Hugh MacLeod)

Feminism: A Dirty Word?

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Feminism is considered a dirty word. Miley Cyrus thinks that ‘twerking’ is ‘Feminism’ and ‘female sexual empowerment’ (which offended black women) just as much as Sinead O’Connor argues that the music industry is run by exploitative, male perverts out to make a quick buck from Cyrus’ booty. It’s unsurprising that it was mentioned only in passing by the APG speakers. It’s a can of worms.

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Adland is not only guilty of casual sexism but also of putting out mixed messages with respect to which wave of feminism they are surfing and where they stand on feminist debates.

I am not sure whether it was a remarkably insightful piece of programming on behalf of the APG or whether I am just hardwired to see these kinds of connections, but the order in which the speakers took to the stage echoed how debates have loosely panned out amongst feminist thinkers. Last week, feminism was offered up as a one minute brief topic and so I have used some of the responses to guide us on a whistle stop tour of some feminist concepts that, for me, provided a subtext to The APG talks.

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Let it be said that the fact that these debates have been playing out for eons demonstrates that there is no right or wrong view to adopt. This may be why some adverts speak to some women whilst alienating others.

Part I – Essentialism: Gender as a Science.

For some reason the link to Part I is a little dodgy. Click here instead https://planosophy.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/essentialism-gender-as-a-science/

Part II – Patriarchy: It’s a Man’s World, and the Shoe Doesn’t Fit the Other Foot

Part III – Relativism: “Speaking as a woman from a strategic point of view”

Part I – Essentialism: Gender as a Science

Elusive 'Insights'

Feminist essentialism’s mantra is “equal but different.” This is a lovely sentiment that masks a nasty contradiction.

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Essentialism is the argument that women are, well, essentially different to men. Women can attribute differences in their DNA, how their brains are wired or how their bodies (hormones and the like) function to being better at multi-tasking, languages, looking after children or being empathetic.

Essentialism calls upon science to testify on debates such as “why are there no top female creatives?” or “why are there fewer women in boardrooms?” It also gets dragged out in equal force to explain the “DOW Jane effect,” (Which JWT’s Rachel Pashley discussed, but not in an essentialist feminist way) or why there are more female nurses.

My gut tells me yes, of course women are fundamentally different to men. I know that I can’t lift the same weights as men in the gym, so why should this muscular, bodily difference not also manifest itself in how our brains are composed and therefore how we think?

Jane Cunningham, who co-wrote the (hopefully deliberately) patronisingly titled “Insider Her Pretty Little Head” with Philippa Roberts as “A New Theory of Female Motivation and What it Means for Marketing,” spoke first at the APG. Cunningham very much falls within the old school essentialist feminist mindset. Here’s my subtext to her book’s first chapter “The Science Bit” – no doubt a title chosen to evoke those shampoo ads that encourage women to ‘concentrate’ for the ‘difficult science bit’.

“Given the controversial nature of any work that aims to look at the differences between men and women, it seems to us that the best departure point is the terra firma of scientific discovery and empirical evidence.”

Cue heavy-weight forefather of post-modernism, Nietzsche, in The Gay Science:

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(Grow a Fabulous Moustache + Focus on Sitting Very, Very Still because of the Long Exposure Required of Early Camera Film = Generic 19th Century Philosopher Pose 1)

“We see that science also rests on a faith. The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: ‘Nothing is needed more than truth.'”

“Thus the question “Why science” leads back to the moral problem: Why have morality at all when life, nature and history are “not moral”? Those who are truthful in the ultimate sense that is presupposed by the faith in science thus affirm another world than the world of life, nature, and history; and insofar as they affirm this “other world” – must they not by that same token negate this world, our world?”

Put simply, (Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to understand, along with Kant)

1. Science is a quest for first principles driven on a faith that first principles exist.

2. Faith in science presupposes that it will reveal truths that will, and can, solve anything and everything.

3. Science is undertaken under the conviction that there is a truth to be found and thus runs the risk of affirming whatever premise by which the research was initially undertaken. The answers you get will depend upon the questions you ask.

4. In making scientific truth your moral compass, you might have to disengage from our world that does not exactly follow scientific truth.

It will come to no surprise that Cunningham feels it appropriate to isolate her argument from “the swirling storm of gender study or political opinion.” To me it seems strange to write a book about marketing to women that shuns the political, socio-economic context in which women and marketing operate. Objectivity and practicality are great thing to aim for, but they do simplify things somewhat. This is the practical guide that Cunningham gives us that she has distilled from “the neutral foundation of science.”

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Despite being a woman and what she would call an ’empathiser’, Cunningham speaks in the language of male ‘systematisers.’ She is using the focused, linear, logical and “unbiased and measured voice of science” to give us a practical, actionable guide to marketing to women. Her table systemises.

In the Q&A session a lady posed a question along the lines of “how do I get male creatives to be more empathetic when working on a marketing brief aimed at women?” Her answer was to ‘speak in the systematising language of men’. Cunningham advised that women undergo coaching to think more like men in order to communicate better with them. Er, what? Her suggestion that women bend to ‘male ways of thinking’ in order to be heard sat uneasily with me.

Essentialism it isn’t an argument that is seen to promote change. It goes back to foundations in order to legitimise stereotypes that have been built upon them. When you call upon science or ‘fundamentals’ to circumscribe and define differences you end up naturalising them. All women are great multi-taskers because of their brain chemistry (I, for one, am terrible at multi-tasking) or all women are emotional because of their hormones (my Dad definitely cries more than my Mum).

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(Infographic courtesy of JWT’s ‘Brands and the Modern Male’)

‘Proof’ of differences leads to ‘proof’ of how these differences make us unequal in different situations. Science, in the wrong hands, could legitimise why men earn more than women. If science proves that all women are emotional then arguably they really do have no place in a boardroom where they will be required to make more rational decisions – unless, of course, they learn to think like men. If men are really hardwired to ‘spread their seed’ then we should keep sexually provocative women in adverts to pander to this impulse.

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“There are no facts, only interpretations.” – Nietzsche

You can twist scientific data to make it say a lot of different things. The views of the person or people twisting the data are sometimes more important than the experiment itself. If science proves all women are emotional, then how have they defined ’emotion’ and how do they know that what they are measuring is in fact a measurement of emotion? Karl Popper wrote “Observations are always interpretations of the facts observed. They are interpretations in light of theories.” There will, of course, be a post on Art vs Science coming soon.

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“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” – Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex

I know that I don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s nature and there’s nurture. Nature may well be the starting point, but we are sentient beings endowed with self-consciousness (and opposable thumbs, yippee) that we use to determine what our aspirations are and how to go about obtaining them.

If it were really all down to nature wouldn’t all women be the same? If this were the case then either all women would feel alienated by one advert, or none at all. If marketing to women was equatable to a science and built on fundamental principles we would now have a tried-and-tested formula that we are all happy with. We were gathered at the APG precisely because many women are not happy with these formulas.

The essentialist/scientific argument is often labelled ‘regressive’ by feminist writers. Later feminist theorists might say something like, ‘Science is a phallo-centric discourse that serves to uphold the hegemony of men in our society.’ A deeply contentious statement, but there are two words that ring out from it: ‘phallo-centric’ and ‘hegemony.’

Part II – Patriarchy: It’s a Man’s World, and The Shoe doesn’t Fit The Other Foot

Part III – Relativism: “Speaking as a Woman from a Strategic Point of View”

Part II – Patriarchy: It’s a Man’s World, and the Shoe Doesn’t Fit the Other Foot

Elusive 'Insights'

“One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius; and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible.” – Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex

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(Sit at a desk messy enough for an ‘inspired genius’ + pretend you can’t see the camera from all the books you are engrossed in = Generic Philosopher Pose 4)

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“I didn’t fight to get women out from behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover.” – Germaine Greer

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(Unconventional Philosopher Pose 1)

Germaine Greer’s project has always been ‘women’s liberation.’ Greer is a fully-fledged, bra-burning, hairy, male-bashing, ’70s feminist. She’s had a lot of bad press and she’s given feminism a lot of bad press. Greer thinks women should side-step patriarchy and define their own value system. Women shouldn’t feel the need to compete on fair terms with men at men’s game. This is why she isn’t particularly impressed with women in boardrooms. Women should invent their own game, write their own rulebook, then tell men to fuck off if they want to join in. If women were really free, she argues, we might not even have hoovers.

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JWT’s Rachel Pashley expressed her annoyance that women were forever characterised by their responsibilities rather than their aspirations and achievements. Updating how Adland thinks about segmenting the female market is obviously the crux of the issue being discussed. Obviously our current categorisations are somewhat limiting: All women over fifty = beige-fleece-wearing grannies. All 20-50 year old women = (desperate single working careerists) or (coupled up with sprogs). Segmenting women by what they aspire to be, is obviously a great suggestion.

Pashley was irritated that women seem forever condemned to be portrayed as a passive presence in popular culture – the one who hands the gung-ho Brit Villain wannabe his Jaguar car keys. Why are these the role models that women give themselves? These passive, submissive portrayals of femininity should be banished from films. It’s time for the Katniss Everdeens of this world to step forward. I cannot help but wonder if she had read Laura Mulvey’s argument in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split
between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” – Laura Mulvey

Greer would have had mixed feelings about Pashley’s address. On the one hand Greer might agree that we should be selfish as women, to fight the good fight to get where we want to be. On the other Greer would have read Pashley’s ‘female tribes,’ – women categorised according to their aspirations and achievements – to  inadvertently show how patriarchy is actually being upheld by women everywhere. Women are not being liberated in the sense that Greer would have wanted.

“The Dow Jane Effect” is Pashley’s term for how women have become an economic force to be reckoned with. Female consumption represents $12 trillion of the $18.4 trillion global consumer spend. The top 77 global brands all have women in the boardroom. Greater financial rewards are to be had in companies with proportionally more Women board directors – something that was particularly prevalent in Russia.

Oh, and by the way, Russian businesswomen look fantastic in boardrooms.

One cannot help but wonder whether women getting to the top of a man’s game, and, looking great as they do so, is something that all women are that interested in doing. Pashley’s female tribes did include the likes of ‘The Tiger Mother’ – a woman obsessed with obtaining the highest educational standards for her children, or, ‘The Modern Courtesan’ who is typified by the WAG and uses sexual or social engagement as a means of earning her crust. For some reason there seemed to be a male presence lurking uneasily, casting a shadow over women’s achievements.

Aren’t women putting undue pressure on each other in a competitive environment that isn’t even of our own making? Could many of these aspirations not actually be set by women at all? Are women trying to fit into a persistent and well-disguised underlying patriarchal order? Does advertising uphold that order? Does it hell. Advertising invented that order. Greer would probably love to slap all of us.

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“The present enshrines the past—and in the past all history has been made by men” – Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex

It was the men in Gillette’s boardroom in 1915 that decided that women’s underarm hair was ‘objectionable.’ The ‘women’s problems’ (and more increasingly men’s) that surround female care brands are so numerous and complex that I have decided to give Kate Smither’s discussion of Dove its own post (coming soon.)

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“Yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run?” – Germaine Greer

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Pashley’s female tribes evoked something primordial and neanderthal about MANkind that women were trying to shoe-horn themselves into. The stilettos women are shoehorning themselves into, Greer would argue, are simultaneously symbols of female oppression and female empowerment. Pashley’s approach is the practical and feasible response to the question at hand, Greer’s is idealist and arguably unattainable.

Part I – Essentialism: Gender as a Science

For some reason the link to Part I is a little dodgy, click here instead https://planosophy.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/essentialism-gender-as-a-science/

Part III – Relativism: “Speaking as a Woman from a Strategic Point of View”

Part III – Relativism: “Speaking as a Woman from a Strategic Point of View”

Elusive 'Insights'

“… that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender, a one that goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.” – Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

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 (Place Hand on Chin Pensively + Cheeky Smile that Suggests you Know More than the Ignoramuses Around You = Generic Philosopher Pose 5)

Judith Butler is a third-wave feministpost-structuralist and post-modernist philosopher. These post-x-y-z credentials basically mean that she’s at the forefront of current philosophical debates that have a funny habit of returning to the issue of identity. Relativity underpins much of post-modernist thought – it’s most obvious manifestation is Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The APG talks managed to underline clearly that one woman does not speak for all women. One planner does not speak for all planners. One mum does not speak for all mums. A lot of what planning does is categorise people. I am always mindful of who lies outside the target audience – these are the people you can potentially alienate. Why are women alienated by advertising? We make sweeping generalisations about some women that might alienate others.

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As the topic at hand is about identity, female identity specifically, its seems vital to me that you evaluate how your own identity affects your views on identity. Planners don’t just go into a meeting and declare: “Well I hate Heat Magazine so our target audience will too.” They are supposed to discount their own identity so that they can adopt the identity of the target market. Richard Huntington confronted his own beast when he pointed out whether being a man would be a problem when discussing marketing to ‘Mums’. He didn’t have to step outside of being a woman/mum in order to get some critical distance on what this might be. I think this is why, for me, he had the most objective response of the evening to what being a woman, specifically mum, is (or rather is not) and the one most in line with most recent feminist theory.

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If you want to talk to me about where I am coming from, visit ‘egotism’ to email me. Whilst I realise that I should be deconstructing my own point of view, I am very conscious of boring people.

Relativity and Social Constructs

If I say I have a large red circle drawn on my computer screen, you don’t know how large that circle is. If I say that red circle has a 30cm radius, you still don’t know what shade of red it is. What if you don’t think in metric measurements?What if you’re colourblind? Is that circle still red? Is my idea of red the same as yours? Might you have called it dark pink or reddish-brown? If you said it was pink and I put a lighter shade of red next to this circle, would you have still called it pink? This is relativity: approximations made relative to other approximations of approximations ect ect.

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Postmodernist philosophers like the phrase “it’s just a social construct.” Every concept out there is constructed by people. We construct meaning by weaving a web of associations between bits of a code. Have you ever looked up a word in a dictionary only to have to look up another word contained in the definition of that word? Well, this is what our brains do all day, but really effing quickly and with a dictionary we have written for ourselves throughout our lives. We all read the code differently dependent on our past experiences, our past learnings of the code. This is one big reason why planners exist.

Planners explain how different people’s past learnings of our world affects how we have coded our world and consequently how we could use this code to communicate more effectively with people. We should, however, understand that this is a two-way process. Planners are also responsible for influencing the construction of a lot of these ‘social constructs’ or ‘codes’ as well as analysing them to see how we could use them to communicate with society. If you type ‘construction’ into an online thesaurus, it throws out the words ‘planning’ and ‘plan’.

Butler argues that gender, when we consider what it means in the abstract (ie, not whether we have tits and a vagina or not), is a ‘social construct’ relative to other ‘social constructs’. Gender, and all aspects of our identity are, quite simply, states of minds we have constructed for ourselves from the web of meanings in the world we have been exposed to. We position ourselves relative to these webs of meaning. I believe I am the product of how I have reacted to every person I have ever met, every film or TV programme I have ever watched, every book I have read. We understand ourselves by comparing ourselves to others, be they friends, family, strangers, celebrities, characters in novels and films, and, most importantly for us planners, people in adverts.

Advertising and Dominant Discourses: Do Planners have a Moral Responsibility? 

“Bound to seek recognition of its own existence in categories, terms and names that are not of its own making, the subject seeks the sign of its own existence outside itself, in a discourse that is at once dominant and indifferent. Social categories signify subordination and existence at once. In other words, within subjection the price of existence is subordination.” – Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power

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The messages we feed people through adverts might, if we’ve done it right, affect the way people interpret the world and how they position themselves relative to the world and other people in it. We want these thoughts to influence what ideas people subscribe to, what they want to buy in to. This is a fuckload of responsibility. Popular culture, which includes adverts, is a ‘dominant discourse,’ but planners are there to stop it from being an ‘indifferent’ one. We should never ever forget that.

Advertising is an input into popular culture just as much as it looks to popular culture for inspiration with regards to what to talk about and how to talk about it. So, advertisers, do we want to lead social change or follow up the rear? Do we make culture or regurgitate it? Do we actively challenge stereotypes or reinforce them?

Huntington urged us to execute ‘Marketing Mum’, that god-awful saccharine multi-tasking, apron-wearing, child-nurturing, household-chore-doing bastion of unattainable motherly perfection that brands are still trying to get women with children to believe in. Well guess what, women with children don’t want to believe in it anymore.

“What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is liveable only for some, and similarly, to refrain from proscribing for all lives what is unliveable for some.” – Judith Butler, Undoing Gender.

Huntington was asking us to cut through deeply ingrained stereotypes, to reconsider our ‘social constructs’ about motherhood. He wants us to replace ‘Mums’ with ‘women with children’. The idea is that a ‘Mum’ thinks of herself as a independent woman first and foremost and a mum second. I think we can extrapolate this sentiment and align it with Judith Butler’s. I consider myself to be an independent person, first and foremost, (something Neko Case was keen to point out about herself to Playboy over twitter) before I would consider myself to be a woman: “there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender, a one that goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.”

Part I – Essentialism: Gender as a Science

For some reason that link is a bit dodgy – click here for Part I https://planosophy.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/essentialism-gender-as-a-science/

Part II – Patriarchy: It’s a Man’s World, and The Shoe doesn’t Fit The Other Foot

Part I – Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands

Elusive 'Insights', First Principles

“Artistic masterpieces may be collected with the same regressive fanaticism as cheese labels.” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

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(Stand hands in pockets + Intense stare + Odd background content to contrast ‘normal person’ look = ‘I am just a normal guy on the face of things, but with a weird little secret’ pose for ‘real people’ TV documentary press shot)

Baudrillard, like the BBC2 programme ‘Collectaholics’ I mentioned in my introduction to collector mentality, paints a rather bleak picture of collectors in his ‘System of Objects.’ He writes “So if non-collectors are indeed ‘nothing but morons’, collectors, for their part, invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them.” If Baudrillard could have got away with writing ‘collectors are losers,’ he probably would have done so.

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“Because he [the collector] feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself.” – Baudrillard

These so-called losers have been marginalised by the world and thus refashion their own world of collected objects as some sort of therapeutic passive aggressive protest. They regain control of a world from which they have been outcast by deciding what is included and excluded in their ‘own little collectors world.’ Collectors re-articulate the meaning of objects they collect according to their own rules (ie. the rules of their collecting system, a crude example is beer cans, not cider ones) and ordering system that helps them control their meaning.

Sorry Baudrillard, I love you deeply in a platonic kind of way, but I am not sure I can fully agree with you on this one. I believe that we are all collectors. I don’t believe that we all feel, “Alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape [us].” Yes, a collection of Star Wars memorabilia or beer cans is a bit niche, or, (retch retch) quirky, but our more conventional way of defining what a collector and collection is has taken over. Baudrillard and BBC2 had only looked at the extreme manifestation/stereotypical view of a trait we are all liable to having.

‘A Measure of Discrimination’ : Choice

Most of us drink coffee, slightly less of us drink Nescafe, even fewer of us believe that persistently choosing Nescafe over Doewe Egberts means we are collectors. I can assure you, it does. Our fridges and store cupboards are collections, our bookshelves and magazine racks are collections, our internet search histories or iphone apps are collections, our itunes library or CD or DVD rack is a collection. 

The word ‘collect’ comes from the Latin, colligere, which means ‘to choose and gather together.’ Choice and collecting go hand in hand. Choice is often preceded by two words: ‘freedom of.’ Choice is central to our feeling of freedom in Capitalist society. Choice is the main reason why advertising exists. 

We all know that choice is both our best friend and arch nemesis. On the one hand, it is the dilemma of choice that paralyses shoppers in supermarkets confronted with hundreds of varieties of the same bog roll. 

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On the other hand, it is the luxury of choice that helps consumers to feel free. Free to ditch brands they have been unimpressed with, free to align themselves with others.

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Planners are particularly astute as to the pros and cons of choice. Choice is why we construct ‘brand matrices’ (*shudder* – what a pretentious term) drawn up from competitor audits. Choice is behind spidery flow charts that inevitably descend into chaos as we plot a ‘typical’ consumer’s journey from which to derive a comms plan.

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Collecting is linked to choice, but specifically to cutting down choice. Collecting is about discernment. Having the ‘freedom of choice’ in our modern world, stuffed full of shit to buy and things to do, is fucking intimidating. Collecting is merely imposing a defined rationale behind the choices we make. That rationale is very much intertwined with our personal values and interests: “I always buy Andrex Eco as part of my weekly shop. I like to do my part for the environment, this is why I also buy Ecover washing up liquid.”

Brands are also collectors. They collect consumers and the rationale behind their choice of consumers is what circumscribes a ‘target market.’ Planners guide clients when they choose which consumers to collect. Some consumers will make your brand look cool. Some consumers are short-term cash cows. Some consumers are more loyal. Some brands (particularly luxury brands) are very discerning in their choice of consumer. Some brands aren’t and might suffer from an ‘identity crisis’ when they realise that their collection of consumers isn’t very coherent. This is why Disney have subdivided their collection (and is why that horrible term ‘Brand Architecture’ exists): Marvel and Star Wars fans are clearly at odds with wannabe princesses and pirates.

Mainstream collecting is perhaps more about driving associations between brands. For example, Nandos might precede a trip to Cineworld. Jack Daniels + Coca Cola = Jack and Coke. You might order a Dominoes before curling up with Netflix. Planners might help consumers to curate their brand collection through carefully considered partnerships. GoPro and RedBull – for the adrenaline junkie’s collection. Pampers and Unicef – for the caring new mother’s collection. Google Glass and Ray-Ban – for the stylish and tech savvy individual’s collection.

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Sometimes brand partnerships work the other way around. Brands loudly proclaim what values they hold by who they decide to partner with. Above we see Ben and Jerry’s calling any self-respecting collector of gay-friendly brands to add Ben and Jerry’s to their collection. Was their partnership with Freedom to Marry opportunist? Not in the slightest. Ben and Jerry’s has forged a deeper relationship with certain consumers and may have even acquired this ‘loyalty’ at the expense of cutting loose anybody who disagrees with their values. They start a debate, then divide and conquer people accordingly.

Geeks and their Pronounced Collector Mentality: a.k.a ‘Consumer Loyalty’

My long-suffering boyfriend often says “I don’t care about brands.” He never wears designer clothes, he shops at charity shops, he thinks big brands are exploitative faceless corporations. In shunning brands, my boyfriend actually has a clear rationale behind his purchase decisions which reflect his personal values. It probably won’t surprise you that my boyfriend considers himself to be outside of the system – he works as a night duty worker in a homeless shelter. My boyfriend also avidly collects and builds speakers.

People who collect strange things don’t feel that they can represent themselves through more conventional means, whether these be sports teams allegiances, political parties or, as concerns us, brands. This is because they feel that brands don’t represent them, that brands don’t ‘speak’ or ‘relate’ to them. If somebody doesn’t collect ‘normal’ things like designer clothes or movies or music, and chooses beer cans or speakers, then we are inclined to call that person odd. We label a beer can collector ‘weird’ merely because we don’t understand his perspective on the world, or understand why beer cans in particular ‘speak’ to him. We don’t understand the rationale behind his choice.

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Baudrillard was partially right in thinking that people who collect ‘odd’ things may feel “alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him.” These types of collectors, who we might call geeks, however, are only alienated from one social discourse, the ‘mainstream’ or (shudder) the ‘normal’, and choose to follow another that is in line with their values. Geeks are more fanatical – but that’s hardly surprising when proportionally less of the world that surrounds them ‘speaks’ to them. They will ‘collect’ what they can relate to with a pronounced fervour. Many geeky brands, such as KidRobot or StarWars, will leverage their audience’s collector mentality and are happy to consider themselves as geeky brands. Sometimes this turns into geek chic.

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I recently did some work on a free video on demand service that hosted particularly bizarre, ‘challenging’ content such as Anime or fetishistic soft-core porn. At first there were calls to position the product to the ‘hipster’ market. I felt that this was lazy marketing which would alienate our real audience. Our real audience aren’t ‘cool’ or ‘hipster’: they’re loveable oddballs who were (wrongly) bullied at school for reading Manga. Arguably this slightly introverted, possibly even freakish, less conventionally artsy audience are more genuine in their interests than the fickle hipster market, who move with the ebb and flow of what’s deemed ‘cool.’ Hipsters, in a way, are pseudo-artsy clones who involve themselves in a bizarre parade of oddness-one-up-manship around Shoreditch on the weekend. Give me genuine odd and pseudo odd and I know which one I’d choose.

I knew that my client would probably have preferred to have attracted the hipster market. Like a nerdy kid’s desire to be acknowledged by the cool crew at school, those cool kids would have dropped the nerd as soon as they wanted. There would never have been a real relationship there.

I don’t know why clients will circumscribe their market as social category ABC1, age 16-35, ‘tech-savvy’ ‘early adopter’ males and females. Not everyone is young, tech-savvy and middle to upper middle class.  We’re emerging from a recession in which young people, having racked up 9K+ debt per year as a student, will now have to undergo a dearth of gruelling unpaid internships living on less than £100 a week. Brands, ‘the youth’ are not your always your audience, you just want them to be. We live in an ageing population and these are the ones who are most likely to be ABC1. Will Butterworth has a great ‘thinkism’ on ‘Early Adopters’, he writes: “Guess what, every dick and his dog thinks he is an early adopter based on the understanding that he adopts every new thing he hears about. Trouble is most of these people aren’t looking for anything.”

Brands need to learn that not everyone aspires to be a hipster.  Not everyone is a ‘wholesome’ mum, and not every person with a child wants to be.  Not everyone aspires to be a ‘time poor, money rich’ jet setter who loves designer labels. Mainstream aspirations are dwindling, fast. Do brands hold up these sorts aspirations in order to appeal to some sort of mythical mass consciousness? No, I think brands hold them up for themselves, because they want to say they are liked by all the cool kids, the best moms or the top professionals.

But what about the rest? What about ‘old’ people or all those women whose children aren’t the be-all and end-all of their existence? What about nerds, or people who see their jobs as a way of earning money to do their hobbies and not for climbing to the top of the career ladder? These people are arguably swelling in numbers, swelling in dissent and disregard for brands and advertising, and they deserve to be heard. They are indifferent to brands. This is why the ‘voice of the consumer’ needs to pipe up and sell the consumer to the client as much as the client to the consumer.

Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

Part II: Accumulation and Completion

Part II – Accumulation and Completion

Elusive 'Insights', First Principles

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates

You’re browsing the high street nonchalantly on a Saturday or in your lunch hour, or procrastinating on Asos or Ebay on a slow Friday afternoon at work praying that your boss doesn’t catch you. Then it catches your eye. It seems to beckon you in. You must have it. It appears to glow. It is your holy grail. It will complete you.

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Obviously this isn’t the kind of feeling that accompanies buying bog roll, bin liners, kitchen foil, milk and the like. It’s those shoes that you imagine strutting through the office wearing. It’s that car you imagine parking in your driveway that makes passersby do a double take. This feeling is reserved for a specific kind of purchase – a purchase that you consciously feels defines you, a purchase you feel will trump all others. It’s that ‘ultimate buy’ where you gasp at the price tag but somehow find a way of justifying not eating for a few weeks so you can have it.

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“I won’t need to buy anything else for a long time,” or “it ties all my wardrobe/living room décor/record collection together,” or “if I didn’t buy it I will regret it, somebody else might get it and it will be gone forever,” are things you tell yourself as you whip out your heavily over-drawn debit card and push it promptly into the chip and pin.

For me, this feeling occurs maybe once a month. That’s right, I find my holy grail once a freaking month. Other than many of our monthly expenditures and earnings, something doesn’t match up here. What’s more, the frenzy with which we buy these objects abates so quickly that we find ourselves relegating them to the back of the wardrobe/bookshelf/attic, stuffing them into bin-liners to drop off at the local charity shop, or even forgetting that they exist entirely within a few months.

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Useful vs Frivolous, Work vs Play and Oniomania

For Baudrillard, as I mentioned in my introduction, these such items are not bought with their use value in mind. Rather, we buy their intangible, non-functional meaning. Two sweaters perform essentially the same function, although one may be thicker and more useful for winter, you could not say that a red jumper is categorically more useful or functional than a blue one. A ‘dry clean only’ label has never put me off buying an item of clothing, which is irrational, because dry cleaning anything is expensive and time-consuming. Stephen King writes in ‘What is a Brand?’ “the non-functional pleasures that we ourselves get are more intense and meaningful than the functional.” This is why, on the whole, we get so het up about what colour a jumper is more than whether it can be tumble dried.

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We like ‘splashing out’, or ‘splurging.’ Bataille, a Surrealist art theorist, wrote (in a less-kinky-than-the-title-suggests book, ‘Eroticism’) “Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose.” Bataille draws a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘jouissance‘ (his poncy term for ‘play’ I suppose). Work is what differentiates us from our animalistic nature and makes us ‘civilised’. Work is man saying no to nature, saying he wants to be in control of his destiny and his surrounding world and not let nature get the better of him. Work, at it’s extreme, is a high flying banker who watches his figure, goes to the gym and only drinks bottled water. Jouissance, however, is going against what is ‘productive’. It’s being a bit rebellious. It’s putting two fingers up at your ‘civilised’ self and embracing an animalistic instinctual desire for pleasure. Jouissance, at it’s extreme, is a couple going dogging.

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Making music, getting drunk, nutting one out at a rave, splashing out at a restaurant, procrastinating, youtube-ing at endless cat videos and buying a shit-ton of things we don’t need are all part of our quest for ‘jouissance’. These aren’t ‘useful’ or ‘helpful’, in fact, quite a lot of the time these kinds of activities are downright unhelpful. This is why for many ‘irresponsible’/’freespirited’ people a new pair of trainers is more important than having enough money to buy bog roll or decent food. This is why some people find spending money more fun than saving it.

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A Series of ‘Upgrades’ 

“The unique object is in fact simply the final term, the one which sums up all the others, that it is the supreme component of an entire paradigm (albeit a virtual, invisible or implicit one) – that it is, in short, the emblem of the series” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

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(Stereotypical Caricature of a Philosopher)

Collecting is all about ‘series.’ One thing after another. Things that follow other things. The last thing in a series, Baudrillard argues, somehow manages to sum up all the other things that preceded it. If you think of your wardrobe as a ‘series of purchases’ rather than as a collective entity, ‘my clothes’, I think this may shed some light on Baudrillard’s lofty claims.

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My ‘wow’ buys are always shoes. Sneakers to be precise. Today I bought some silver brogues (I am a bit of a magpie at the moment) for an interview. The interview was the ‘rational’ justification that I used to try to alleviate some of the guilt that can precede/follow ‘jouissance’ or splurge buying. I already have some perfectly smart black shoes. What was really going though my mind was, “These shoes will make you feel like an adult, it’s time you got out of trainers, trainers are for teenagers. You will feel like an adult worthy of a salary in these shoes.” My big shoe purchase before this was a pair of Nike Janoski’s, all black. What went through my mind was “you have a job now, you need to stop wearing glow in the dark Nike limited edition Dunks.” I bought these glow in the dark monstrosities before the all black Janoski’s because I thought they would suit being a nightclub promoter at Uni. Each of these purchases trumped the ones before in my quest to have my feet taken seriously in the working world.

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“This term is the unique object, defined by its final position and hence creating the illusion that it embodies a particular goal or end [making me an adult]. This is all well and good, but it shows us how it is quantity that impels towards quality, and how the value thus concentrated on this simple signifier [my silver brogues] is in fact indistinguishable from the value that infuses [making me an adult] the whole chain of intermediate signifiers of the paradigm [my shoes as a whole].” – Baudrillard

The thing is, I could have bought all of the shoes in the shop. I could have then decided that I didn’t have a ‘grown up’ handbag and needed one. I could have gone on a spending rampage worthy of my bank blocking my credit card for ‘exhibiting unusual spending patterns.’ It wouldn’t have mattered how many items, or indeed, what items I bought, a very similar feeling would have pervaded my shopping spree. All these purchases would be trying to fulfil the same symbolic function. One after the other I would have felt that one item ‘trumped’ the last one in making me the person I want the world to see me as.

“Any collection comprises a succession of items, but the last in the set is the person of the collector”  – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

Baudrillard’s statement might help us understand why fashion fads come and go so quickly. I remember when wearing ‘Geek’ across your chest was some sort of ironic/witty fashion statement. Like Von Dutch caps, this fashion trend burnt out, and burnt out fast. I have a feeling that this is because the more people you see wearing a variant of your jumper, or even your exact same jumper, the less you feel that this item expresses you. You are now just one of the crowd. You ditch it from your collection pretty pronto. We want people to know from a once-over that we are autonomous individuals with our own personalities. This could be why it is considered a bit of a faux pas to turn up to a party wearing the same dress as somebody else.

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Yet, at the same time, we might aspire to be like Cara Delevingne or Pharrell. These fashion icons show us how to ‘stand out from the crowd’. They inspire us with new and ‘out there’ shit and they give us the courage to depart from the flock and be ‘out there.’ This courage might see us wearing acid yellow this summer or an over-sized hat. We know we aren’t ‘out there’ alone. We are torn between belonging and not belonging to a crowd. When does a crowd become a crowd? I suppose the answer to this question, is, in a way, an expression of how ‘mainstream’ you are.

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I have enough clothes, trust me, but quite often I will feel that nothing in my wardrobe ‘expresses’ me anymore. Quite often this isn’t because the Spring collection has arrived at Topshop or because everyone suddenly seems to be wearing acid yellow. Instead, it is when I’ve had a bit of a personality shake-up. Something important has happened that has affected how I see myself and how I want the world to see me. This could be a break up, a new job or a even a change of address. This is when I go out with my little plastic friend. I hope to find something that will help me to express who I am to the world in this new context. I want to express how I have evolved as a person as my clothes no longer fit me symbolically (rather than physically).

Collections ‘evolve’ because we ‘evolve.’

Tattoo collectors might talk about various stages of their lives when they talk about different tattoos or regret and cover up ones they have outgrown. Record collectors might relegate their trance records to the attic to make way for their current techno phase. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this kind of behaviour is when artists destroy all their past works. These past works reflect their former selves in perhaps the most intense and direct way possible. These physical objects represent their previous naivety or warped perceptions of the world and confronting them can make them cringe. It’s that feeling when you look at a photograph of you three years ago, or flick backwards through your Facebook photos. Its that strange uncomfortable feeling when you read your high school diary. You’ve moved on psychologically, but the objects you have left in your wake haven’t. Then comes Baudrillard’s eureka/the-painfully-obvious-that’s-been-left-unsaid-gets-said moment.

“One cannot but wonder whether collections are in fact meant to be completed… The presence of the final object of the collection would basically signify the death of the subject, whereas its absence would be what enables him merely to rehearse his death (and so exorcize it) by having an object represent it.” – Baudrillard

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Annoyingly he over-complicates what is actually quite simple. Those ‘wow’ buys are objects we choose to express our personal evolution. If I only replaced those glow in the dark Nike dunks like-for-like and ended my shoe collection with them, then I would probably never feel like I had ‘grown up’. I would feel that I had reached the pinnacle of ‘me-ness’, that I had somehow reached an abrupt end. Would this not be a little deathly?

What Baudrillard is articulating very poorly is that existential crisis when you finish a box set. Or when, as a kid, you collected that last pokemon card. Or when you finish an Xbox game. We don’t like ending things that we have been so caught up in, that we spent hours involving ourselves in. What we are most caught up in everyday is our own evolution, our own lives and this includes the objects we choose to surround and express ourselves with.

Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

Part I: Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands