Race and Advertising Term Paper

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Race and Advertising

Virginia Slims and Virgin Boef

Easy to Swallow Social Poison and a Mad Cow Solution)

Popular media today is driven by the advertisements that fund it, and our society is significantly influenced by the images that are found within those advertisements. It is said that the popular consumer is both the producer and the product of social inequality and this can be seen as strongly in the portrayal and interpretation of gender and race stereotypes as in any other example. Advertisements have been shown to exaggerate cultural differences between genders and races. (Coltrane, Messineo) While the unfair caricatures of certain groups may not be as blatantly cartoonish and obvious as those of decades past, there still remains a very definite stereotypical set of boundaries into which different groups, especially minorities, must fall in order to be featured in the majority of popular media. These kinds of portrayals, of course, breed subtle forms of prejudice against genders and races, and the kind of segmented marketing which is usually the only kind of advertisement to feature people (especially women) of color will tend to lead to the reinforcement of social differences and keep the divide between social groups large and impenetrable.

One of the markets which has been widely known to use stereotypical mascots in advertising the smoking industry. While the Marlboro Cowboy stands as a very famous example of a stereotypical white male image in advertising who was meant to appeal to white smokers, there has been a rise in the use of other genders, races, and social groups in advertisements meant to likewise encourage people of those groups to smoke. Unfortunately, it is not a victory for the minority groups that they are finally being the focus of such advertising, because it is often a portrayal that has negative implications about that group, and also that leads to social decay through the subtly racist messages of the image as well as through the conditioning caused by these advertisements that leads to socially destructive behavior such as smoking. One such example of an advertisement that features a female minority, and is likewise aimed at minorities, is the "Find Your Voice" Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement. This ad features the silhouette of a woman of African descent in an evocative leaned pose against a bright red background, and with a hand seductively seeking her throat. The text of the ad reads: "Never let the goody two shoes get you down. Virginia Slims. Find Your Voice."

The visual and textual message of this ad is meant to have several subconscious messages which are there in an attempt to draw in Black smokers, as well as serving as a definition of the appealing modern Black woman. First, the bright red background is meant to appear revolutionary, as the Communist and Anarchist revolutions have always featured red flags as the symbol of their fight. The red is also the psychological color used to represent rage and anger, and it instills a very definite emotional reaction due to the instinctual parallels drawn to the color of blood. The image of the Black woman is also very angular and posed in such a way that it is reminiscent of the modern neo-African art movement, which is focused on the fight for and preservation of freedom. The figure is also silhouetted in such a way that she appears almost completely black in color, which also draws an artistic similarity to said art movement. These visual elements combine with the text to create a feeling of triumph over the implied oppressors through the defiant act of smoking. This is, within Black culture, meant to appeal to the struggle to overcome slavery within this country, as well as the Civil Rights fight for equal rights. The text regarding not letting the "goody two shoes get you down" has implications about being a rebel in the setting where the "good" blacks are being subservient to the white oppressors. The spiral-style O's are also meant to be reminiscent of "primal" type writing, again an attempt to be somehow similar to current trends of returning to African styles.

While this is attempting to present itself as a very pro-black culture image, this attempt to appeal to this aspect of Black culture is nothing more than a collection of stereotypical elements wrapped together in a sleek package in hopes of getting young black women addicted to a harmful product, so that the rich white men that run tobacco companies can become even wealthier. Smoking cigarettes is not, in any way, an act of rebellion that will further the cause of the black woman. While this ad may attempt to liken smoking to defeating slave owners, this is a completely baseless comparison, and this mockery of modern African-American art is offensive on an artistic and social level.

Second, the pose is also very sexual in nature. The woman's head is positioned in an inviting manner that implies a readiness to insert a phallus into her mouth. (Her back is also arched in such a way that she seems to be putting her body into position to engage in sexual intercourse.) In this case, the desired phallus is meant to be a cigarette as opposed to a penis, but the message that is implied is that the way for a woman to find the "voice" hiding deep inside her throat is through the act of pseudo-fellatio, which plays on the ideas that a woman is nothing without a male figure to speak for her. A cigarette can therefore provide this needed masculine force, and let the woman be an independent speaker without relying on a man, as long as she is smoking while she talks. Additionally, the lines of her dress fall like lash marks across her back, bringing up extremely misogynistic and racist images of whipping.

A second advertisement which is much harder to categorize than the first cigarette ad, but obviously features some similar themes, is an advertisement found in an obscure underground music magazine for a British metal CD called "Virgin Boef" by a band called Nephwrack. This image is shocking, to say the least. It is blatantly and almost pornographically sexual in nature, though the technical skill of the artist is enough that it can be viewed as art rather than cheap erotica (even if the subject matter is not to the liking of a particular viewer). This advertisement features a dark-skinned and extremely scarred monster of some sort, with tusks, animalistic ears, coarse fur, and an overall deformed appearance, hovering over a pale-skinned naked girl (who, it is implied by the title of the album, is either currently or was a short time ago a virgin). The image is actually reminiscent of the many tales of Beauty and the Beast that have prevailed throughout cultures, and in Fairy Tales the good is often symbolized by the light and the evil symbolized by the darkness. Although this image is undeniably more profane and inescapably offensive in nature to large parts of the population, it somehow remains less offensive on closer artistic inspection than the first image.

This may appear at first to be far more racist and misogynistic than the Virginia Slims ad, as the scene taking place could easily be interpreted as a portrayal of Black men as monstrous creatures that corrupt and rape innocent white women against their will, like the many white-power propaganda pieces of earlier times. Additionally, the lack of a head or arms for the woman is also dehumanizing, so it could easily be interpreted as deeply misogenistic. However, the fact that both the man and the woman, as well as the black figure and the white figure, are dehumanized in some way is the first sign that this may in fact be something other than simply offensive.

There seems to be a feel of mutual corruption, where nothing is sacred any longer and everything has been defiled; even the background seems somehow tarnished or dirty. This means that it is not necessarily a statement that blacks are corrupted, or that blacks are corrupting white women, but perhaps rather that both the black man and women, who have been the downtrodden of American society, have been victims of the corruption put out by other forces. (For example, those powers-that-be who are infiltrating and exploiting both women and blacks for money in exchange for the poisonous cigarettes they manufacture.) Additionally, this image has obviously not been created in an attempt to appeal to the masses of society. The very clean and sterile feel of the Virginia Slims ad is starkly contrasted by the dirty, gritty, and organically real feeling of this piece. The Nephwrack ad does not attempt to sink into your subconscious without being noticed, but rather demands attention from the viewer, and asks that one considers what the point might be. This is not something that can be escaped, it is something that will foster thought and discussion on the topics of race and…[continue]

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