A Lesson from the School of TV Adverts

Television advertisements are very educational. This statement may be somewhat contrary to general opinion on the matter, which tends to think that TV adverts are annoying, mindless drivel, but I stand my ground nonetheless – for television adverts offer us a reflection of the society in which we live. Overpaid media executives (and unpaid interns) produce adverts which they believe will reach our to the consumer: will lead us to in someway be attracted to the product, or to empathise with the situation or characters used. Therefore adverts in fact tell us a lot about ourselves: a lot about what our common perceptions are, and what are current status quo is.

A lot can be said about the television advertisements used in the run up to Christmas and the subsequent sales. Some reviews have chosen to focussed on how we seem to have become a nation obsessed by the “cute” (for example, the Lords TSB owl, John Lewis’s snowman). I, on the other hand, what to talk to you about the way in which women are being portrayed. The Christmas adverts, particularly from supermarkets, make one thing abundantly clear: the festive season is when Mothers are tired, exhausted, overstretched and yet happily cater an enormous dinner to their extended family. I have heard it argued that this spate of adverts were a celebration of mothers and all the work they do in the home: behold and rejoice in the amazing work that is done by women at this festive period. I’m not so sure though: as much as I like to take note of the massive sacrifices still made by women in the home, I think these adverts have something of a more dangerous edge to them, both in terms of dictating what should be “normal” and devaluing work done the rest of the year.

So what is the “normal” role of the female in a home? Do the advertising moguls have it correct in their portrayal of women? And if so, what does this say about the society in which we live? The word normal in itself is a bit of a red flag here: why should we hold up women to some standard of normality anyway? Men aren’t, so why women? The danger of reducing women down to the simple fact of their biology is huge: we are individuals, so why should you make assumptions about us, or should we have to fit a certain mould simply because we have breasts and a womb? It is this type of thinking which has allowed for discrimination on every level to exist and be institutionalized over the centuries – so much so, that women themselves believe it. But leaving the question of “normal” aside, can we say that “on average” most women fit the role of hardworking homemaker which we saw on our television screens this Christmas?

I desperately hope that they got it wrong, but in my heart of hearts I think I know the truth: in the twenty-first century women are still considered to be associated with home and care giving, and at Christmas this means shopping, decorating and cooking. In some of the adverts the men too got involved in the preparations: putting up the Christmas lights, looking stressed making mince pies, bringing his stressed out wife some champagne: but the message was clear, if men help then they get smiles and praise, but the work done by women is huge and largely goes unnoticed. And so I come to my final question: what does this say about the society in which we live? Are you happy with this being the “normal” standard of behavior? Most men are probably fine with it: they are, after all, the beneficiaries of the status quo. Their help and efforts are rewarded should they wish to make them, but if not then it doesn’t matter, it is the woman’s job to pick up the slack. If women aren’t fine with it – and they really shouldn’t be – it is a protest which is not doing very well in being heard. There are feminist academics, organisations and lobbying groups who highlight the problems and push for change, but few average women get involved.

Being a feminist is seen as radical, and from the picture we have just been discussing, most women are more concerned with getting dinner on the table than anything else. There is of course the other danger I highlighted earlier: that celebrating the work done by women at this one time of the year, risks devaluing the other 364 days where she fulfills exactly the same role, just with more interesting food and less tinsel. If we have already concluded that, this role shines a worrying reflection on the state of equality in our society, then arguably it is important that we don’t forget sacrifices made every day. The worn out care-giving woman is for life – not just for Christmas!

The Christmas advertisements have so far, then, been accurate, enlightening, and worrying in their portrayal of the normal role of women in the home. But of course there is the flip side to this coin, the adverts in which women are portrayed as something other than homemakers. As a prime example of this, I refer you to the recent Virgin Atlantic Holidays advert: a beautiful, alluring young woman, holding up offers on boards, whilst using the unused board to cover her modesty, winking at the camera whilst the voiceover tells us to, “come and see what else we have taken off”. No sign here then, of the stressed out housewife: instead the young and beautiful young seductress. I may be wrong, but I suspect not too much thought went into this marketing formula: beauty (as defined by the media) and sex sells. Whilst there is nothing wrong with women being viewed as sexual creatures, the idea that we are not is one of the longest standing double standards, here we see once again a prime example of a female being reduced to her sexuality and her biological assets in how she is viewed. This advert tells us then, that nothing has changed in the status of women in society: they are still viewed as sexual objects for the use of and consumption by men.

Together, the two types of advert offers women a stark choice: you can either be an exhausted house wife, taking care of your ungrateful family, defined by your ability to have children, or you can be sexual and valued only in terms of your appearance. I began this article, be saying that television adverts are educational. The education here is important: if you want to be valued for something more than your reproductive organs, you need to be male, and as things stand nothing is being said or done about it. I offer no conclusions here as to what can be done – instead I simply ask you if you are ok with women being portrayed in this manner. Is this really all there is to define us and our roles in wider society? I hope not.

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