My Bus Stop Contemplation: A Brief Analysis of Ads and Age

This was another post that I typed up in the fall and never did anything with. It finally sees the light of day!

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I wait at a lot of bus stops. Often and sometimes for long periods of time. See, when I left Michigan to move to San Francisco, I left my beloved automobile behind since it would have never made the cross-country journey. I’ve gotten used to always being at the mercy of public transportation, but the loss of that part of my autonomy has been frustrating. But not as frustrating as what I find myself coming face to face with at the majority of bus stops I frequent: ADVERTISEMENTS.

Now, some of the ads I see are fine. Some are silly, some are harmless, some are even clever. But some are disappointing, some are questionable, and some are downright infuriating. I’ve found that my use of public transportation has increased my awareness of advertisements.

MUNI bus stop design

Not only do the design of many MUNI bus stops put me face-to-face with giant advertisements, but having to wait 25 minutes for the Number 43 gives my brain time to really see the ad and subsequently pick it apart, ask questions, and analyze. Instead of ignoring ads or having them pass just under the radar of my conscious attention, I find myself giving them more serious consideration. And I often don’t like what I find.

This ad caught my eye a few weeks ago as I was walking toward a bus stop.

As I walked toward it, it registered as just another fashion ad, and I didn’t think too much about it. Yeah, yeah, another incredibly skinny young woman plastered on a bus stop to make me want to be fashionable and glamorous. Yawn. But, as I got closer, the alarms started going off in my head. When I finally came face-to-face with ad, illuminated and glowing in the evening’s dimming light, I was pretty taken aback. Because I noticed her face.

Oh my God! I thought. How OLD is this girl?! Maybe it’s the hairstyle or the freckles or the fact that it takes little to no effort to imagine braces on her teeth, but she looks about fourteen to me. I was stunned. And extremely creeped out. I snapped a picture of the ad and sent it to a few friends. The text image probably didn’t have the same effect as seeing her face up close, but the general consensus still seemed to be that she looks bizarrely young.

I don’t have a problem with young models, but I do have some issues regarding in what contexts young models are used. First of all, sexualizing a model who doesn’t even look old enough to see an R-rated movie without a guardian? Yeah, that’s not okay. The last thing we need is our advertisements bordering on some kind of weird pedophilia. As far as fashion ads go, this one is actually quite tame. She’s not overly sexualized, but the plunging neckline revealing that she’s not wearing anything under that blazer is toeing a line considering how young she is.

Second of all, why is such a young model being used to sell clothes to an older age range? The company itself defines its target market as women in the 21- to 34-year-old range (http://www.nasdaq.com/symbol/bebe). I keep thinking to myself that I can’t be the only person to notice that she looks like she just graduated from middle school (regardless of how “grown up” her outfit may look).

It’s no secret that women and the topic of age are two components of a very dangerous equation in commercial advertising. Our society has taught women that getting old is BAD (badbadbad), and we should all be afraid of it, and we should all be BUYING things to slow down the process as much as possible. So what could be the purpose of using models who appear younger than the target market? At first it doesn’t make sense, but maybe there’s some kind of strategy here that’s preying upon a woman’s (supposed) desire to always be younger than she is. Yes, ads seek to get you to identify with the people pictured as a way to get you to buy the product, but this is always combined with something else—the part that you don’t have, but you want. For example, a commercial for a facial moisturizer features a young actress who is worried about the effects of aging on her skin. You identify with that so you identify with her. She uses this great moisturizer that reduces wrinkles and is now clearly the happiest gal in the land. Now you identify with her, but she also has something that you don’t have but that you want. This drives you to go buy the product so you can achieve the same happy ending that she did.

How might this fit in with this ad? Maybe Bebe’s target group is supposed to identify the clothes in the ad first: Oh, what a banging outfit! I could totally rock that. But then you notice (if even subconsciously) that the model is so young (aka, younger than you). The route I took was puzzlement over why such a young girl was wearing such an outfit, but I suppose the other route is wondering why YOU aren’t. After all, you’re young and trendy…right? Are you losing your touch? Are you getting—gasp!—old? Are you not stylish enough to be perceived as young anymore? This can’t be! And maybe the next step is going out to splurge on some swanky Bebe swag. Violà. Bebe’s achieved their goal.

Or maybe it’s as simple as targeting a younger and younger audience. I mean, when I was in middle school, girls were bragging about the very expensive Bebe jeans daddy had bought them at the mall that weekend, so it’s not like the brand is only reaching its supposed target audience.

Back to the ad of the hour. I went home to see if I could find the ad online so I wouldn’t have to post the sub-par phone snapshot I took of it at the bus stop, and, along the way, I learned something.

This is not just some girl. The name of the person featured in this ad is Cintia Dicker, and she’s apparently an incredibly well known supermodel. Not only that, but she’s TWENTY-FOUR. She’s best known for her photos in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editions, but this year she’s also been busy with spreads for Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, and many others.

I was stunned. Again! Since she’s of legal age and not actually fourteen…that makes all of my previous arguments invalid. Right?

Not so much. We still have a problem here.

What are we doing making a 24-year-old who is gorgeous as she is look like she’s just a kid? I did a little image research, and, believe it or not, Dicker sometimes looks like a normal 24-year-old!

She looks appropriately her age in this photo:

Even in almost all of her other modeling shots (even for Bebe), she looks like a woman and not a girl:

There’s even this one where she looks like a (NO WAY!) real person! And even a tired one.

So what’s going on here? I have a hard time believing that making her look so young was a mere accident. I am reminded of a video I saw on Feminist Frequency that opens with the issue involving of-age models being portrayed as younger than they really are and what kind of problems that brings to the table. (The video goes on to talk about why the hyper-sexualization of women in the media is so dangerous. It’s a great video—well worth a watch!)

What’s the game here? Is it one of the selling strategies I speculated about earlier? Or something else? I’m not sure. But it makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. Our advertisements have become more and more keen on the sexualization of women, but adding models into this equation who don’t even look old enough to drive is questionable at best.

Again, I’m aware that this particular ad is very tame and doesn’t even begin to cover the horrors in the advertising world that sexualize young girls and infantilize grown women. But I think it’s worth taking a look at even the tamest of ads and question where they’re coming from and what they’re doing. If we save our scrutiny for only the horrifically offensive ads that come around every once in awhile, we miss an opportunity to deconstruct the more nuanced issues present in ads that aren’t as extreme. This ad set off an alarm to me—a subtle one (my world wasn’t ending over it), but I decided to explore that discomfort. Problems found in minutia are still problems. So take the time to look. And, more importantly, take the time to think.

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