Fear and loathing in women’s advertising

It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase. – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

If you ask the average person to name one truth about advertising, odds are they will repeat that well-worn idiom: sex sells. Sex is used in advertising like a blunt instrument, beating the consumer over the head with sensory information designed to capture and hold their attention long enough to sell them a product. Perhaps this is why it springs to mind so quickly when the topic is ads — we’re more apt as consumers to notice the bright and the loud, and miss the more fine-edged tools that are used to sell. Perhaps the most commonly employed tool in the advertiser’s box, especially in media targeted at women, is fear. Throughout the decades, ads have built narratives based around creating and exploiting insecurities and then promising the cure for the low, low cost of $9.99.

This fear-based marketing most often focuses on creating insecurity about women’s role as caretaker by creating competition between the target consumer and other women, either real or imaginary, and creates fear focused on loss of love, position, or respect.

Frigidaire Frozen Delights, 1927 (Duke University Library Digital Collection)

Frigidaire Frozen Delights, 1927 (Duke University Library Digital Collection)

In this Frigidaire booklet, we see a classic example of this subtle technique. While on its surface the image appears to be a pleasant but innocuous story about a good hostess, it actually contains two important themes common to fear-based advertising. The woman in question is held up as an example of the ideal hostess, who serves as the public face of her household (and an extension of her husband), intent on impressing her guests with her good food and modern techniques. What this ad demonstrates is that it is not enough just to cook well, but to be on the cutting edge — modern sanitation and more importantly, modern appliances are necessary to fit this ideal of household ambassador. The consumer is left wondering what role she would play in this scenario, the cutting-edge, lauded hostess or the impressed (and probably behind-the-times) guest? If the latter, the solution is right at hand — Frigidaire appliances to bring her up to date!

Heinz Soup, Punch Magazine, November 23, 1949 (Flickr)

Heinz Soup, Punch Magazine, November 23, 1949 (Flickr)

Here we see another example of advertising pitting modern women versus the dreaded “old-fashioned” ways. Perhaps borrowing a page from Campbell’s playbook (Parkin in Kitchen Culture in America, p. 59) Heinz chose to subvert the notion that home cooking is a sign of love by pitting the laborious process of the (fantastical) from-scratch process to the modern, processed version that’s just as good. From a can is just as “rich-and-rare” and will earn the same smiles, and no camels need be involved. By making the kind of cooking that women likely grew up with seem both laborious and silly, Heinz attempted to pit “modern” women consumers against the past and by extension, their own mothers to sell them on the idea that can was best.

Folgers Instant commercial, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Folgers Instant commercial, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Of course, women had more to fear than just their friends and loved-ones judging and outperforming them. In this Folger’s ad from the 1950s, this housewife’s sub-par morning coffee is stacked up — and loses — to the “girls down at the office” who make better brews on their hot plates. Her failure to satisfactorily provide for her husband (and his refusal to reward her with physical affection after explicitly comparing her unfavorably to the unseen and therefore more ominous “girls” at his office) is a prime example of the message that the chief duty of food preparation is to provide for others, as “ads rarely portrayed women finding gratification in eating… just procuring the [correct] food was evidence of women’s love” (Parkin, Food is Love, p. 37). There is no evidence in this ad that the thought of how she likes her coffee has even crossed her mind, and it is only after she takes the advice of her wiser friend (and adequately demonstrates her love through the right product) that she is rewarded with the chaste kiss she was denied earlier.

Ivory Snow ad, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Ivory Snow ad, c. 1950s (YouTube)

Though the housewife of the Folger’s ad was happy to receive wise counsel from her friend, there’s little doubt that the average woman viewing the ad would wish to identify with the in-the-know friend and not the housewife with burnt coffee. Other ads also played with this theme of inter-neighborhood rivalry, but chose to feature the “in-the-know” woman as the center of the narrative. In an Ivory Snow ad from the same decade, we see the pretty blonde housewife first show off her treasured trousseau to her friends who are full of admiration, then later see her stop a friend from using generic detergent for a job that clearly calls for Ivory Snow!

Pan American Coffee Bureau, Life Magazine, August 6, 1945 (Google Books)

Pan American Coffee Bureau, Life Magazine, August 6, 1945 (Google Books)

Perhaps our protagonist is friends with the hard-working housewife from a Life magazine ad for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, who knows that iced coffee is the secret to cool and collected summertime chores that eludes her disheveled neighbors. Again, the competent woman is front and center in the image and clearly dominating the narrative. Like the Ivory Snow ad, she not only knows what she’s doing but even enjoys her chores, helped along by the products that give her the edge over other women. The target consumer is meant to aspire to be that competent woman, to imagine herself the envy of the neighborhood housewives, and rather than having to discover the tools and techniques to assist her in this herself, the advertisements are selling her the products that will get her there in no time. They embody the ideal of seamless perfection, “offering a smooth surface of cleanliness and harmony that covered up any trace of flurry, mishap, or sweat” (Shapiro, Perfection Salad, p. 13), and through their modern techniques and polished demeanor thereby conquer the old and outdated.

By constantly weighing images of good, efficient, modern, and “together” women against images of outmoded, old-fashioned, uninformed women engaged in visible labor, advertising sought to create and exploit a fear in their target audience of falling into the latter category, and offering easy solutions to avoid these pitfalls. It was not enough to keep house, entertain, and provide love for your family, but it must look effortless and it must inspire envy in your peers or risk being the envying party. And just like sex has not stopped selling, this fear and competition narrative has not gone out of style either — although now with the wonders of computer editing, the women we’re competing against in advertising now? Ourselves, minus a Swiffer.

Swiffer WetJet commercial, 2013 (YouTube)

Swiffer WetJet commercial, 2013 (YouTube)

Bibliography

Parkin, Katherine, “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles.” In Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, 51-67. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.