Today's Reading


Sometimes people say to me that cultural studies thinks culture is everything, but I don't think that at all. I think culture is very important; more than important, it's absolutely constitutive. But it's also one among other things—how could you not be also interested in capital, or war, and be alive today? Of course culture isn't everything. But culture is a dimension of everything. Every practice exists in the material world and simultaneously signifies, is the bearer of meaning and value. Everything both exists and is imagined. And if you want to play in the area where deep feelings are involved, which people hardly understand, you have to look at culture. STUART HALL, IN CONVERSATION WITH BILL SCHWARZ

Every cultural shift has its tipping point, an origin story. Movements for radical social change that took root in the 1960s marked a palpable transformation in collective consciousness. The civil rights and the Black Power movements, the anti-war, second-wave feminism, and queer liberation movements re-energized the ongoing struggle to fulfill the promise of a more inclusive, multiracial democracy. This struggle for equity and justice not only challenged and changed the laws of the land. But it also began to rewrite unspoken cultural rules that have dictated social norms and behaviors for so long.

The struggle was not new, of course. The civil rights demands for equitable representation in media, which, decades later, would be echoed more loudly within the advertising industry, can be traced directly back to the early 20th century. The discourse on the role of identity in visual culture culminated during the Harlem Renaissance, with advertising being one of the "leading image-producing industries" held accountable for its role in racial stereotyping (Chambers, 2011). This period of activism paved the way for the inflection point that occurred in the mid-to-late 20th century, which marked a time when radically new ideas, long overdue legal rights, and progressive narratives finally began to take hold. And advertising was no exception.

In this era of change, the industry faced a critical moment. The advocacy of civil rights leaders inspired demands beyond race and ethnicity to encompass representation of gender in advertising. By 1978, the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) issued "a checklist of questions for advertisers and agency personnel to consider when creating or approving an advertisement" portraying women (Sivulka, 1998). Advertising agencies were advised to consult a checklist featured in Appendix A of the NARB report, titled "Guidelines developed by the National Advertising Review Board for the United States." Divided into four sections—destructive portrayals, negative appeals, constructive portrayals, and positive appeals—the checklist covered a range of harmful depictions. These included sexist stereotypes, belittling language, and creative ads portraying situations that "confirm the view that women are the property of men or are less important than men" (Sivulka, 1998). Among 23 bullet points, questions such as "Do my ads portray women as more neurotic than men?" or "Do my ads reflect the fact that girls may aspire to careers in business and the professions?" were presented for advertisers' consideration. This response from the NARB was hardly surprising, though. The pressure was on.

During this time of heightened social protest, feminists placed stickers saying "This ad insults women" on billboards, vandalized and rewrote ad taglines, and gave out so-called "Plastic Pig" awards to companies that continued to portray women in ways considered demeaning (Sivulka, 1998). As the New York Times reported in 1983, a feminist group, Women Against Pornography, considered "'any ad that reduces women to objects, to merely their sexual parts" to be pornographic and, thus, insulting to all women (Herman and Johnston, 1983). In 1983, the "award" went to Hanes, Cotler's Pants, Maidenform, Fidji Perfume as well as Dior for various ads depicting undressed women in subservient positions to men (Reilly et al., 1983). As the historical record shows, however, it wasn't all one-sided. Activists not only "zapped" brands who persisted in relying on sexist advertising but also looked to incentivize forward-thinking, culture-shaping brands that bravely tapped into more progressive narratives.

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...