Looking at adverts: 16
I decided to use this blog post to offer a sneak preview of some of the things I will be talking about in my paper for the ‘Photography Matters’ conference in Doncaster in May.
I will be discussing how consumer culture affects identity in advanced capitalist societies, referring to the inclusion of ‘selfies’ in advertisements.
I have been thinking about this topic for a while, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the L’Oreal ‘Infallible Sculpt’ advert. An actress stands in a goal and is bombarded with footballs, all of which hit the back of the net. To justify this failure (despite towering heels making the endeavour a little unfair) she says ‘I’m not infallible but I’m always selfie ready’.
That’s a relief.
As the advert progresses I learn that she is not, in fact, ‘always selfie ready’; but with the aid of L’Oreal makeup she may be ‘selfie ready’ for up to 24 hours.
She is surrounded by mobile phones attached to her waist with selfie sticks. This image is the epitome of contemporary consumer identity: anxiety of visibility because we can be photographed anytime, anywhere. I have previously written about selfies in relation to cosmetics that claim to produce effects equivalent to photoshop retouching tools. This advert reminds me of the need the cosmetics claim to meet.
Psychoanalysts talks about the experience of being looked at as an imbalance of power that is threatening. Jacques Lacan says ‘I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides’ (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis p. 72). I am always more seen than seeing. What’s more, the act of looking at someone (or something) turns her or him into an object of sight. The process of being looked at is viewed as reductive and disempowering.
Photography makes this objectification actually happen – three-dimensional living, breathing bodies are transformed into small images – things we can hold and manipulate. I explore this process in my own practice. The Substitute series explicitly deals with these ideas; I literally transform myself into a paper photograph. But this series has a catch, the man embracing the woman seems to be enjoying himself, he hasn’t realised that he is holding an image and not a real body. He is attracted to an ideal image rather than a real person.
I think this actually takes place when we become accustomed to seeing retouched, idealised images of people. We are no longer satisfied with the real thing. Advertisers contribute to this process by showing us beautifully made-up, retouched and edited images of bodies, and they also profit from the insecurity these bodies create. Like the actress in the L’Oreal advert we feel that we have to look like perfect images all the time. The actual body cannot live up to its instagram double.
The growing trend for adverts featuring selfies reinforce this idea. For example, the advertising campaigns for Dolce and Gabbana’s Autumn/Winter 2015 and Spring/Summer 2016 collections feature models taking selfies, either alone with products or in social settings with other selfie-taking models. The models only interact with one another to pose for a selfie.
I am intrigued by these images and feel they warrant further research because they offer a viewing position structure I have not seen before. The adverts don’t simply encourage the viewer to identify with the models and aspire to become like them, the viewer is encouraged to identify with the selfies they cannot see. The adverts seem to say ‘if you wear the dress and own the handbag you will be the image the model views in the mobile phone’. Your selfie will be ideal.
As I begin to shape my ideas for the conference next month, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on these adverts. Where do you place yourself in the image?
How do you think they appeal to the audience?
What do they suggest the consumer will gain if they buy these products?
If you would like to hear more and develop the conversation even further, leave a comment and book your place for the conference!