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Looking at Adverts: 9


I discussed this poster in the second blog of the Looking at Adverts series. The way the framing, camera angle and colour palette created associations between the image and other photographs really interested me.
The company, Protein World hit the news headlines recently because of an advert displayed on tube trains and in stations in London. In many ways the styling is similar to the 2014 advert; there is a combination of mono-chromatic photograph with bold yellow background and an isolated figure. But the audience response to the adverts couldn’t be more different. The 2015 ‘beach body ready’ advert has resulted in mass protests, posters have been defaced and a very public and acrimonious argument is currently playing out between the CEO of the company and feminist activists. So what is it about this image that has caused such offence?


The text on the 2014 poster links the product and the people that consume it to revolutionary progress; the association of the Rodchenko-like composition reinforces this. The 2015 advert also carries the slogan ‘leading the protein revolution’ but the main emphasis of the text lies in the question ‘are you beach body ready?’ The 2014 advert doesn’t directly address the audience in this way. Does this suggest that the male consumer already has a ‘beach body’? Or perhaps it is assumed they have already asked the question and know the answer. It seems women need to be prompted…
The viewer of this poster is supposed to look at the female figure in the image as an exemplar for the ‘beach body’ and determine if their own bodies measure up. Advertisements with bodies in them provoke the audience along two axes –identification and envy. I look at an image of a woman and I compare my body to hers. I identify with similarities and pinpoint differences that may become the basis of my envious response. Adverts generally show idealized bodies because products are sold with the implication that the differences between the body in the advert and our own bodies can be eradicated if we buy the product. This could be the cause of contention surrounding the 2014 advert but these mechanisms are also at play in the 2014 one. The muscular male figure is designed to make men feel inferior to and envious of the body depicted. So what is the cause of the recent furor?
In Ways of Seeing John Berger describes how men and women have been depicted differently throughout the history of portrait painting. He says that a painting of a man informs the viewer of his place in the world; objects that describe his ‘moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social and sexual power’ often surround him (Berger uses The Ambassadors by Holbein as an example of this). The female body in a painting tends to be presented as an object to be viewed and possessed by a male audience. He says ‘men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’ (1972 p47)
When I compare the two Protein World adverts I am immediately aware of the difference in gesture and framing of the two bodies. The male body is active and dynamic. The low camera angle literally makes us look up to him – it is aspirational. He doesn’t return our gaze but looks at something outside the frame. The female figure is static, she stands with legs apart and shoulders back giving the impression that she is holding her body out for us to see. Her eyes are in shadow so it is unclear if she is looking back at me. If they are closed, an imbalance of power is implied because I am voyeuristically looking at someone who is unaware of my gaze. She is ‘an object of vision’.
Perhaps I am missing something, but when I view this image I am unable to come up with any art or photography history counterparts akin to Rodchenko / Greek sculptures. Are there visual associations I have overlooked?

Posted by author: Dawn Woolley
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23 thoughts on “Looking at Adverts: 9

  • Interesting stuff, Dawn. I’m trying to think of precedents in art and, like you, find it tricky. I think this might be due to it being so strident and not coquettish in any way. It resembles, in some ways the brazen, unashamed, poses of Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, but of course having her eyes shut / shaded changes the gaze-dynamic. In the Picasso (or Manet’s Olympia or Goya’s Naked Maja) there is something bold coming back from the canvas that’s missing here. In the Goya it’s seductive, but in the Picasso and Manet it’s typically characterised as ‘brazen’ or something similar.
    The pose of the model in this advert is – perhaps – evidence of a new kind of sexuality. It’s a strange combination of confidence and self-aware objecthood. I’m not an expert on this (by any means), but lad and ‘ladette’ culture tried to reframe relations between men and women as ‘post-feminist’, implying that women were now in control of their own sexuality and shouldn’t be ashamed of having multiple partners or of acting like as men had for years. It’s a persistent idea because it’s hard to gainsay it’s belief in it being equality without sounding like either a prude or patrician. But we know that anything can be appropriated and instrumentalised in neoliberalism. That (sexual) confidence becomes transformed into a new kind of pressure. Women, the agenda seems to be, should be attractive, sexual, and to be other than that is shameful and somehow a betrayal of a desire for equality.
    Little of what I’ve written has much to do with advertising as such, but I hope you’ll indulge me.
    Oh, there’s something of the Caryatid about her pose, too.

    • Hi Bryan, I agree – women are not objectified in the way they used to be. Rosalind Gill calls it ‘sexual subjectification’ saying that women are expected to embrace their own sexual objectification as a form of empowerment. She wrote an excellent article called ‘Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising’ – Trevor Beattie and the ‘Hello Boys’ wonderbra advert have a lot to answer for! The shielded eyes are really problematic – they prevent a confrontational or inviting return of the gaze which really diminishes the agency of the model – either as an active subject or reciprocating sexual object.

  • To me it’s a challenging and provocative stance from the neck down, but the hooded eyes and open lips give her an air of being ready for sex.
    From the neck down the pose reminds me of the middle figure, a Chimera, in a sculpture by Francis William Doyle Jones. It is over the doorway of one of the buildings in the City of London (24-8, Lombard Street) which used to be the Royal Insurance building. It is called “Chimera with Personifications of Fire and the Sea” and can be see at http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/doylejones/3.html . I used it as an example of curves when I was doing the art of Photography Module.
    Sighting the chimera was an omen of storms, shipwrecks and natural disasters and so used by the Insurance company presumably as a sign that they could protect against the effects of this.
    Interesting link with the sea! A lady not to be messed with and you could be like that if you take the tablets!

    • Thanks for the link – I can see some similarity in pose / angle of the neck but after your comment I looked at the advert again and suddenly she appear to be a figure head on a boat! I don’t know why exactly – perhaps the way the shoulders are tilted back..what do you think?

  • I wonder if the sexuality conveyed by the girl contributes to the hostile responses, maybe if it were a more playful pose the level of hostility would be less? So is the sexualised image somehow less acceptable, felt as threatening or undermining perhaps?

    • Yes, I think so too – if she were involved in an activity of some sort – rather than just being presented for us to look at (and as Bryan said – returned our gaze in someway) she would appear as a subject rather than an object.

  • Very interesting discussion. I can’t immediately think of any visual associations, but am struck by the wording and how it is placed. Try saying “Beach Body” to yourself a few times … I think I can see what the feminist supporters may be objecting to .. Actually, I’m not sure about comparing any advert to artworks because text alongside is so influential.

    • Thanks Anne, yes I know what you mean about the text in adverts – I suppose I am not comparing adverts to artwork so much as look for art associations suggested within the adverts. The reason I was drawn to the first advert with the male figure was because it reminded me of some photographs by Rodchenko. The association between Rodchenko’s revolutionary proletariate bodies and the figure in the advert gave the figure a complex meaning beyond the simple representation of an idealised body type. I was trying to find a similar art association to ‘redeem’ the later advert (to some extent) but I think the comments show that the female figure is not afforded a complex meaning – she really is just there to be looked at…

  • As a Visual Communications student I quite like the composition of the first advert. The second advert looks awkward. The male in the first advert looks like he is actually holding the camera, like taking a “selfie”-perhaps this is why we accept the image more than the second advert, he is a more willing participant. I find the newer advert to be compositionally poor, but the “Are you” bit of the text is isolated to the left of the centrally placed image, while the “Beach Body Ready” is on the busier right hand side, along with the product and its details. This perhaps targets the individual looking at the poster in a more personal way-the question “Are you” is more effective. Still, I believe most of the controversy surrounds the CEO’s reaction to Twitter users and his misguided views on mental health rather than the designs themselves. If he hadn’t have created such a storm by responding without tact on Twitter this advert, like the last one soul have slipped under the radar.

    • Great input – do you think more effort was put into the design of the first poster? I wonder if that suggests that it is harder to attract the attention of male audiences using a male body in comparison to selling commodities to female consumers using female bodies? I find the different direct / indirect modes of address fascinating…

  • I think a possible influence might be Helmut Newton. In particular, it reminds me of the pose in ‘Evi the cop
    For the record, I am not a fan of Helmut Newton.

    • Thanks Gareth, I am slightly sorry I clicked on the link – what a dreadful diptych! I think fashion photographers tend to make the models look like mannequins – the way the arms are held out at a slightly awkward angle from the body is reminiscent of Newton’s models, but also many others – a vacant expression (or concealed eyes that cannot convey life) also adds to the plastic quality of the body. This is what Guy Bourdin’s photographs express openly in a way that exposes the other fashion photographers as fetishists (Looking at Adverts blog no7)!

  • To me the image looks more like a drawing than a photo. It is reminiscent of how women’s bodies are generally portrayed in superhero comics.

  • What happened to just looking and reading the advert, for what its advertising?, why has everything have to be about feminist or objectivity? I can recall the times when something was advertised, that was it, end of. These days, it’s as though someone has to complain about anything out there. Society to me, has gone mad. When I myself either look or read an advert, I take it for what it is, not for ‘what can I find to moan about.

  • Laura Mulvey in her essay: visual pleasure and narrative cinema (2009) discussed the issues of the cinematic gaze that tends towards the feminine being seen by the masculine and that the passivity of the women is often overbearing compared to the active male. Mulvey argues that this is a one sided and unfortunate development in cinemaphotogrpahy. Does this apply in the same way to photography?
    It would seem so at least in advertising. However, this idealisation of women based on sexuality and beauty seems to be a charged issue. I think that it interesting just how different it is for men. When I see a guy muscled up I don’t necessarily feel envious. Partly its because I had that kind of body and realised that it didn’t bring the happiness that it claimed to bring and partly nowadays its often over the top. The statuesque look either in the man or woman to me seems to be a sort of misplaced idealism. That as humans we are somehow searching for perfection at some leve all of the time, or happiness and the physical is our first point of identification as we find it hard to see anything else.
    Just a few thoughts.

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