anastasia amour body image psychology photo-1457388497438-b12745cbc24f advertising media body image

Ahh, brands aligning with body positivity… it breaks my heart every single damn time.

A big brand posts a video on Facebook or airs a TV campaign that’s filled with fluffy, self-help slogans like “Just love yourself!” and women across the world eat it up. The masses outpour joy and accolades to these brands (“Finally! We’re starting to see a shift in advertising!”) and when you look at it on a surface level, it seems like we’re actually making some traction in terms of representing body positivity in advertising.

But hold up, wait a minute.

Are these brands actually grasping the concept of what body positivity entails… or are they just subverting ‘trending’ ideas in an attempt to leverage consumer insecurity for financial gain and extension of the consumer lifecycle?

If you guessed the latter, you’re sadly correct.

Now, before we go any further, I’d like to preface with these points:

  • YES any progress in the right direction in terms of advertising still counts; and
  • YES we have every right to celebrate advertising that we feel is at least a small step positively; and
  • YES I’m super grateful that there’s even one ad exec out there who’s dared to raise their voice at a team meeting and say “Hey, how about if we stop overtly preying on women’s insecurities and fears for one fucking second, guys?”; and
  • YES it’s great that brands want to pay attention to what consumers are interested in.

BUT – and this is a big but – we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the problematic nature of brands and advertising just because they made a small step in the right direction. Celebrating the fact that it’s awesome to see more representation on TV doesn’t mean that we have to dismiss that the surrounding messages are still often doing more harm than good.

The trouble with advertising

At the end of the day, advertisers are still selling a product. And they need you to buy it to keep their company afloat.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with advertising – if it weren’t for advertising, we wouldn’t know about half of the products that we own. There are loads of businesses out there with fantastic products that need to make sure that people hear about it, otherwise nothing ever goes anywhere.

Advertising can be wonderful… when used ethically.

This is where a lot of big brands fall down – they don’t use it ethically. They’re smart marketers and they know that we as consumers are most likely to buy a product when we feel small, scared and vulnerable and that product just so happens to be the very thing that will “fix”us.

Sometimes, those insecurities are already there and marketers just tap into them. Other times, they create insecurities for us, then position themselves as the solution. They appeal to your aspirations and set up the fear/shame complex that leaves you frightened to think what would happen if you stopped using their products. It claims to empower you but behind the scenes, it keeps you inextricably chained to their consumer lifecycle. And if you happen to find a way out, they hit you from another angle with a new fear & insecurity to play on.

Both of those methods are unethical, and both of those methods are also widely used.

The demand for authenticity

The female body has been warped and skewed in the media’s portrayal for longer than I’d care to discuss  – we know this, and this is widely discussed. It’s why it’s so important that we start seeing a more diverse and real array of bodies on pages and screens.

That ‘real’ word is exactly what I want to talk about now, and it’s something that we’re not discussing all that much. In our over-saturated culture of Photoshopped models and lifeless, waxy looking women that are meant to be seen as the ideal, we’ve started craving realness.

You and I – average women – want to see more people like us in the media. Real women. Average women. Women with flaws and cellulite and saddlebags and acne and one breast bigger than the other and surgical scars.

Marketers know this. But, instead of doing the honourable thing and casting a wide variety of women, they reinforce the divide with overuse of the term ‘real women’.

At face value, it makes sense. However, thin and culturally ‘ideal’ models are still real women. And by setting up a dichotomy where we’re either ‘real’ or ‘ideal’, this allows marketers to still position their products as the means of achieving the aspirational ideal.

When marketers use ‘real’ women to cleverly disguise their awful, emotionally-pandering sales pitches, consumers usually gloss over the sales pitch and become so fixated on the idea that some slight empowerment might be about to take place.

Consumers then become overwhelmed with the idea that a brand finally cares about them and, even if they would never normally buy that product or don’t actually need it, they support that company with their hard-earned dollars as a ‘thank you’ for producing a piece of advertising that isn’t entirely awful.

Those dollars then go into helping that company spread more icky marketing that plays on our insecurities (disguised by recreated ‘authenticity’) and the the cycle continues forever more.

Brands and Body Positivity - Anastasia Amour

Examples

We don’t have to look far for examples of faux-body positivity from corporations who are oh-so-desperate to position themselves as the figureheads of self-love so that you’ll buy more of their crap.

What they don’t count on is consumers realising that they don’t actually need the shower gel, cellulite cream or 150 calorie muesli bars to be beautiful, worthy, healthy, confident or strong.

From my previous takedown of Dove’s #ChooseBeauty campaign:

“They’re just products. Products that are completely unemotional, but that are given an emotional value which we’re made to believe is proportionate to the potential of those  products to change our lives.

When we have a company that sells beauty products appointing themselves the patron saints of women’s body acceptance, we have a problem – the very vehicle that’s contributing to women’s body based insecurities is trying to now be women’s saviour.

It’s not a movement. It’s not refreshing. It’s not revolutionary. It’s just clever marketing.”

 

Let’s look at some examples, shall we?

As you browse through each example below, spot the common trend in every single one of these pieces of advertising:

STEP 1: Victimise the consumer. Watch how each advert makes consumers accept their fate that they’re under the influence of faults (insecurity, self-doubt, unhappiness) of their own doing. Notice the moments when the advertising sets us up to believe that we are inherently addled by struggles by default.

STEP 2: Show the consumer what they ‘should’ be doing – and that is having a tear-filled epiphany, breakthrough moment or lightbulb moment that sets us free. Watch as we see other ‘real’ consumers having this moment, and notice the exact point in each advert where we’re supposed to reflect on our own lives and wonder if we’ve yet had this breakthrough moment (and of course we haven’t, because how many of us have a rare moment of self-clarity amidst a breakdown in the shampoo aisle of the grocery store?)

STEP 3: Show the consumer that there is hope and that they can have that breakthrough moment and come out the other side of it as happy, thriving, frequent-spending consumers of the product that will ‘fix’ that emotional void. Notice how each advert heavily plays on emotions like fear, guilt and shame and presents their product/service as a form of soothing. This is almost always triggered by a well-crafted story line that is designed for us to align our own life with and music that lifts and drops at just the right moments to give us a visceral reaction.

STEP 4: The script is successfully flipped. By the end of each advertisement, the dynamic has changed because of the positioning. The advertiser is no longer the oppressor, it’s the consumer. And thankfully for the poor, self-oppressed consumer, the brand is there to swoop in with their life changing cereal and save you from yourself.

Special K tells us that we tweet bad things about the size of our asses. Pantene wants us to stop apologizing so much. Victoria’s Secret and D.Effect also want you to know that even models hate themselves.

And this is just scratching the surface of recent advertising.

The wrong kind of empowerment

Empowerment, in general, is awesome. BUT when advertisers capitalise on our desire to be empowered by shoving unsolicited shaming messages and products claiming to be a saviour for insecurities that we didn’t know needed fixing… it’s not reeeeeaally all that empowering.

In fact, it’s disarming. It strips us of our power as consumers and converts us into their patients.

And not to mention, all this fixation on beauty is entirely missing the point of body positivity and actually moving us farther and farther away from self-love.

It sets us up for an internal struggle when we don’t feel as beautiful as Dove and Nivea and Special K tell us we should feel.

Advertisers rely on you feeling continually disempowered even though their marketing masquerades as empowerment. They pretend that empowerment comes from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

{Side note: this is exactly why I named my book Inside Out!}

Selling to women - Brands and Body Positivity - Anastasia Amour

Can truly beneficial corporate partnerships with body positive messages ever truly exist?

Yes, I believe so! However, I don’t believe that a truly neutral partnership with no undercurrent of sales pitches, snake oils and keeping us small can take place wherein the largest funding body is a big brand.

This is why it’s so troubling when we see that research and activist groups have been ‘consulted’ in the making of faux-body positive advertising. And I understand it, I really do – after years of plugging away, when an activist group is approached by a major sponsor with an offer of funding in exchange for ‘consultation’ they might jump at the chance.

Funding? Getting the message out there? Hell yeah!

But, in the process, so many groups become blinded to the impact that’s going ignored in favour of the general strategy of ‘getting the message out there’ thus diluting the actual message; watering it down with marketing bullshit.

Undeniably, research bodies and activist groups can benefit from funding to help get the message out there and I believe that this can work best when coming from the form of an unbiased sponsor who wants to align their brand with body positivity as a means of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) rather than as a direct sales boosting tool.

Final words

Yes, it’s important that we see more body positivity in the media but before we jump on the couch with our hands in the air in glee (Tom Cruise, anyone?) we need to take a second and refresh ourselves on where the message is coming from.

The next time you see an advert that at surface level appears to be body positive, ask yourself this:

Does the company in question have a vested interest in keeping consumers insecure?

If they do, then take everything with a grain of salt.

Because it’s unlikely that the advertising industry will ever stop using emotion as a tool for sales, and it’s even more unlikely that they’ll stop doing so when they know that so many of us struggle with insecurity and will jump on the bandwagon of any product that has a smidge of hope of masking those insecurities to the outside world.

But we can be analytical consumers. We can learn to spot when we’re being swindled and we can instead look to investing in ourselves rather than on ourselves when we wish to overcome an insecurity or obstacle.

That’s how we create change within ourselves and eventually, systematically.

ANASTASIA AMOUR SIGNATURE
Anastasia Amour Inside Out Book - Download a free chapter (1)

Download a FREE chapter of my bestselling guide to self-love, 'Inside Out'

You'll learn proven psychological strategies, tips and activities to re-wire your brain, build resilience & transform your mind-body relationship.

Thank you! Please check your inbox for your download link :)