Ever since the early American corporations began selling us their company image through logos and slogans, rather than through their products and services, we’ve been a branded nation. Today, companies don’t advertise products and services anymore. Instead, they advertise a lifestyle that they hope consumers will buy into.
Beer commercials don’t sell beer; they sell the lifestyle of what society sees as a man’s lifestyle, with “beautiful” women and freedom from life’s responsibilities. Detergent isn’t advertised as a way to get clothes clean, but instead as a way to help save a marriage. Advertisers know what pushes our buttons, and they exploit them.
To be fair to advertisers, they aren’t always aware they’re selling us a lifestyle rather than a product or service. They have been taught to sell products to consumers based on their needs and desires. Along the way, advertisers discovered that selling to consumers’ emotional needs, rather than to their practical needs, was a great way to increase sales.
A number of problems exist with this method of selling products, but we’ll focus on just one: advertising leading to stereotyping of the audience.
Companies don’t sell products to everyone. They sell their products to specific people called target markets. This is the reason why if you’re a woman, you’ll almost never see an ad for men’s shaving cream. It’s because the company advertising the men’s shaving cream understands what types of media men consume, and what type of media women consume. Although there is some overlap, the company knows that men typically consume media that society deems appropriate for men.
This “typical” assumption is where we enter into the area of stereotyping. In order to market specific products to specific people, companies assume certain things about the people they are selling to, and then use those assumptions to try to attract that customer. For example, with the men’s shaving cream, the company will attempt to differentiate the shaving cream used for men’s faces, as opposed to the shaving cream used for women’s legs. By doing this, they must explicitly demonstrate that this shaving cream is for men, and not women.
Instead of displaying “this is only for men!” in large letters in the advertisement, advertisers rely on stereotypes to indicate the preferred market for the product. In our example of men’s shaving cream, the advertisers may show a “typical” man with a beard after he has taken a shower. He reaches for his shaving cream, and it is of course the brand being advertised.
In order to get men interested in the advertisement, the company may use a model that society deems attractive, rather than a model that society deems disgusting. So by showing us an “attractive” man, and depicting him as “typical”, our image of what a man should be like is formed. This leads to stereotyping of what a man should look like, how a man should act, and of course, what product a man should shave with.
Over time, and with enough stereotypes depicted, a company will be able to sell its brand to loyal customers, but at a heavy cost in terms of our perceptions about people.