Following outrage in the past couple of years over ads that were seen as toxic, the U.K. has responded by banning advertising that perpetuates negative stereotypes or equates physical attractiveness with social or romantic success. The elegant simplicity of this solution might leave us wondering, why hasn’t anyone thought to do this before?
Perhaps because, as far as ideas go, it’s right up there with banning stupidity. Sure, it would be great if it worked… but how exactly do you do that?
Yes, stereotypes can be unfair, inaccurate, and even deeply problematic. But that doesn’t mean that stereotypes fit that mold all the time. It also doesn’t mean that negative or unfair stereotypes can be fixed by a ban.
No matter how well-intentioned these guidelines are, will they be enforceable without veering into the ridiculous? After all, who gets to decide which stereotypes are negative? Or what even is a stereotype in any given situation?
Let’s consider first the question of enforceability. Beth Egan, associate professor of advertising at Syracuse University, tells the Washington Post that it will be hard to predict where the line will be drawn between what is a stereotype and what is a representation of real life. Have promoters of the ban considered that, in all likelihood, stereotypes will simply evolve? Will there be an ever-growing list of stereotypes or potential stereotypes that are seen as offensive? And if so, how long will that list become before people see it as unreasonable?
But even more fundamentally, the ban may overlook how and why advertising works.
Scholar René Girard explores this idea in a reading of Shakespeare’s works, focusing on a concept called “mimetic desire.” Girard explains that mimetic desire is the idea that people are drawn to the things that other people want. This is why close friends often grow to have similar tastes in music, food, clothes, or pastimes. Conversely, it also explains why friendship can turn to rivalry when two people strive for the same, non-shareable object of desire. Girard writes,
"Modern technology accelerates mimetic effects; it repeats them ad nauseam and extends their scope to the entire world, but does not change their nature. It also turns them into a most respectable industry called advertising.
When business tries to increase the sale of a product, it resorts to advertising. In order to inflame our desire, advertisers try to convince us that the beautiful people all over the world are already in love with their product."
If the person who is portrayed as wanting or enjoying a product is especially popular, successful, or attractive, then the likelihood that they will be able to persuade other people to desire the product increases. This is why advertisers pay celebrities (or hire attractive models) to promote their product.
Advertisers often capitalize on a fear of missing out. Contentment does not usually lead to a lot of sales, and a good advertiser knows that in order to make money they need to create a market. What better way to create a market than to tell people that something is missing in their life? Whether we like it or not, advertising works by telling us first that our lives aren’t as great as we thought they were, and second, that the way to make our lives better is to buy whatever product is being advertised.
So, what does this have to do with the U.K.’s recent advertising restrictions? Simply this: advertisements that employ stereotypes usually generate a fear of becoming (or not living up to) the stereotype portrayed.
Similarly, advertisements that equate physical attractiveness with social or romantic success encourage people to go for the product that the “best” people want in hopes of becoming like them. Even with restrictions in place, it’s entirely likely that people will continue to choose products based on stereotypes and that advertisers will find subtle ways to continue to feed those stereotypes.
But these tactics are nothing new. It’s the exact same method that Pandarus uses on Cressida in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Working to convince her of Troilus’s worthiness, he tells her in elaborate (and probably fabricated) detail how Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, thinks that Troilus is handsome, brave, and funny.
Shakespeare recognized that shrewd advertisers use stereotypes and false assumptions about beauty and success in order to draw people to their product. Is it cynical to suppose that a ban will never truly have the power to change that fact?
[Image credit: Flickr, CC BY 2.0; Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; Flickr, CC BY 2.0]