The fragmented bodies of consumerism

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The advertising industry seemed to be working very hard to grab the consumer’s attention this festive season. A few ads caught my eye – for the wrong reasons. Walking through Stuttafords I was confronted with an image of a woman’s legs while the rest of her body formed the shape of a Christmas tree made from shopping bags. I shared the image on Facebook and friends commented that my discomfort with the ad was not irrational. A friend replied: “The woman-object. Business stereotype. Sexualization. Fragmented body. While another joined in the conversation with: ‘Nothing bad here. Just another woman objected to selling shit. Buy our shit. Make love.

I expressed my discomfort to Stuttafords via Twitter, but was told the announcement was part of a larger “spoiler campaign” featuring images of men and women whose faces and bodies have been replaced by shopping bags. I guess the ad caught my attention, but for the wrong reasons. My initial outcry was the fragmented female body, but the campaign also features a fragmented male body. This does not make the announcement more acceptable but more dangerous. The fragmentation of the body in the name of consumerism highlights the consequences of lifestyle: that we are in fact dehumanized by the need to consume objects that we probably do not need. Exaggeration is a strong characteristic of advertising, but in the case of the “spoiler campaign”, I think it inadvertently illuminates the state of our humanity in a consumer society.

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I was then struck by a TV ad from Pep about quick and easy loans – you can just walk into a store with ID. This isn’t the first ad of its kind (there’s one about a guy in a taxi who gets rejected by the bank and finds out about Pep Loans after all his hard work). What caught my eye was the use of the caricature (or stereotype) of the black working class woman. It is not surprising that this image is used considering the target market and customers of Pep stores. She’s the same kind of woman who advertises washing powder and chakalaka.

Instead of offering poor black women a way to save advertising – before Christmas – encourages debt. It highlights the lack of consideration for a marginalized group of people who need financial security. I have yet to see an advertisement for a service that encourages saving in stokvel (a lot of black women are part of stokvels) rather than the usual image of the poor black woman having to blind consumer even if we we actually know that this type of consumption has disastrous consequences.

Just at the start of the holiday season, Shoprite had a Christmas ad featuring a striking and cute black girl. She was fair-skinned to the point that I noticed the yellowing of her skin. It may be the lighting used in the commercial to emphasize the happiness associated with Christmas shopping, but her skin tone made me question the type of babies that are used in the commercials: mostly white children and if there are black children, they often appeal to the aesthetics of whiteness. excessively light-skinned because white babies are more palatable to the consumer (the Telkom advertisement with the Afro-looking baby also falls into the category of yellow-looking children).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that many black people in the ads are light-skinned black people. They are often referred to as “yellow bones”: an offensive term originally used to describe fair-skinned women to emphasize their attractiveness. It’s colorism. Alice Walker coined the phrase to explain “discrimination within communities of color against those with darker skin”.

This is dangerous considering the skin lightening industry in South Africa and the rest of the continent. And now young children watching TV are getting a strong message about what it means to be beautiful and cute. Colorism mainly affects women. Dark black men are considered attractive (think booze ads in smoky rooms and pubs with dark chocolate-skinned men). The obvious problem with colorism is its connection to whiteness as a standard of beauty: the closer a black person is to whiteness, the more desirable they are.

I could list more ads that perpetuate negative stereotypes and racist ideas about beauty and attractiveness. Perhaps that is the purpose of advertising: to confirm our reality as consumers so that we can rely on the same tropes that define our reality. God forbid, advertising has challenged our reality.

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