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Culture vs. Nature: Women and Advertising in The New Media

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It may seem that economic factors and competition from new media are forcing advertisers to reevaluate how to get their messages across; to engage in product placement and other tricks to penetrate the clutter. In fact this is just the tail wagging the dog. It has always been inevitable that the "content" – what we call "ads" – would move from the confines of the 15 or 30 seconds spaces between the old content presented by traditional electronic media or the column inches of traditional print media to become involved in every aspect of our lives.

Advertising in general wrestles with the same types of concerns that structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss discerned in the mythology of "primitive" South American Indians. That is, in a context relevant to our modern sensibilities, ads are really dealing with an opposition between nature and culture. In doing so, they provide structure to our lives, disseminate guidelines for how to look and feel, and mandate what rituals to perform to be fully human.

Think about how the average person in Homeric Greece related to The Iliad or The Odyssey. These performance/poems weren't just the "literature" of Greek culture, separate from the general experience. As Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan and others have pointed out, The Iliad and The Odyssey constituted cultural how-to manuals, presenting the proper ways for Greek men and women to conduct ceremonies, the proper relationship of Greeks toward their gods, and the proper things to believe about just about everything in their world. Claude Lévi-Strauss added that such cultural encyclopedias reconcile or deny the inevitable contradictions within a culture. By doing so, they promote the well-being and peace of mind of the members of the culture.

We still can't see that modern advertising, in all its manifestations, performs the same functions in our modern culture that The Iliad and The Odyssey performed in ancient Greece, or that the tales about frogs and honey bees and jaguars performed for native South Americans. In doing so, advertising explains and reconciles the contradictions that must inevitably exist in the lexicon of a complex culture, or deny that those contradictions exist. To help them better grasp this concept, I’d like to ask the following question: Why do women in our culture wear makeup?

One response is that our culture still distinguishes men from women along a culture/nature opposition. The religious and scientific stories of our culture tell us that as human beings we are outside or above the constraints of the natural world. At the same time we come into this world through childbirth, we get sick, we age and die, we suffer from various bodily afflictions. How do we reconcile this contradiction?

Lévi-Strauss cites an instance where an anthropological field investigator asks his native informant why his people apply so many tattoos to their bodies. "Because we are not animals" is the reply. They complete the transition from nature to culture, they make themselves cultural beings rather than natural ones, via tattoos, and the fact that they are not within nature makes them want to do so. The implication is that they distinguish themselves from the natural order by decorating their skin.

What I am suggesting is that when women apply makeup they are doing the same thing. They are making themselves into cultural beings. By applying a corporate (meaning collective) mask, women tap into a source of collective power. Men don't need to wear makeup because they are, by definition, already cultural. Of course, much advertising operates along this borderline, and because both men and women buy their products, advertisers pitch to both sexes. Ads say “If you have a problem with a bodily function (i.e. nature) we have a cultural product that can help.”

This also applies to sexual attraction. In order to attract a mate both men and women have to look sharp by applying proper grooming aids, and smell sharp by applying proper perfumes, but women must go much further. They must color and condition their hair. They must paint their eyes, their lips, and their faces. They must remove hair from inappropriate places on their bodies. Ads never discuss (beyond the obvious sexual claims) why they must do this, only how. 

What is an advertisement in a new media website? Is it presenting a narrative, like television advertising, or is it evoking a response through a still image, like print advertising? The answer is probably both and neither. Banner ads on a web site try to be TV commercials or they try to be print ads and yet they aren’t really either. This is a prime illustration of Marshall McLuhan's assertion that we are numb to the true impact of our media. By shifting the communication paradigm, the new media allow advertising myths to burst out of the confines of the traditional media. While the new media sorts itself out, the advertising of the old media breaks out and becomes the content of our everyday lives. As the mythic avatars of our culture, advertising icons want to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives, and we subconsciously want them to do so. 

Our collective body of advertising defines what is cultural and what is natural, and offers concise advice on how we can best exist in culture rather than nature. This collective resource, acting as a sort of cultural encyclopedia, performs the same function in our age that the Homeric epics performed in classical Greece. The new media are taking our existing cultural encyclopedia and transforming it into a wikipedia. How this transformation affects our social institutions, our belief structures, and our notions concerning gender remains to be seen.

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