In 1998, the Diet Coke ad slogan was 'You are What You Drink'. If true, then judging by the latest Diet Coke ads women who drink it have a child-like mentality and like playing with dolls wearing heavy make-up, being glam and dieting. Personally, I don't buy or drink Coca Cola on principle. It's not a healthy drink and it's made by a multi-national corporation. So, if I need a quick caffeine pick-up I'll take a tastier and reliable coffee with sugar. However, after being bombarded with the latest Diet Coke billboard ads, I realised that I couldn't keep my head in the sand for too long.
Advertising (like art) both reflects and influences our cultural norms and ideas. So what does Diet Coke's latest 'Get Glam' campaign proclaim about women today? It confirms the relentless media and consumer message that what is most important and valuable about women is how we look, with an exceptionally narrow (and unhealthy) idea of what is 'beautiful' too.
As Jean Kilbourne demonstrates in the Killing Us Softly series on advertising's depiction of women: first, an advert gives us an image of ideal female beauty, which tells us how important it is for a women to be beautiful and exactly what it takes. Then, if we analyse it further, it reveals a pattern of disturbing and destructive gender stereotypes which have a relationship with broader issues of culture, identity, sexism, violence and power. Diet Coke's 'Get Glam' ad 'successfully' accomplishes all those things.
Infantilisation of women and adultification of girls
The most striking aspect of the Diet Coke ad is that it does not use real women but plastic, heavily made-up dolls, who are referred to as 'puppets'. These 'puppets' bear a striking resemblance to a young girl's doll, e.g. a Barbie or a Bratz. Yet, the American Psychological Association recently expressed their concern (among many) in 2010 about the unhealthy sexualization of the Bratz dolls' clothing and its effect on children:
Bratz dolls come dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas. Although these dolls may present no more sexualization of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality.
However, in the Diet Coke ad, we not only have sexualised dolls (thus re-affirming that 'beauty ideal' and message to girls) but also the infantilisation of adult women too.
It's not just Diet Coke who are ignoring the APA's concerns though. Two recent examples of this phenomenon can be found in the December issue of French Vogue, in which a series of photographs appeared as yet another piece of evidence of the adultification of young girls. New York Magazine reports that the girls are 6 years old. This month, Cindy Crawford's ten year old daughter was featured in the Young Versace campaign looking very similar to an adult model, dressed in a leather jacket and very short skirt.
Yes, little girls have always liked dressing up and copying their mothers, but the media's sexualization of young girls, paralleled by the infantilization of adult women, adds up to a conflation of women and children which serves to promote and uphold sexism, misogyny, and aggression against adult women who do not 'fit the bill' of youthful perfection and submissiveness and the exploitation and sexual abuse of girls.
In early 2010, UK mothers on Mumsnet.com became so concerned at the media's portrayal of females that they launched the Let Girls Be Girls campaign. In 2011, the campaign was extended to tackle lads' mags, calling on newsagents and supermarkets not to display them in children's sight.
The key 'asks' of the Let Girls be Girls and the Lads Mags campaigns were endorsed by the government's Bailey Review into the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood. Sadly, although the report recommended stricter controls, the British Prime Minister stopped short of legislating against inappropriate advertising, consumer products, clothing and toys instead suggesting voluntary regulation.
Last week, women's rights groups in the UK also presented evidence to the Leveson Enquiry asking for sexist and misogynistic stereotypes in print media to be regulated and monitored in the way that TV is currently regulated at the watershed. For example, if we're not allowed to see naked women on the TV prior watershed, why are they freely available for children to see in mainstream 'family' tabloid newspapers like The Sun? Apart from the fact that these representations of women are predominantly sexist and objectifying too.
Sadly, such concerns do not appear to have even remotely touched or engaged the Diet Coke marketing team though. So much for the merits of corporate self-regulation!
How about 'Get Healthy'?
The 'Get Glam' campaign also reinforces the prevailing idea that women (and girls) should diet to look physically attractive rather than be healthy.
It's true that many adult women do enjoy spending time and money in order to look physically attractive (including myself). Yet, with dieting, eating disorders and plastic surgery at an all-time high among women (and teenagers), this focus on the importance of 'beauty' rather than health is worrying. Mary-Ann Sieghart recently wrote about the extremely damaging impact that Barbie doll images have on women's and girls' self-esteem and body image.
So, in short, the problem with these overriding media messages -- part of what the campaigning organization About-Face calls the "toxic media environment" -- is that they are contributing to low self-esteem, depression, persistent anxiety over weight and appearance, extremely unhealthy diets and exercise regimens, and eating disorders among women and girls. All of these problems interfere with our ability to function and evolve in a positive manner.
We can be push back on this though. If these recent campaigns by women's groups have taught us anything is that we can raise awareness about these issues and sometimes achieve some small change in the right direction. We can teach boys to value girls as friends, sisters, and girlfriends, rather than as sexual objects. And we can advocate for change with manufacturers and media producers. Boycott Diet Coke and send them the clear message that sexism sells, but we're not buying it.
An extended version of this article, appeared in The Feminist Wire.
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