How Subliminal Are Ads?

Messages of gender in advertisements are not subliminal.

Rather, what constitutes as “masculine” and “feminine” is recognizable at a glance and often leads to the commodification of subversive forces that govern women’s lives.

Despite their primary intention of informing and persuading consumers to purchase products, advertisements often become greater representations of social norms as they draw on cultural ideology, which determines the way people live and understand the world.

One such ideology being gender; one of the deepest and most important traits in understanding who we are and how we identify ourselves as humans.

Because gender is socially constructed through culturally specific relationships rather than being the biological distinction between male and female, admen reflect on rituals of gender behavior to sell their products.

They fail to merely tell consumers what they need to know, and instead attempt to draw it out of them based on their prior thoughts and beliefs by following Tony Schwartz’s “Resonance Theory.”

“Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our communication evoke meaning in a listener or viewer. That which we put into the communication has no meaning in itself. The meaning of our communication is what a listener or viewer gets out of his experience with the communicator’s stimuli,” Schwartz said. “The listener’s or viewer’s brain is an indispensable component of the total communication system. His life experience as well as his expectations of the stimuli he is receiving, interact with the communicator’s output in determining the meaning of the communication.”

Therefore, to truly resonate with consumers, according to Schwartz, the advertiser must understand the kinds of information and experiences stored in his audience and the interactive resonance process whereby stimuli evoke this stored information.

When attempting to resonate with the public’s prior conceptions of gender, it is necessary for advertisements to constitute, rather than simply reflect differences in gender.

This is largely done through displaying the connotations of gender as social tableaux; reflections of the “slice of life,” ideal reality.


As depicted in Dolce & Gabbana’s Spring/Summer 2014 campaign, the essence of the family is sold through the ad as a living tablet, a freeze frame of social relations. We see the mother poised and perfected, holding her daughter, seven children and the “almighty” father depicted in a way that suggests their relationship to each other and the larger social structure.

However, more prominently, we see the connotations of what is socially desired and expected of being masculine and feminine within this single scene. The mother is expected to have this elegant and beautiful personage, whereas the father portrays the strength, power and domination that is expected of men in society.

This is gender as a social tableaux.

What is alarming is how ads that are projected as true reflections of reality, however, are merely reflections of what reality “should be,” change the way we think and feel about the “realities” of men and women. This is especially true for female audiences who, according to Jean Kilbourne, writer of “The More You Subtract, The More You Add,” are presented in ads as objects to be viewed, used and desired.

As Kilbourne points out from Erving Goffmans’ “Gender Advertisements,” we learn about the disparate power of males and females simply through the body language and poses featured in advertisements. Often, ads portray rituals of subordination where women are positioned in very passive poses with limp, doll-like features that suggest their role as childish little girls, who cannot be taken seriously.

Whereas men in ads are generally portrayed as secure, powerful and serious with upright stances and active gazes, women often appear off-balance, insecure and weak.

Female Vs. Male Ad

“Often our body parts are bent, conveying unpreparedness, submissiveness and appeasement,” Kilbourne wrote. “We exhibit what Goffman terms ‘licensed withdrawal’—seeming to be psychologically removed, disoriented, defenseless, spaced out.”

Seemingly aloof through their entranced gazes, women are projected as objects controlled by males in ads.

However, posture and gazes are not the sole rituals of subordination present in today’s ads. Rather female bodies are often objectified and sexualized by replacing female body parts with products, using a woman’s body as a canvas, trapping the body in chain-like accessories and by wrapping female bodies in the commodity in a way that their body becomes the product in and of itself, according to scholar Sut Jhally.

“Women become defined as an object for the other,” Jhally said. “Objects have no interest, no feelings and no desires other than the way they affect yours.”

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Despite the wide-spread objectification of women in advertisements, several brands have recently rejected the long-lived gender norms that govern the foundations of fashion advertising.

Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton caused quite the stir within the fashion industry after debuting the fashion house’s Spring/Summer 2016 womenswear ad campaign featuring Jaden Smith in women’s clothing.

Harper’s Bazaar
Though the controversial image serves as a positive push toward social change within the fashion and advertising industry, as a social tableaux, the ad raises questions within the realm of what a women’s body should look like. By replacing a female model with Smith, one could question what types of connotations the ad conveys.

However, according to Ghesquière, gender remains the primary focus for the campaign.

“Why does Jaden Smith star in this campaign?” Ghesquière asked in the press release. “He represents a generation that has assimilated the codes of true freedom, one that is free of manifestos and questions about gender. Wearing a skirt comes as naturally to him as it would to a woman who, long ago, granted herself permission to wear a man’s trench or a tuxedo. Jaden Smith conveys something very interesting about the integration of a global wardrobe. He’s found an instinctive balance that makes his extraordinary attitude a new norm. That really inspired me in the creative process for this collection.”

Other brands like Kenneth Cole, Make Up For Ever and Marc Jacobs, have embraced the blurring lines of gender as well with their inclusion of transgender model, Andreja Pejic, within their campaigns and runway shows.

Kenneth Cole

The model represents the new era of gender fluidity within society as a whole, according to Proenza Schouler cofounder, Lazaro Hernandez.

“Nobody cares anymore. The distinction between man and woman is disappearing, aesthetically at least,” Hernandez said. “As a designer, you reflect the culture, and this is a big facet of our culture right now.”

With attempts to reimagine gender within their advertisements, Kenneth Cole and Louis Vuitton are leading the pack toward social mobility. How they impact social norms of gender within the advertising and fashion industry is a question only time can tell.


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