(Warning: Some of the images and links in this post are NSFW)
Introduction: The State of Contemporary Western Advertising
For the leading “fashion” magazine of its era, Vogue certainly has a strange predilection for printing pictures of women in various stages of undress, so in hindsight it was naive of me to be surprised at the huge contrast I found recently between its advertisements for the Cyon “Bikini Phone” and those for the same product in Gentlemen’s Quarterly in their respective June 2008 Korean editions. If anything, the skeletal, half-nude figures in the ostensible “women’s magazine” are much the more objectionable.
But while Vogue would certainly be the most notorious of the bunch, it is by no means the only women’s magazine to occasionally rail against sexism, diets, impossible body ideals, the objectification of women and so forth on one page and then feature precisely that on the next thirty or so (not to mention those objectifying men also). Nor has this not been the case for decades, and if anything Western advertising at least is in many senses merely repeating the 1970s in its increasing use of provocation, nudity and/or sexual poses in attempts to engage consumers’ interest.
But there are important differences: one is that back then it was women that were in fact the primary target of racier advertisements, as stagnant and/or declining sales in the cosmetics, fragrance and hair-care industries, combined with the fear that the “New Woman” would increasingly reject those forms of products proved to be powerful motivators for innovation within the advertising industry. Partially they were also the result of adapting to the changed social environment wrought by Second Wave Feminism too, Dyer noting in 1982 that:
…some advertisers, aware of the objections of the feminist movement to traditional images of women in ads, have incorporated the criticism into their ads, many of which now present an alternative stereotype of the cool, professional, liberated women…Some agencies trying to accommodate new attitudes in their campaigns, often miss the point and equate ‘liberation’ with a type of aggressive sexuality and very unliberated coy sexiness.
(pp. 185-186, quoted in Strinati, pp. 187-188)
Later, Kang’s 1997 study, which compared advertisements in women’s magazines of 1979 and 1991, found that whereas advertisements featuring men in roles instructing (presumably) less intelligent, assertive and/or educated women had almost completely disappeared – something I remember from old versions of school textbooks when I was growing up in the 1980s - those featuring more nudity and body-revealing clothes had largely taken their place, both developments clearly building on those shifts noted above.
But that was 1991. Today, it’s no great exaggeration to say that those trends continued to the extent that nudity and provocative poses are an endemic feature of Western advertising, resulting in a snowball effect of companies using ever more provocative and gratuitous imagery for their products to get noticed. The difference now is that it is men that are the target of this new “advent garde”, with PETA in particular being well known for creating sexual links in male consumers’ minds where none had existed previously. But what else to expect when so many advertisements for products aimed exclusively at women are already just as, if not more sexually titillating than those for products aimed at men? American Apparel’s advertisements most readily come to mind for contemporary examples of those, but there are thousands more:
( Visual part of American Apparel advertisement (full here). Source: Mai Le )
Ironically, while PETA, American Apparel and many other “offending” organizations may regard themselves as progressive and countercultural – or at least want consumers of their products and/or social messages to think of them that way – they share similarities with their 1970s counterparts in that they increasingly expropriate the very language of feminism, yet use it for decidedly unfeminist ends. Gill notes the example of a British travel company (Club 18-30) that used the slogan of abortion campaigns – “a women’s right to choose” – as a slogan for one of its advertisements for instance, and she argued that:
…in this advert a women’s right to choose is being limited to choices about her individual style which in turn, are reduced to a choice about what to consume (i.e. what holiday to book). The meaning of the slogan has been changed: what was essentially a collective political demand is reduced to an individual personal one, concerning which of the fifty-one Club 18-30 resorts to visit. This transformation of meaning has turned the feminist idea that the ‘personal is political’ on its head – by reducing the political to personal choices…[this is possibly] an example of the co-option or incorporation of feminist images…in such a way as to empty of them of their progressive meaning.
(p. 36, quoted in Strinati, p.189. Emphasis in original)
Personally, I find that particular example disingenuous: in the United Kingdom at least (the source of the advertisement), that phrase has lost much of its power precisely because it was so successful, abortion being made legal by a referendum rather than by a Supreme Court decision granting it a popular legitimacy still lacking in the US (the source of much of the venom of the “Culture Wars“). In a more general sense though, it is indeed noteworthy (and ironic) how all of the above developments are commensurate with very real gains for particularly US feminism in recent decades too, and are hardly what was envisaged by the more militant bra-burning, Second Wave Feminists either, many of whom have lamented the defeat of that particular aspect of their struggle.
Bearing that in mind, while sexualized advertisements are hardly a universal negative, the juxtaposition of them with feminist gains merely reflecting how sexually liberal most Western societies are today, on the other hand the degree to which women are portrayed sexually in advertisements today goes well beyond what would could be accounted for by sexual liberalness, or even that female body parts satisfying my heterosexual male gaze would be a core and healthy part of that. No, with advertisements for products aimed at women like in the above pictures, it’s difficult not to concede that the objectification of women is the new norm for all advertising.
Awareness of our Cultural Baggage
Why provide this background? One reason is to provide some context to account for Hovland’s (2005) discovery that advertisements in US women’s magazines in 2000 were more sexist than in Korean ones, surprising considering that the latter society is palpably more sexist and patriarchal as a whole. Another is to provide a healthy reminder that, however undeserving we may be of them personally, however much Koreans shouldn’t act on them, and however much they are deliberately perpetuated by certain Korean organizations with clear economic and/or corporatist interests in doing so (see here also), it’s still no wonder that many Koreans have the sexual stereotypes of Westerners that they do.
( “Qi BaiShi vs. Marylin Monroe”, by Zhang Wei, Oil on canvas 2006. Source )
But my main purpose, other than finally being given a legitimate opportunity to use the above artwork (it’s quite a juxtaposition, yes?), is to demonstrate that while it’s human nature for us to assess change based on our own experiences, for myself and my English-speaking, overwhelmingly Western readers to judge the extent and impact of recent changes in Korean advertising in terms of Western advertising is simply wrong (as is PETA’s notorious protest strategy, done regardless of if the audience is American or Korean). That’s not to say that they aren’t increasingly linked over time, as I’ll discuss in a moment, but it’s what I should have said in my reply to this commentator on this earlier post for instance, who argued that the (then) 15 year-old members of the Korean group The Wondergirls dancing in a sexually provocative fashion in an advertisement was no different to (still) 15 year-old Miley Cirus dancing on TV in the United States. Sure, but what she and other young entertainers like Britney Spears did there suddenly doesn’t somehow negate the fact that no 15 year-olds stroked their breasts and/or strutted their buttocks on TV here previously, or that – surprise surprise – they haven’t been doing so in virtually every advertisement of theirs ever since. Hell, when I arrived 8 years ago, there weren’t too many 25 year-olds dancing like this on TV, let alone teenagers:
( Source. Remind any readers of anything? )
Notice that I say “changes” and not, say, “sexism”: I’m completely against culturally relativist defenses of that, or indeed of any incidence of any other social ill. Hence I’m still trying to figure out why I’d describe the above poses more arousing than “cute”…which I guess is my fault, as I am a sex-obsessed Westerner after all.
Meanwhile, to return to Korean magazines, if one actually buys and then reads and/or studies them, rather than just making assumptions about them based on their Western equivalents, then two interesting features emerge: one is that women’s magazines are not (yet) full of advertisements as sexually appealing to men as to women, making recent changes like this and this much more significant – in a Korean context – then they may at first appear; the other is that while Korean editions of international magazines have a lot of original content, it’s no exaggeration to say that a great deal are their articles are simply translations of what appears in their American editions, the human subjects of which are often completely unknown in Korea, of little relevance and/or interest to Koreans, and whom, other than their brief appearances there, are unlikely to ever be covered again.
In the process of writing this post I’ve realized that this latter feature may be more significant than I first thought, as providing a carbon copy of American photos and content, usually much racier than the Korean norm, may in hindsight be one of the most direct mechanisms by which the Korean media becomes Westernized and/or globalized. A concrete case of that would be advertisers for the Korean Bikini Phone adapting their content for readers of that particular, decidedly non-traditional Korean magazine for instance, something they’d be much slower and have less of an incentive to do otherwise, and which in turn would at least indirectly influence their advertisements for other Korean magazines and so forth.
An obvious point perhaps, but with globalization having a greater or lesser role to play in virtually any social change these days, then in practice it’s often very easy and convenient to take that role as a given in any examination of that change, so much so that it eventually begins to sound almost like a teleological force of nature. So It’s healthy to have a reality check and pay some attention to the how the process actually physically occurs now and then.
Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements
Which brings me to Hovland’s journal article of the above title, which originally inspired this post. I found it useful in three main ways:
- first, by providing a good summation of the relatively little work that has already been written about gender portrayals in Korean advertisements
- second, by providing some data on the numbers of Caucasians models in Korean advertisements, sorely needed for my argument that Koreans have Caucasian ideals of female beauty
- and thirdly and most importantly, by introducing me to and using Goffman’s (1979) classic framework for studying gender role portrayals in advertisements. So essential is using that to my moving on from presenting – let’s face it – mere vibes about advertisements to conducting actual objective research of them, and, in turn, being taken seriously in the field, that I didn’t need much persuasion to order a copy from Amazon (not available from whatthebook? in Seoul unfortunately, which begs the question of why it’s listed on its website).
When I began writing this post I intended to discuss what I’ve learned about Goffman’s framework so far, but after – in all seriousness – 13 hours spent on this post in total, then I’ll wisely reserve something that would double its length for a much later post. Covering the other two points above then, first, I don’t think that I could be more succinct than Hovland herself about the historiography so far:
Advertising has played a major role in developing new Korean lifestyles and consumption patterns based on Westernized values. Chung (1990) concluded that the appearance of Western consumer ideology greatly increased after the 1960s based on an analysis of all the advertisements published between 1965 and 1989 in Ju-Bu-Saeng-Hwal (주부생활), a Korean women’s magazine. For instance, the number of working women in advertisements dramatically increased, and the advertisements seemed to depict Korean women as having freedom for traditional roles in the family structure and as enjoying their own social activities.
The emphasis of Western values increased with the use of foreign elements in Korean advertisements. The use of foreign models in advertisements has been popular since the Korean government lifted restrictions on the use of foreign models in 1989. Taylor and Miracle (1996) measured the uses of foreign elements, including foreign models in Korean and U.S. television advertising. They found that although some foreign elements are present in U.S. advertising, the inclusion of foreign elements in Korean advertising appears to be associated with Korean culture, history, and economic development. Cho et al. (1999) found evidence that implies a shift toward the use of Western consumer ideology at the expense of traditional cultural values in Korean television commercials.
(Hovland: 4. Page numbers refer to the online version)
One minor quibble with the above is that Kim (2003) says that those laws were not lifted until June 1994, not an insignificant difference considering that Korea joined the OECD two years later and that Caucasian models may have been quickly and deliberately used in advertisements thereafter more as a symbol of that economic success than anything else, so I’ll try to find a third source on that. Meanwhile, as for the second point, Hovland’s study of various 2000 editions of Korean women’s magazines Women’s Donga (여성동아) and Céci (쎄씨), and American women’s magazines Good Housekeeping and Glamour, chosen for their primary appeal to middle-aged and younger women in those countries respectively, found that:
- 30% of Korean advertisements featured White female models, whereas only 1.9% of US advertisements showed Asian female models.
- The American and Korean magazines for middle-aged women showed more White and Korean models than their counterparts for younger women respectively
- Both American and Korean magazines used abysmally small numbers of Black female models. This is a well known phenomenon in the global fashion industry as a whole too.
- Compared to US advertisements in 1979 and 1991 (covered by Kang), US and Korean advertisements in 2000 portrayed women less stereotypically overall
- But there were significantly more sexist depictions of women in the American sample than in the Korean sample
Contrast this to Kim and Lennon’s (2006) study, which used various issues from 2001 of the Korean women’s magazines Woman Sense (우먼센스) and Jubu Life (주부생활) (neither site will open in Firefox) and the US magazines Good Housekeeping (again) and Red Book (all of which are targeted towards middle-aged women), and found that US magazines had more White than non-White models (84.9% vs. 15.1%), whereas Korean magazines had more White than non-White models (52.3% vs. 47.7%). For my analysis of that, see here; I won’t bother to further analyze Hovland’s article sorry, but you can read it for yourself here (it’s shorter than it looks).
Now, considering how fundamental the ubiquity of Caucasian models in Korean advertisements is to informing expats of Korean notions of race, it’s amazing how few academics in Korea-related fields – many of whom were presumably expats themselves once – have actually done the number crunching. Moreover, the recent revelation that Korean female models disdain lingerie modeling has rendered those above studies problematic for examining the extent to which Korean women have Caucasian ideals of beauty, as they don’t break down the incidences of Caucasians in Korean advertisements into lingerie and non-lingerie categories.
To be fair, that newspaper report needs to be critically examined, the above studies were conducted several years before it was published, and even if the newspaper report is completely objective and correct, it doesn’t mean that Caucasian beauty ideals can’t and don’t readily exist alongside snobbery within the Korean modeling industry (which I think is in fact the case). But still, any new study definitely needs to take this new information into account.
Failing death and/or injury, it will definitely be me that will making that next new study, and all of above means that l will have to pay particularly close attention to lingerie and (probably) bikini advertisements as I do so. Needless to say, I can think of worse ways with which to make my mark in Korean academia.
Cho, B. et. al (1999). Cultural values reflected in theme and execution: A comparative study of U.S. and Korean television commercials. Journal of Advertising, 28, 59-73.
Chung, G (1990), Transnationalization of Korean Advertising: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota.
Dyer, G. (1982) Advertising as Communication
Gill, R. (1988) ‘Altered Images?: Women in the Media’, Social Studies Review vol. 4, no. 1.
Goffman, E. (1979), Gender Advertisements.
Hovland, R. et.al. (2005) ‘Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 2005. Downloadable here.
Kang, M. (1997) ‘The Portrayal of Women’s Images in Magazine Advertisements: Goffman’s Gender Analysis Revisted’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 1997. Downloadable here.
Kim, M. and Lennon, S. ‘Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-national Comparison of Korean and US Women’s Magazines’, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 2006 vol 24, no. 4. Downloadable here.
Kim, T. (2003) Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Body & Society, Vol. 9, No. 2, 97-113.
Strinati, D. (1995) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture.
Taylor, C. & Miracle, G (1996) Foreign elements in Korean and US television advertising, Advances in International Marketing, 7, 175-195.