Needless objectification, and a power trip from being called Oppa. WHY do advertisers assume cishet men genuinely prefer these?
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes. In case of any lingering doubts that it’s the same model, check out the wisps of hair on her right.
“You’re a man in his 40s, aren’t you?” reads the offending ad’s headline. Ouch. I scroll social media for the dopamine hits thank you very much, not to be reminded of how much my knees hurt.
I also really, really don’t like being pegged as someone who’d prefer to see a woman’s body without her face either. But it’s what the ad says which is more repugnant, so let’s address that first.
The product being advertised is a diet supplement. (Yes, I thought it was for something to help with “men’s stamina” too.) At the top, the text about it extols, “I only took a packet a day and it took care of everything. I levelled up from being called an uncle to an oppa! These days, it’s time for men to take care of their diets too!”. Then, the headline next to the model, “You’re a man in his 40s, aren’t you?” and “We will ensure you’ll never be called ajeossi again!”
I’m not judging the implied huge age gap with the model. One sex being used to sell products to another will always be a thing too, however absurd it feels in this particular case. What I do have a beef with, is encouraging myself and my fellow ajeossis to crave being calling Oppa by women, especially those like her who are much younger than ourselves.
Although we’d like to pretend it really wasn’t all that long ago we were dancing to Wax‘s classic in nightclubs in our 20s, when the word had more innocent and romantic connotations, really we know most women now find the word distasteful at best. We also know they especially resent how all too many older male colleagues, acquaintances, friends, and bosses, taking advantage of their male privilege, will sometimes demand they perform infantilizing aegyo to them at company dinners and so on—which will invariably include demands to call them Oppa.
The men who still ask women to do so regardless then, only to claim it was just harmless fun later, are being completely disingenuous. The only reason any man does so in 2022 is to get his ego boosted, and to put the younger women being asked in their place. Behavior which whoever at Sery Box and/or enigmatic shopping site 형만믿어 responsible for the ad would know full well, and absolutely shouldn’t be encouraging.
To give a recent for instance, in a surreal scene from an episode of the Omniscient Interfering View talkshow in February last year, veteran, internationally acclaimed actor Moon So-ri calmly explained she didn’t call her four year-older husband Oppa because its cute connotations made the woman using it seem childish, whereas she wanted a relationship of equals. One male panelist’s tactless, boorish response to her thoughtful comments? To ask her to call him Oppa instead. When she refused, he demanded a flustered young K-pop star do so in Moon’s place, ultimately forcing Moon to cover for her to save her further embarrassment.
The top tweet: “Actor Moon So-ri explained the gender politics of the word in an easy-to-understand and non-accusatory manner. He was just such a typical sexist han-nam though, with no intention of listening to or trying to understand her whatsoever.”
On top of all that, the model is headless. No pun intended.
While having bodies or their various parts presented in isolation isn’t inherently bad in itself, and is a practice that people rightfully tend to judge in context, the cumulative effect on the people it’s usually done to day in day out—e.g, women overwhelmingly more than men, and obese people in news reports about them—is to dehumanize them in the minds of observers, even if they belong to the group being objectified themselves. It’s also been demonstrated that if my fellow ajeossis and I consider a woman attractive, we’d also be much more likely to respond to her returning our gaze instead. The implied enthusiastic consent to our interest through a wide smile can be a pretty big deal too.
All of which begs the question of why, if Sery Box and/or 형만믿어 clearly had access to the same stock photos of the same model that Centheal and/or 하태핫태 responsible for the left ad had, did they not also select one with her smiling face?
I’m no photographer or graphic designer, but I refuse to believe there’s anything particularly significant in terms of aesthetics or layout that would compel the choice they did make. Even just raising the bottom of the image just enough to show a smile would have made a big difference.
I’m overanalyzing, I know. Numerous surveys have revealed that Korean internet ads in particular have gotten distinctly smuttier over the past decade, and the Oppa ad is really nothing special in that regard. Less a patriarchal conspiracy, than simple laziness.
Yet there’s something to the juxtaposition nonetheless.
But if you could please bear with me a just a moment longer before elaborating, there remains the task of confirming the gender divide in the two ads first. So again, the offending one is indeed explicitly aimed at men, and the link it takes you to only features two images of a woman—Kim Tae-hee—among the many more of main celebrity endorser Lee Jung-jae, as well as numerous images of muscled men. Most of Sery Box‘s products are actually aimed at women however, and feature Kim Tae-hee and various other female celebrities (with absolutely no men) in their advertising on their various webpages for those.
During rush hour, when men are glued to Facebook on their phones, Korean shopping mall target men with ads like these. The logic being, the images on the left will get their attention, even though they’re not interested in actually buying women’s clothes. Then, when they invariably look away, the next things they will see are the ads for products they will be interested in buying on the right. Image source: The PR News.
In contrast, the left ad (now below) is advertising a fortified extract of garcinia cambogia (가르시니아 캄보지아 추출물) sold by Centheal. Although there’s nothing on their website to explicitly indicate they’re targeting it only at women, only female models are featured, and the logo on the packaging has a woman’s waist incorporated into it. There’s also a “WomaNature” mentioned, although I’ve been unable to pin down what that refers to. Meanwhile, the screenshot actually being saved by me in February 2021, just before the Korean New Year, the text at the top reads “With Seollal approaching, let’s enjoy holiday food with worrying about it.” Then, next to the model, “This Seollal, don’t become like one of those people who’s put on weight from staying indoors all day due to Covid. Instead, take care of your body [even] while eating all that [holiday] food. [Take advantage of this] half-price discount event to celebrate the holiday.”
Finally, let me post the other ad again for the sake of that juxtaposition:
I’m writing here today because personally, seeing them together, I was instantly reminded of a surreal experience I had in 2010, when I innocently switched tabs between Elle Korea‘s photoshoot of Lee Hyori, and then MSN Korea’s article about it (which I’ve presented in GIF form below). Someone at the latter, an ostensible news site, had apparently found the body of then Korea’s biggest sex symbol inadequate:
That particular juxtaposition sparked the beginnings of my own learning journey over the next decade about Korea’s many, many problems with female body-image. Whereas writing about this more recent pairing, has forced me to think deeply about, first, the modern connotations of the word Oppa, which frankly I wasn’t originally going to mention at all (I wasn’t joking about my intense dislike of cishet men being pigeonholed as preferring headless women); and second, what other baggage from my formative years in Korea I absolutely need to jettison over the next decade if I want to continue my quest to properly understand Korean misogyny—which “Call me Oppa” ultimately is.
I hope you too find what’s revealed by the juxtaposition featured today, just as telling and motivating to learn more about as I have.
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)