What a Lovely Big Shiny Purple One My Man Has!

whisen-air-conditioner-advertisement-han-ye-seul-song-seung-hun(Source: Korea Times, 25/02/2009, p. 20; see full advertisement here)

A classic case of sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of “The Ritualization of Subordination” in depictions of the sexes together, although you don’t need to have heard of either to tell who’s the boss in this particular advertisement!

One slightly less obvious point of interest though, is Han Ye-seul’s (한예슬) use of the “bashful knee bend,” a common motif for women in advertisements, and which according to Goffman:

…can be read as a foregoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, for the position adds a moment to any effort to fight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm. Observe…that a sex-typed subject is not so much involved as a format for constructing a picture (Gender Advertisements, 1976, p. 45).

Which I read as it being used in advertisements to show women feeling safe and secure in the presence of their male protectors, in this case Song Seung-heon (송승헌). And why not? To claim that the depiction of that natural feeling is sexist in itself is absurd, but Goffman’s point was simply that the knee bend, and a host of other means of active/passive dichotomies in depictions of the sexes like that—such as men almost always being portrayed as taller than women, far more than in real life—were still overdone in advertising, and not exactly compensated by images of women as assertive, aggressive and/or as instructors, superiors and leaders either.

Or at least in 1976; as that last link explains and the advertisement on the right (source: popseoul) with Lee lee min ho levisMin-ho (이민호) makes clear, things have certainly changed a great deal since, having one person on a bed and/or lower than the other also being a common way of showing ranking. Which is not to say that—now that you have it in mind—you won’t still find many many examples of women with the knee bend in advertisements (or, indeed, in a bed).

But even more interesting though, is the fact that it is Song Seung-heon at all that is advertising the Whisen (휘센) air-conditioner, for actually I only noticed the ad because is the first Korean one for an air-conditioner that I’ve seen in which a man is the center of attention. Sure, that they’re dominated by women is no surprise, as it’s also true of their Western counterparts, albeit to a much lesser extent (but a difference one would expect given Korea’s deeply patriarchal society). But then bear in mind that the process of  modernization that electronics and electric appliances still epitomize—especially in a society as development-obsessed as Korea—has always involved “housewifization” and the nuclearization of the family, and so while it’s certainly true to say that owning one’s first washing machine in the 1960s in the UK, say, was also a definite signifier of status and upward mobility, Korean advertisements for the same should be placed in the context of a society where consumerism has been equated with national security, and in which the lowest numbers of women in the world work (for a developed society).  Hence not only are Korean examples almost hyperreal advertisements for modernity itself, but so far they’ve overwhelmingly featured female-centered narratives, Korean housewives’ need for the self-fulfillment that Betty Friedan saw that their purchase provided being all that more the greater here, and other manifestations of which would be an obsessive focus on real-estate speculation and on children’s educational achievements.

Which might sound a little to take in all at once, but I assure you, once you’ve seen a few examples like the one below then you’ll get a sense of how surreal they consistently are, and why this deserves explanation (and have also reminded me personally of how advertisements really are a reflection of the zeitgeist of an era). So, why the change in that particular advertisement?

My first thought was because it was for the “Luxury” (럭셔리) model, as the instant I learned that in fact a scene from science-fiction novel I read as a teenager came to mind, which opened with a conversation between a couple in which the woman explained to her fiance that, while women did the bulk of shopping, men still bought the important expensive things like houses and cars. As it happens, the couple were in a decidely backward parallel universe where, among other things, American women had never gained the vote(!), but obviously it still has echoes in real life, and indeed this logic does especially apply to Korea: for instance, while I’m not sure to what extent this tradition is followed, I’ve repeatedly heard that it is expected that before a wedding a new wife’s family must provide for the furniture for their new apartment, whereas the husband’s family must provide the apartment itself. Does the expense of this model then, draw it from the female realm to the male, thereby appealing more to the latter? Or is the advertisement still primarily aimed at women, this supposedly luxurious model possessing a male and/or sophisticated aura that other, cheaper ones lack? Or is there still some other factor that I’m missing?

Unfortunately, the K-pop blogs (see here, here and here) do little more than provide more pictures and links to related commercials, so I’d be happy to hear your own thoughts. And I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for mention of it in next month’s Korean advertising magazines.