Fetishization refers to a process of imbuing an object or idea with power. A fetish object is often associated with sexual gratification, desire, and worship. Fetishization marks a cultural, psychological, and social technique of fetishizing things by making them appear larger than life, animate, or sexually desirable. It is argued that this process has profoundly influenced contemporary consumer culture (Fernbach 2002; Jhally 1987; Schroeder 2002).
The Concept And Its Applications
Fetishization is a useful concept for analyzing communication processes – it illuminates important aspects of consumer’s relationships with media, as well as how popular communication creates objects of desire. In an economy based on attention, images, and information, fetishization – as displacement, as dysfunction, and as deviance – contributes to a larger project of linking products with psychological fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, and sexual gratification.
The word fetish has come to be associated with subaltern sexuality, or a fetish lifestyle organized around wearing fetish clothing and engaging in fetishized practices and rituals. Fetishization within popular communication draws upon these cultural associations to create associative connections for products, brands, and organizations. Fetishization, as used here, encompasses these concepts, but also refers to a broader cultural process of fetishizing objects via communicative technologies.
Fetishization in popular communication is often associated with commodification – associating objects and humans with markets and mass consumption. For example, advertising often fetishizes goods by eroticizing and reifying consumer goods. Products and brands are worshipped for their ability to complete the self, to help consumers gain satisfaction – or even ecstasy – and revered for their capacity to project desired images. In this way, consumer goods function similarly (in a psychoanalytic sense) to the fetish object, which promises gratification but ultimately is unable to deliver, forever displaced within a fetishized relationship.
Fetishized objects often symbolize control and release, power and helplessness, sexuality and infantilism. In psychoanalytic terms, a fetish may be a dysfunctional response to sexuality, eventually replacing human contact for arousal. Further, a fetishized relationship, in some cases, interferes with the ability to have more “human” relations. Typically linked to sexuality, fetishized items are often contextually isolated – the shoe that by itself arouses, the disembodied body part, or the black stocking unconnected to any recognizable body. Visual communication often further displaces these objects via fetishization, by which an image replaces the physical object. The study of fetishization can be particularized by focusing upon clothing items, but widespread communication processes are also implicated.
Fetishization is associated with displacement and disavowal – sexual energy becomes directed toward something other than the genitals – a substitute charged with sexual power and attraction. Examples, of course, abound, but mainstays of the visual culture of fetish are sexually inflected clothing, such as high-heeled shoes, tight corsets, and lingerie. In popular terms, fetishism often refers to a psychological relationship or an intraindividual practice, but fetishization can fruitfully be considered a kind of communicative process or a cultural discourse.
Fetishization In Visual Communication
Visual communication and fetishization work together to create fantasy images of desire and inaccessibility. Fetishism has been discussed from many perspectives, including psychology, anthropology, and Marxism (Apter & Pietz 1993). Visual communication draws on each of these, creating objects of desire through visual techniques and symbols. Psychoanalytic theory holds that fetishization is based on paradoxical repulsion and attraction, which charges fetish objects with power as it simultaneously represents attraction and taboo. Visual representations of fetish objects – made possible by photographic reproduction, mass media, and digitization – add another dimension to the fetish concept. Fetishization emerged as an important tool of advertising, via direct representations of fetish objects, and the fetish-like worship and power of consumer goods inherent in contemporary advertising (Schroeder 2002).
Photographic techniques such as close cropping, lighting, and depth of field help fetishize objects by isolating and reifying them. Two factors underlie the visual power of fetish: associations made through repeated usage of stock items in fashion, photography, and pornography and what has been called the liminal element of fetishization (Schroeder & Borgerson 2003). The word liminal reflects a gap, a space between, or an edge. Liminal zones are often spaces of uncertainly, creativity, danger, and passion. The space between – a space to be entered or crossed – can be exciting and unnerving simultaneously. Many fetishized objects – particularly items of clothing – represent a powerful liminal zone. Shoes, boots, corsets, and stockings are typical fetishized items – usually colored black or bright red. In popular discourse fetish clothing is usually desired by men on women.
The visual vocabulary of fetish has become a staple of the culture industries, television, fashion, film, music video, comic books, and advertising, which often draw on the cultural stereotype of the fetishist, a male whose sexual identity is linked with the fetish object. This projection – of lust, of desire, and of want – onto a fetish object seems the simplest way to present such imagery, which is usually recruited to lend an edgy sexuality to the advertised product. Ads for many products, from cologne to telecommunication networks, feature fetish themes of high-heeled shoes, stockings, tight leather, S&M, and bondage (e.g., Reichert & Lambiase 2006). Often these motifs are invoked with a wink to the knowing audience, a hip sign that the viewer understands – and appreciates – what might be implied by the image of a handcuff, an extremely high heel, or a leather corset.
These ads draw on motifs developed by photographers such as Helmut Newton, Horst, and Jean-Loup Sieff, who featured women in corsets, leather, and lingerie in their photographic work for mainstream fashion magazines. In the 1970s this trend accelerated, pushed by the art world, a growing awareness of “underground” sexual practices, and a market hungry for extreme imagery. By the 1980s fetish imagery had established a firm place in the visual pantheon of fashion, music video, and film, as adopted by celebrities as such Grace Jones, Madonna, and Annie Lennox, and showcased in the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Today, fashion companies such as Thierry Mugler, Versace, JeanPaul Gaultier, and Sisley regularly include fetish-themed apparel in their clothing lines and ad campaigns, media icons like Kate Moss and Britney Spears are photographed in fetish garments, and mainstream movies and television shows like The Matrix, Underworld, X-Men, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer feature fetishized outﬁts as standard hero equipment.
Figure 1 The Absolut Au Kurant ad
The long-running and spectacularly successful Absolut vodka advertising campaign provides a classic example of fetishization in visual communication (Fig. 1). In a fairly simple and straightforward image in the Absolut Au Kurant ad, Absolut links itself to leather corsets, fetishism, alternative sexuality, and sexual allure. The message of the ad centers on the resonance between opening an Absolut bottle and consuming the product and opening the black corset and consummating a relationship. The lace bottle opens up the person within, undressing for potential intimate activity. The Absolut bottle serves as the key prop for sexual readiness. The magic, fetishized properties of the Absolut bottle are hinted at by these elements, a common theme in liquor advertisements (Goldman & Papson 1996).
Fetish clothing interacts with visual representation in intricate ways, supported by contemporary advertising photographic practice. Photography supports a fetish relationship with things by representing items devoid of context, reifying objects, and visually emphasizing tactile qualities like shininess (Mercer 1997). The language of photography, moreover, reinforces a dichotomous conception of black/white, inscribing racial categories with technological markers, in a process of racial fetishization. Fetishization also occurs via the use of composition, cropping, and color. In the Absolut Au Kurant ad, the fetishized bottle is given a contrasting lavender detail color to accentuate and isolate it as a graphic element. Advertising images often support fetishization processes by visually focusing on garments over bodies, things rather than humans, objects over relationships. Although most consumers do not exhibit classic fetishism – foot worship, for example – the relationship promoted between consumer and goods has many fetish-like tendencies. Moreover, many objects can and have been fetishized within contemporary visual communication.
Consumption And Fetishization
The fetish relationship – object worship, delusional belief in the power of the fetish, and substitution of human relations with fetish relations – are also invoked in the broader dimensions of consumer culture and its aggressive object worship. Advertising appropriates and harnesses the power of fetishism to sell goods. Moreover, advertising creates meaning and values via photographic techniques, injecting new associations into the circuit of culture. Researchers attempting to understand its meaning-making capabilities miss a great deal by relying solely on information-processing models for themes and insights; fetishization represents a cultural, social, and psychodynamic process that often eludes cognitive-based approaches.
Marx introduced the commodity fetish concept over a century ago and his analysis of the relationship between consumer goods and the market remains important. Marx may not have fully anticipated an economy based on image, one in which the dialectic of fetishization relies less on material things than on symbolic ideas. Advertising’s use of photographic technology accelerates this process in a way that seems both readily apparent and relatively understudied. Contemporary consumption is highly visual: websites crave eyeball capture and advertisers work to break through the clutter. Fetishization offers useful conceptual tools for understanding how popular communication works in an economy that is attention-focused.
Fetishization may attract the eye to products or services in an economy fueled by obtaining consumer attention, but fetish themes have also been criticized as perpetuating stereotypes – women are most often the objects of the fetishistic attention, or women are portrayed as slaves to fashion (Reichert & Lambiase 2006). This critique suggests that fetishization with popular communication may reveal some transgression of sexual stereotypes that are mainly in the service of entrenched visions of human relationships – woman as object, black as exotic, fetishized sex as deviant (Schroeder & Borgerson 2003).
Further work would be useful to delineate how fetishization works in a wide variety of communication contexts, and how fetishism has developed as advertising shorthand for various desirable attributes to be associated with brands and products. Key questions remain about how fetishization creates value. Just as art historians and literary scholars have been adept at tracing the history of icons, types, and characters, so communication researchers could show how these types migrate into advertising and photography, as well as how advertising generates new type and tropes.
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