Fashion, as extension of a human being beyond the corporeal body, is also a method of demarcating sameness and difference. As communicated through advertising, fashion not only reflects an individual’s self-image, but also is done in anticipation of how others will regard the dramaturgical display (Goffman 1959). As an expression of popular preferences and culture, fashion is constructed not by an actual garment, but by the desire it creates (Barthes 1983). Theories of communication studies suppose and propose that audience or consumer liking/disliking is often expressed in ways that reflect not only what people value, but also what producers want them to value (Merskin & Tankel, in press; Communication Theory and Philosophy; Audience; Audience Commodity). As a creative cultural expression and commodity, fashion functions ecologically as a system of meaning. To survive and thrive, fashion requires the constant cultivation, renewal, commodification, and reproduction of public desire.
Because fashion is “playful,” it is easy to overlook its role in maintaining social cohesion, marking social class and rank, and its “disciplinary power” in pressuring people to conform (Noelle-Neumann 1984, 117). School uniforms, dress codes, and sexually alluring garments are all used to make distinctions between youth and age, masculinity and femininity, social class, occupation, attitudes, values, and beliefs. As an effective social control mechanism and means of integration, fashion is a powerful ideological tool to instill fear of ostracism and isolation if an individual is perceived to be “in” or “out” of touch with the fashion scene. As an expression of dominant ideology, fashion is (1) functional, (2) a form of communication, (3) a political statement, (4) a tool of conformity, (5) a mechanism of ideology, and (6) a weapon for resistance.
The tools used to critique fashion and media images are interdisciplinary. Critical methods draw on a variety of theoretical positions, including literary theory, feminist critique, postmodernism, neo-Marxism, semiotic analysis, and Freudian analysis, to name a few.
Undressing The Ad
The conventional way that marketers define advertising is as messages that impart information about products and services. The limitation of this definition is that it falls far short of giving us the whole picture. Advertising does much more than impart product information; it tells us what products signify and mean and how the use of these products can help us socially. Advertisers do this by marrying aspects of a product with aspects of a society. Embedded in advertising’s messages about goods and services are the cultural roles and cultural values that define our everyday life. Advertising not only tells us about the products we consume, it also informs us of their meaning within our culture.
Analyzing the social and cultural content of an advertisement involves interpreting both the verbal and visual aspects of the advertising text to determine not only the primary sales message but also additional secondary social or cultural messages (Frith 1998). Fashion advertisements reflect society in a sometimes slightly distorted way, and by deconstructing ads we can begin to see the social and cultural messages (O’Barr 1994). By critically examining fashion ads that target women in Singapore we can begin to deconstruct some of the social structures related to the role of women in a society that is undergoing a significant paradigm shift in terms of gender roles.
Women In Asian Fashion Advertising
Across Asia, women are shaking off their stereotypical portrayals as submissive, traditionally attired, shy, neglected introverts or hardworking housewives. Singapore is no exception. In women’s magazines throughout Asia, women are being portrayed as trendy, carefree, and even in some countries in sexual roles wearing western clothes – for better or worse, they are invading what was once the reserved territory of western and Caucasian women models.
Models in women’s magazine fashion advertisements throughout Asia closely follow the stereotypical gender portrayals of thinness and flawless skin so popular in women’s magazines in the west. Women’s magazine ads are mainly targeted to young, predominantly female, consumers. Despite the liberalizing influences that are sweeping through Asia, in countries such as Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and China women’s magazines – both the local and the country-specific international editions of magazines like Vogue and Elle – tend to use Caucasian models more frequently than local models when portraying sensuality in ads for women’s intimate wear and personal care products (Frith et al. 2005). Thus, foreign models are used to express more liberal attitudes and in some ways set beauty standards for thinness and fairness. Some authors, e.g., Kim and Cha (in press), question whether the tendency of women’s magazine advertising in Korea might project western beauty as superior to traditional Korean beauty and might be responsible for insecurity in Korean women. Kim and Cha argue that the imported beauty ideal has become so crucial among young Korean women that they are willing to spend fortunes having plastic surgery on their noses, eyes, and jaws. Growing numbers of young women are having their noses lifted, their jaws shaved, and their eyes widened in a drive to attain the western image of beauty. Most recently, Kim and Cha report, young Korean women are using plastic surgery on their calves in the hope of obtaining the “Barbie” legs sported by the world’s supermodels.
Levels Of Meaning
All advertisements rely on the social knowledge and background of the reader. We all “make sense” of advertisements by relating them to our culture and to the shared belief systems held in common by most people in our society. These beliefs are ideological in nature. They appear to be “commonsense” beliefs because they are widely held in a given culture, at a given moment in history; nonetheless, they are not universal beliefs. In addition to the more obvious social and cultural beliefs, subtle ideological values are expressed in fashion advertisements.
The underlying assumption in Singaporean fashion ads is that being slim and flawless is implicit in being a beautiful woman. For women in most cultures “looking beautiful” is part of being a woman. Advertising can only work if it appeals to an audience and presents the audience with something they want or need. Many fashion ads play on the fact that women who are even mildly overweight often feel guilty and less-than-beautiful. These kinds of advertising messages work because women in Singapore accept that it is part of their cultural role to be slim – at whatever cost (and in this case, $38.00 per session). Within the culture it is a “commonsense” belief that women must be thin and fair to be attractive. Beauty ideals differ from country to country, and while women in most countries certainly do feel a need to be beautiful, this is not always defined as “being slim.” In the US, for example, big breasts may be an important marker of beauty, while in another culture thick, long hair may be the most defining factor. Based on fashion ads in women’s magazines in Singapore, we could reasonably conclude that slimness and fairness are (or have become) a major cultural component of female beauty.
- Barthes, R. (1983). The fashion system. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Frith, K. T. (1998). Undressing the ad: Reading culture in advertising. New York: Peter Lang.
- Frith, K., Shaw, P., & Cheng, H. (2005). The construction of beauty: A cross-cultural analysis of women’s magazine advertising. Journal of Communication, 55(1), 6 –70.
- Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Penguin.
- Kim, K., & Cha, H. (in press). Becoming a “good” woman in Korea: The construction of female beauty and success. In K. Frith & K. Karan (eds.), Commercializing women: Images of Asian women in advertising. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Leiss, W., Klein, S., & Jhally, S. (1990). Social communication in advertising: persons, products, and images of well being. New York: Routledge.
- Merskin, D., & Tankel, J. (in press). What’s hot and what’s not: Popular communication and public opinion. In W. Donsbach & M. W. Traugott (eds.), The Sage handbook of public opinion research. London: Sage.
- Naisbitt, J. (1996). Megatrends Asia: Eight Asian megatrends that are reshaping our world. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1984). The spiral of silence: Public opinion, our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- O’Barr, W. (1994). Culture and the ad: Exploring otherness in the world of advertising. Boulder, CO: Westview.