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A common criticism of advertising is the presence of the sexualized female image throughout the media in order to gain consumer interest and project a cultural message. These advertisements use sex to connect to the audience and to convey messages that relate to societal feminine stereotypes. A scene from the popular television series Family Guy, simplifies the use of the sexualized female image by advertisers: showing how the attractive physical appearance of a female character is used to help sell an idea, a technique that is successful in any social context. This scene from Family Guy reaffirms how sex is used to sell products, while simultaneously establishing the cultural message that the male consumers of these products will also gain access to the sexualized, and objectified, female.
The chosen scene from Family Guy demonstrates the necessity of sex in advertising throughout all social contexts. In “The Griffin Family History” episode, the characters in this scene are placed in the prehistoric era of planet Earth, showing caveman representations of the modern characters. The conflict presented in this scene arises when Caveman Peter invents the wheel, an innovation that is vital to the progress of mankind. Despite the efficiency of the new wheel, the majority of the caveman population is resistant to accept this development. Caveman Brain attempts to help Caveman Peter with his sales pitch, but when he realizes that normal advertising techniques do not appear to sway the caveman consumers, he resorts to “drastic measures.” (FG 4:12) The “drastic measures” in this situation involve utilizing Cavewoman Lois’s presence and physical appearance to sell Caveman Peter’s product. When Cavewoman Lois is placed in position next to the wheel in minimal clothing, the audience responds positively. One caveman claims “hot lady next to wheel, make me want wheel.” (FG 4:20) Although the male characters are not very intelligent or evolved, they still respond positively to a sexualized female image; this is the very basis of the use of sex in advertising.
The theory behind the success of sexualized advertising depicted in this scene from Family Guy is supported by the various literary arguments that describe the important relationship between sex and advertising. William M. O’Barr draws on advertising professor Tom Reichert’s definitions of sex in advertising. Reichert defines one characteristic of sex in advertising as often “showing attractive models in stages of undress.” (O’Barr 3) This characteristic is clearly displayed in the Family Guy scene, as Caveman Brian rips off Cavewoman Lois’s clothing, leaving her in only what appears to be her underwear. Reichert alleges, “sex and advertising often revolves around clothing—what models are wearing or not wearing.” (O’Barr 3) The obvious lack of clothing on Lois’s character is key to representing “a fundamental type of sexual information” (O’Barr 3) that is displayed to the audience through advertising. This sexual information is what leads to the development of cultural feminine stereotypes, such as the importance and usefulness of having a sexy physique. The increasingly high degree of sexual imagery used in advertisements attracts a significant amount of criticism; but, despite the criticism, “sex in advertising has frequently…increased consumer interest and often aided in the selling [of] products.” (O’Barr 5) Family Guy accurately depicts this relationship between sex and consumer interest by illustrating the immediate affect on the audience’s willingness to buy the product after Cavewoman Lois has endorsed it with her presence. After the caveman audience enthusiastically moves to buy a wheel for themselves, Caveman Peter reflects on his success, acknowledging how “people want Peter wheel thanks to sexy wife.” (FG 4:30) This specific male-female dynamic shows how Caveman Peter is the bread winner of the relationship, while Caveman Lois plays a lesser role where her job is essentially to stand there and look pretty. The use of this relationship dynamic in “advertising stereotyping can have a major influence on the sex role[s]” (Artz 24) that people are encouraged to develop. The combination of the sexualized female image and culturally acceptable views on normal sexual relationships has significant impacts on the societal and cultural values that originate from erotic advertising.
Analyzing the correlation that exists between sex in advertising reveals that in addition to selling a company’s product, advertisements also sell specific cultural views on sex and feminine stereotypes. In the selected scene from Family Guy, the audience that Caveman Peter is presenting to is comprised of a large group of other male cavemen. The use of a sexualized female image is particularly effective when the target audience is composed of the normative, heterosexual male. Family Guy generalizes the “assumed heteronormativity in both content and audience,” that has been the highlight of advertising “for most its history.” (O’Barr) By projecting the success of heterosexual beings to the audience, the same advertisements concurrently emphasize the importance of being normal and embracing heterosexuality. In addition to conveying ideas to the audience about what constitutes normal sexual desires and relationships, “sex in advertising often employs…sex-related promises;” (O’Barr 3) such as the promise that if a consumer purchases a certain product, they are also purchasing the objectified female models who endorse that product. One of the caveman audience member’s in this scene from Family Guy explicitly states the sex-related promise suggested by the advertisement of the wheel: “Maybe if me buy wheel, me get pretty lady too.” (FG 4:20) The caveman audience then rushes to Caveman Peter (FG 4:22) in eager anticipation of purchasing the new wheel, which now holds the promise that they will also gain the affection of a “pretty lady.” The “tendency for women to be shown…as alluring sex objects” (Artz 20) is essential to what cultural views are developed about what a woman should do. The increasing frequency with which women are being depicted as subordinate sex objects is destructive to the female body image and status within a cultural context. When “women [are] portrayed as sex objects…[they] are reduced to ‘body parts’ instead of whole persons.” (Artz 25) This dehumanizing deconstruction of the female body image has an extremely negative impact on how women view their own value in society. Advertising in this case confirms the traditional male-female dynamic of a dominant masculine figure and a subordinate female counterpart; despite the progress that woman have made in the 21st century to overcome archaic stereotypes such as this, advertising companies convey messages that this dynamic is successful, rather than outdated. The ubiquitous presence of sex in advertising is used to gain the undivided attention of a consumer audience, while strengthening the status of men over women and promising unrealistic sexual advances to anyone who embraces these products and cultural views.
The use of sex in advertising is becoming increasingly more prominent and destructive since advertisers can manipulate a message to convey societal views on sex and feminine stereotypes. The selected scene from Family Guy epitomizes the use of sex in advertising; incorporating the relationship between sexualized female displays and consumer interest, not only in the product, but in sex itself. Products are sold in conjunction with sex-related promises, establishing culturally normative values about how consumerism leads to a successful sex life. The target male audience of this highly sexualized advertising will continue to believe that if they possess a product that is endorsed by an attractive female, they should be entitled to receive the attention of the attractive female themselves. This expectation is not factual or certain, but advertising companies repeatedly attempt to persuade the audience that this lifestyle and objectification is not only possible, but also culturally acceptable.
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