exercise 4.1 – looking at advertisements

OCA tutor Dawn Woolley writes a regular blog  called ‘Looking at Advertisements’. Read one of Dawn’s articles and write a blog post or make a comment on the site in response.

– IaP Coursebook – p.75

I looked at two of Dawn’s posts: the Protein World “Beach Body” post and then followed up by having a look at the related post looking at an earlier Protein World advertisement.


I had picked the first post to read because I remembered seeing the advert on the tube when it’s campaign was active in 2015. I remembered noticing the advert for two main reasons: when I first saw it, I was struck by how confrontational the image of the woman was; then a few days later I noticed it had been overwritten in marker pen with a phrase I hadn’t seen deployed in public since the late 80’s – “This Offends!”

The original advert – I saw it as one of the array of advertisement cards above the windows of a tube train, angled down at me – was above my eyeline, compounding the way that the centre of the image is firmly set around her navel. it is her body (or rather her flat, evenly tanned stomach) not her face that is ready for the beach. This is less apparent on a screen, although one of the blog illustrations does show it in its original setting on the tube.

The discussion of the photography in Dawn’s blog (and in the comments that follow)  is mostly concerned with the passivity of the woman in the image with her eyes shut, or in shadow. I (the viewer of the advert)  am looking at her; she is not looking at anyone. I am active; she is passive. Indeed, looking at the image and the way the shadow falls on the yellow background, it is not clear whether she is lying down, on a yellow beach, sun bathing, while I am positioned to stare down at her. There was concern that – unlike the earlier advert featuring a man – the photograph could not be traced back to an “art photography” context, but not that this would in some way validate the objectification.

It appears to fit in nicely with Berger’s critique of the treatment of women as subjects of a male gaze in fine art (in Ways of Seeing).  I followed the link of the 2015 post back to the post about the previous year’s ad:

Here the discussion was much more around the appropriation of the style of Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs, taken in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, which often featured pictures of heroic individuals, rendered strange by the angel they were viewed from. Unlike the woman, with her closed, shadowed eyes, the man’s chin juts out and his eyeline is set on some distant horizon where the promise of the ‘Protein Revolution’ – another, link back to Rodchenko, verbal this time – is realised in all its glory. His right arm is frozen as it swings over the camera. It doesn’t matter that you can’t see his pace properly because this is  synecdoche (the figure of speech where a part stands in for the whole) – it doesn’t matter that you can’t make out the face, you’re looking at the six pack.

Figures of speech of course are drawn from classical rhetoric. Similarly – as much as the allusions to Rodchenko and revolutionary Russian, this draws on half-remembered ideas about classical statuary. The man in image two is standing, frozen, towering above you like a collossus; the woman could be a caryatid. And photographs of people in poses drawn from classical statuary have been used to legitimise the sexualised gaze pretty much since photography began.

Just as the “beach body” picture could be seen to fit into the category of the ‘cheesecake’ pinup, the male torso depicted here is a fairly standard ‘beefcake’ shot, objectifying a paradoxically feminised image of the hairless but honed male body with the repeated muscular V-s pointing down below the (eyelevel) waist-band of his trousers. This is homo-eroticism, but not so overtly that a militantly straight body-builder would be put off buying the product,

I am not the target audience for this. I feel no envy (or a wish to be like the man pictured). I do not desire the man himself. I am certainly not going to pick up a tub of whey protein and take it back home to Fiona so she can get herself beach-body ready in time for summer.

However, I do think of Clive James’ description of Arnold Schwarzenegger looking like “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts” and this in turn leads me on to Steve Bell describing David Cameron as looking like a condom stuffed with ham. Neither comparison is flattering. Both are funny. Both are powerfully visual. The fact that this is what I think of locates me as someone who sees themself as above all this bodybuilding stuff, as a mind rather than a body. I also think of the pilot in Airplane asking the boy who is visiting the airliner’s cockpit, ‘Son – do you like Gladiator movies? … Have you ever seen a grown man naked?’. I find it all slightly ridiculous while hoping I don’t come across as appearing superior (not a flattering look).

Returning to the adverts though, it’s interesting how poor the text is at closing off these unauthorised readings of them. I assume that – as a man – I should wish to have a six-pack and am prepared to do something about it; how I am supposed to regard the woman, I don’t know; I have even less idea of how I would be supposed to view her if I was – the assumed target of the second ad – a woman. Maybe I’m supposed to make women envious simply by going, ‘mmm –  nice’ but she seems too fierce (or as I said at the begiining of this post, confrontational) for that. Both pictures seem to be too open (and to remain so, despite the text) to prevent unintended readings at odds with their text. They are strong images, and they provoke; if they were less strong, I assume that – as someone who is not part of their intended audience – I would not remember them. If the beach body ad was less strong, it would not have been defaced by angry women. Similarly, a weaker image in the first ad would not have led me to distance myself from it through humour. Both adverts provoke, but not necessarily in the way that their makers intended.

One thought on “exercise 4.1 – looking at advertisements

  1. Pingback: exercise 4.2 – words and pictures | Simon Chirgwin's Learning Log

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