Women’s earnings have been high on the feminist agenda for years. Why not our spending too, asks Eleanor Tiernan.
Walking through a fancy women’s clothing store recently, I was stopped in my tracks when I spotted written in white marker on one of the mirrors a cheeky message: “Repeat after me: I deserve a new dress”. It’s not uncommon to feel an emotional response to a piece of advertising, but this one gave me enough of a wobble that I had to steady myself by leaning and pressing my cheek against the cold chrome bannister. Why? Because usually it’s one where the message is, on the face of it at least, a positive one. This one felt seedy. This one felt like… grooming.
Advertising: the principle means by which retailers can influence us, can groom us, dangling unhealthy emotional incentives in front of women in a bid to encourage us to spend. Yes, we like nice things, but we also like being able to pay the rent, so how does so much of our money end up in other people’s cash registers? We regard women’s earnings as a feminist issue; why not regard women’s spending as one?
Advertising in our public space creates a kind of psychic noise that’s painful enough before we buy anything at all. How I would love to switch on the radio one morning to hear the results of a survey measuring the psychological trauma of seeing just one advert, instead of hearing results from all those spurious surveys that are (surely?) simply ads for the companies that paid for them. A research think tank dedicated to unravelling and explaining the psychological tricks of marketers to the consumer would be a public service welcomed by this consumer.
There is a particular story within advertising targeting women that we might examine to reveal some clue as to how this all works. It pits a male and female in a fight to gain some advantage over the other. Ultimately the clever female triumphs and the male is revealed to be a pompous ass undone by his own arrogance. For years now Boots has used the theme of ‘man flu’ in their ads. Two unwell wives meet in the street and it immediately emerges that their poor husbands are so sick they have gone to bed while the ladies prepare the family for Christmas. The impression we are left with is that the men are faking it and that the women are really the strong ones in their families.
Anyone who routinely puts a woman on a pedestal while at the same time denigrating a man wants something from us. In this case, something specific: our money. The reason women are targeted so strongly by advertisers is because they want our cash. Cosmetics, clothes companies, hair and beauty, confectionery, homeware, and cleaning products are all pouring a message of sugary, insulting, obsequious drivel on women to persuade us to choose them over their competitors.
Back to the white marker on the mirror. The “repeat after me” part playfully establishes that the store and I are in a master/servant situation where the store is a benign teacher training me to be a better customer. The more sinister second part is worthy of George Orwell’s imagination: to say that anyone “deserves” to buy any kind of product is a complete reversal of the customer/supplier power balance. The money the supplier wants is in my pocket, so it’s their job to prove the worthiness of their product to me, the customer, who is free to walk away and give the money to another store if I so wish.
The third twist is even more insidious. By suggesting that any human being “deserves” anything is to imply that there are those who are undeserving. It imagines an exclusive club of deserving girls and those unfortunate others who haven’t got what it takes; a vague slippery quality of specialness that disappears once you examine it. It reaches into the customer’s personal life, grabs information we feel vulnerable about, waves it in our faces to scare us, then offers us products to comfort ourselves from the scary thoughts. Et voila, the circle of scare/soothe marketing psychology is complete. Because we’re worth it.
Women must fight for more money but we must also fight to keep the money we have. It would be a shame if we got our financial rewards from “the man” only to give it straight back to him because we were too distracted to see through his grubby back-of-a-van tricks.
Eleanor Tiernan... stand up, writer, actress, sister, introvert. Almost no street smarts whatsoever. Avoids the bandwagon if possible.