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Home » Culture and Criticism

Truth In Advertising

Submitted by on March 11, 1996 – 9:03 PMNo Comment

The other day, I strolled over to Blockbuster to return a video.On the way there, I wondered to myself how I should address The "Hi" Problem.The "Hi" Problem arises whenever I enter Blockbuster.Apparently, one of the well-meaning corn-fed pin-stripes at headquarters wrote a memo which required the blue-shirted Blockbuster foot soldiers to hail each and every customer with a cheery greeting.As a result, patrons of Blockbuster enter the store innocently enough, only to stagger under a sonic boom of salutations from the staff.Thus, The "Hi" Problem — how do I respond?Do I blithely ignore the perforated eardrum I have just suffered and answer with a window-rattling "hi" of my own?Do I ignore the "hi" and march as quickly and officiously as possible to the foreign film section?Do I inform them in a quavering voice that my mommy told me not to talk to strangers?

As I mulled over The "Hi" Problem at a red light, my gaze drifted up to the neighborhood billboard.The late great Marlboro Man had vacated the spot, replaced by one of those hopelessly insipid and annoying Virginia Slims ads, and I promptly forgot all about The "Hi" Problem because I despise the Virginia Slims advertising campaign.

Virginia Slims has historically positioned itself as a feminist cigarette; the ads posed a woman with a Virginia Slims cigarette burning in her long-nailed fingers, one brow aloft in a challenge to the male hegemony, above the tag line "you've come a long way, baby."I fail to see the relationship between smoking and the suffrage movement, but apparently the Virginia Slims brain trust wanted to draw a parallel between cigarettes and the empowerment of women.Now, in the less strident nineties, the aforementioned brain trust has tried to convince female smokers that smoking — specifically, smoking Virginia Slims — can serve not only as a detriment to your health but also as an entree to the secret society of women.The new tag line, "it's a woman thing," encourages a mental association between Virginia Slims and female bonding.

This silliness reminds me of the Secret spots on television — "strong enough for a man, but made for a woman."Oh, please.I use Secret myself, and I can tell you that "made for a woman" has far more to do with the flowery scent than with the pH-balanced formula Secret started flogging a few years ago.Besides, women don't buy deodorant in order to have consciousness-raising sessions about it.Women buy deodorant because they don't want their armpits to stink.The same principle applies to Virginia Slims (who, in my opinion, should cut to the chase and re-name the cigarettes "Vagina Slims" already).The series of precious girl-club vignettes that they present, with blurbs like "if we can still close the suitcase, we're not done packing" and "what you call gossip we call fact-finding," try to clothe misguided sexist marketing poppycock in a pro-woman costume.It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

If Virginia Slims really wanted to market themselves effectively to women, they should have glamorized the prospect of smoking a little bit more.Ironically, Camel — a brand with a more "masculine" brand identity — beat them to the punch with a sultry bombshell, cigarette in one hand and beyond-hip martini in the other, and the tag line "what you're looking for."Camel packaged the same obnoxious concept (cigarettes mean power) with a lot more flair.If Virginia Slims markets their product to women, fine, but they don't need to beat us over the head with it.

The idea of marketing things specifically to women makes sense; it makes intuitive sense, and it makes business sense.The Virginia Slims campaign's chicks-before-dicks cheesiness irritates me because of its inanity; they make a frou-frou cigarette and they have no choice but to market it to women, but they don't seem to grasp the distinction between aiming a product at a female market share and harping on feminine stereotypes.Other products make the same mistake.Pantene, for instance, runs a print ad for their Pro-V products which proclaims, "Strong Can Be Beautiful."Oh, I see.Strong can be beautiful, as long as we use the word "strong" in the context of a woman's hair and not her personality, because ordinarily strength comes across as somewhat unfeminine?Yes, strong can be beautiful — but in our culture, evidently, women can only derive strength from their physical beauty.An interesting irony, and one no doubt utterly lost on Pantene's marketing team.

Apparently, some women find the Mercedes-Benz ad, which replaces Marilyn Monroe's mole with a tiny Mercedes-Benz logo and titles the photo "Glamour," disturbing and sexist.At the same time, the efforts of Virginia Slims to equate smoking with girls having fun doesn't bother them.It doesn't seem to bother them that Clinique and Oil Of Olay and other skin-care products use pubescent models to convince us of the importance of "fighting the aging process."It doesn't seem to bother them that the feminine-hygiene industry treats a woman's body like the enemy, but the characterization of menstruation or yeast infection or anything else that comes out of a woman's body as a vile and malodorous threat to her peace of mind strikes me as ridiculous and insulting.How many times do we have to hear the phrase "not-so-fresh feeling" before we begin to feel belittled?

I know that advertising has a job to do, but not every woman in America bases her buying decisions on the relative femininity of the product.Not every woman in America fears aging and brittle hair and short eyelashes; not every woman in America views her period as a state of siege.Not every woman in America has "sucker" written on her damn forehead.

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