Domestic Violence Sells?
The media’s sexual objectification of women has come under increasing scrutiny, as well it should. But what about advertisements promoting consumer goods through domestic violence? Roughly every 9 seconds in the United States, a woman is assaulted or beaten. And we ask how can this be changed? Many professionals and women’s rights advocates have written on the subject to address the multifaceted problem of intimate partner violence (IPV), and the issue is complex with social, legal, political, and cultural factors. There is no quick fix. But, here’s an easy one to start with: maybe, just maybe, companies shouldn’t capitalize on ads advocating violence against women. The media is a powerful means of disseminating cultural values and ideas. Advertisements using domestic violence have long been used, which fuels social messages that essentially condone violence against women. It’s time to break the cycle.
Although advertising had been in existence for some time, especially after the Consumer Revolution in the 20s, most of the earliest ads portraying domestic violence are from the 40s and 50s. This is no coincidence. As I mentioned in my prior blog post, about Blaming the Victim, psychoanalysis started its ascendancy in the 30s. Psychoanalysis focused on individuals, even victims of violence, and sought to find out how they contributed to an abusive home. Women were counseled to uncover ways to change their attitudes or behavior to suit their husbands’ needs. Perhaps if she cleaned more or dressed sexier, her husband would be less inclined to beat her (or so the doctors claimed).
By the 1950s, psychoanalysis reached new heights in popularity, as did Americans’ desire to return to more conservative ideas of family. Men from WWII had returned to their jobs and expected women to return to the homes. Elaine Tyler May skillfully explores the connection between this return to domesticity and the Cold War anxiety in Homeward Bound. The emerging Cold War sought to define women’s value in relation to the family in the roles as wife and mother. A form of “domestic containment,” marriage and parenthood, provided a buffer against communism and the extension of political goals into personal lives (May, 15). Marriage provided women with “social respect, status, and a sense of belonging;” in essence, “marriage was their [women’s] meal ticket” (May, 203). In college, for instance, women made personal compromises. Since marriage remained the ultimate goal, many dropped out to marry, and economic equality and career aspirations lost to the dominant aim of “domestic containment” (May, 15). Many couples stayed together through the 1950s despite domestic troubles. Numbers of women remained even in the face of abuse or infidelity to uphold the family ideal. Oftentimes, the lack of child support and alimony laws discouraged women from leaving to pursue personal fulfillment or achieve a greater means of empowerment. The medical profession and an American search for stability in an anxiety-ridden time coupled to facilitate (for many, unknowingly) intimate partner violence.
In this ad, a woman is being bent over what is presumably her husband’s lap and spanked for not buying fresh coffee. The message is she could have stopped her husband from being violent if only she had purchased Chase & Sanborn Coffee. She seems attractive in her dress (heels, make-up, and jewelry), but apparently, even something as small as buying a certain brand of coffee can have dire consequences for what physically appeared the ideal housewife. While the company probably would have made the argument that it was exaggerating effects of purchasing “inferior” coffee, the fact is that Chase & Sanborn used domestic violence to sell their product. Perhaps the company knowingly played on their ideal audience’s fear- that in a male-dominated culture, a man could (and maybe to this individual woman did) commit acts of violence. Perhaps the business was using “humor” to engage the viewer, but the “humor” of violence against a woman only serves to trivialize the problem. Women, men, and children could easily see this add. While not all consumers blindly internalize the messages advertisers convey, some will either consciously or subconsciously. The result? Violence against a spouse is viewed as not serious or even permissible. Whether “humor” or fear, the company is guilty of using domestic violence to capture the woman’s attention and persuade her to buy their brand.
In this 1970 ad, intimate partner violence is used to sell pants. Yes, pants. The man is standing on what is a rug of a tiger with a woman’s head. This ad plays off of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s in which women reclaimed autonomy of their bodies and the right to sexual fulfillment. The woman is referred to as a “tiger lady” and a “girl.” The written portion of the advertisement further states, “After one look at Mr. Leggs slacks, she was ready to have him walk all over her. That noble styling soothes the savage heart.” Oh, yes, how humorous. Apparently, with the right pair of pants, a man can tame a sexually excited woman and control her- physically, sexually, and emotionally. Despite the Women’s Movement and push for equality between the sexes, this company used domestic violence to sell their pants.
By the late 80s/early 90s, advertisers still were using domestic violence to sell their goods. The above ad by Gold Disk VideoDirector sought to grab attention with the large print “Cut your wife’s head off? Not a problem.” Obviously, the company is selling an editing software, but really- what captured the reader’s attention and how is cutting off a wife’s head treated? This only serves to trivialize intimate partner violence.
More currently these types of ads are being used, such as Bitch Skateboards, portraying a man shooting a woman in the head.
Privately owned businesses are using “catchy” phrases like “I like my beer like I like my violence…domestic” to sell their goods.
This Canadian advertisement last year touched off a large debate. Fluid Salon published this ad. The woman has a black eye and is sitting on the couch as a man stands behind her. The words “Look good in all you do” is printed above it. Obviously, one could make the argument that the man behind her is not her abuser, but given the limited alternatives, viewers are likely to make that assumption. The store owner, Sarah Cameron, refused to take down the advertisement and responded that they had no intention of upsetting anyone. The company just wanted to “push the limits.” (Somehow, although I’m at a loss to see how, using abused women to sell salon services is considered “pushing the limits” and “good business.”) Cameron claimed, “It might strike a chord, but as the way our society and community is getting, we keep tailoring everything because everyone is getting so sensitive.” Personally, I believe the ad glamorizes domestic violence or at least trivializes it. It does not raise awareness to the problem of intimate partner violence, which would be one of the only justifiable means of using such a photo shot. In the least, it uses violence against women to make a profit and captures the audience’s eye- an eye that could internalize the message that IPV is not serious.
Here is a PSA by Amnesty International that seeks to bring awareness to the pervasive problem of intimate partner violence. This picture uses a distressed bride struggling against (presumably) the groom as he grabs her from behind. She is crying, her mascara running, her anguish evident. A wedding day is typically viewed as a happy occasion, especially between husband and wife, but this imagery suggests, quite effectively, a different scenario. The striking contrast is powerful. Here, Amnesty International, continues many of its good works by bringing awareness to the widespread problem of IPV.
Some have argued that PSA’s like this one sexualize the survivor/victim of IPV. This, like the pro-IPV ads used to sell goods, seeks to capture the viewer’s attention. But, many similar PSA’s have been used to show the vulnerability of women to domestic violence (since women comprise 85% of IPV victims and have a 25% chance of being abused in their lifetime) and the need for public response to the problem.
This PSA seeks to encourage the public to speak and act out when witnessing domestic violence.
Overall, the media’s imagery of women needs correcting. There is a long history of exploiting domestic violence in the advertising world. Companies should not be using domestic violence to sell their goods (personally, I find it appalling and wrong on so many levels). It’s not funny, and IPV is serious. Thankfully, some organizations are countering these negative uses of domestic violence. But, we would do well to remember the power of advertisements in a visual culture, and we cannot continue the cycle. It’s time for the violence to stop.
Ashley Baggett is a co-founder of Nursing Clio and is an assistant professor at North Dakota State University. She earned her PhD in history from Louisiana State University in 2014, and specializes in women’s history, gender studies, medical history, 19th-century United States, and southern history. She graduated with a BS in Secondary Education, Social Studies in 2003 and then taught middle and high school for five years before returning to grad school.