Take a look at this Playtex tampon ad. One of these women is not like the others.
This popped up on my Pandora page, and I couldn’t help but be distracted by it. Playtex’s current ad campaign is based on the idea that “every woman’s body is different,” and at first glance it’s a pretty standard tampon ad. Lots of pink and girly girls – note the skirts and long hair. But if you look at this ad, you’ll see that two out of the three female figures depicted here are almost identical, just posed differently. The woman in the middle and the one on the right are both very slim. They are ideal according to the “thin is in” mentality glorified in the media, but in all likelihood quite a bit smaller than the average American woman. The woman on the left is the only who looks “different,” as her silhouette is significantly more curvy than the others featured in the ad. (I’ll be using “curvy” as a very relative term – obviously, the “curvy” woman here is really pretty average, but she’s rather curvy in comparison to the other women in the ad.)
This is a tampon ad, and obviously a woman’s physical appearance has nothing to do with what type of tampon is right for her. But because it presents a picture of female silhouettes, in which we can see only the superficial outlines of three bodies, the focus of this ad becomes female body size and shape.
Each female figure in the ad is paired with an adjective. The curvier woman is described as “empowered,” while the other two women are “chill” and “bubbly,” respectively. This ad is supposed to be about “different” body types, and yet the female figures we see are characterized using adjectives that describe their personalities. What does a woman’s body type have to do with her personality? The prominent placement of these adjectives directly above the women’s heads presents this strange connection between physical appearance and personality as obvious and simple.
What really got me thinking was the fact that the ad’s token curvy girl is described as “empowered.” This isn’t a negative adjective. In fact, I would be flattered if someone used it to describe me. But “empowered” is very different from “chill” and “bubbly.” “Chill” and “bubbly” are adjectives that sound fun and friendly. They make the thinner girls seem like they’d be fun to hang out with (if they weren’t cartoons). “Empowered,” on the other hand, is more a state of mind or state of being. While it might be a positive description, it says nothing about whether this woman is friendly, or if she would be fun to hang out with. “Chill” and “bubbly” are light, casual words. But “empowered” carries more weight. And this ad is all about fun, pink girliness. So what makes the curvy woman so different? Why didn’t she get a fun adjective? Is this curvy girl “empowered” because she is confident despite the fact that movies, magazines and the internet tell her she should be different?
Maybe Playtex’s intent here was to celebrate all body types, and say that curvier women should feel empowered, because they’re beautiful. But if that’s the case, then why doesn’t the ad actually feature a range of body types? What I see here are two skinny girls and one “alternative” body type. This ad says that curvy is ok, too, but skinny wins out two to one. If that’s not the case, then why create this skinny vs. curvy dynamic, with one clear outsider? It’s just too coincidental that the one different-looking girl was assigned the unusual adjective.
Finally, the point of the ad is to promote three sponsored Pandora stations that listeners can choose from. You are supposed to drag one image/word combination to the box to play the station. The image and word cannot be separated. So, potential listeners are not choosing a body type or an adjective, they’re choosing a body type and an adjective together.
What does that say to women who identify as curvy and bubbly? Or skinny women who would rather be empowered than chill?
Obviously Playtex could never design an ad that would really include all body types, because they’re right, every woman’s body is different. But this is a product designed for and marketed to women. The very least they could do is treat us as intelligent, individual consumers and stop equating outer appearance with inner attributes. That might make me interested in their product.