A “global lifestyle brand” (Guess.com, 2016) founded by brothers Paul and Maurice Marciano, GUESS is renowned for its iconic adverts featuring models such as Claudia Schiffer, Anna Nicole Smith, Priyanka Chopra, and, more recently, Tori Praver, Kate Upton, and Gigi Hadid.
In a 2006 interview with Jordan K. Speer, Paul Marciano beamed that “GUESS products and advertising images are provocative and adventurous." (Communications, 2016) But, do a quick search on the Internet for ‘GUESS ads’ and you would be forgiven for thinking you were viewing stills from soft-core porn.
Blonde and brunette, these buxom “bombshells” (Fashion Gone Rogue, 2015) are mostly Caucasian, Photoshop-flawless, and impossibly thin. And what’s more, the women in these ads very often look as though they are ready and willing to get down and “dirty." (Gorgeautiful.com, 2016)
Pictured either on the street, in the desert, in matching underwear, by the water or the beach, with handbags, or with men who literally keep a firm hold on them, each of these models projects a particular construction of femininity that is both disturbing and problematic.
Undoubtedly, there are some who would disagree with this claim. Trawl the Internet and it becomes clear that GUESS and its ads have many supporters. In response to a particular ad, which depicts a naked model holding a tote bag, posted on GUESS’ Facebook page in August 2015, one contributor clamoured:
“wow love this perfect for the babys , see sexy, personality, style all are great [sic]” Facebook
In response to the same ad, another viewer took a more critical approach:
“The half naked model does not make me want the purse more. Who is your target audience anyway?” Facebook
It’s true that each of us is entitled to our own reading of a text. Suzanna Danuta Walters puts it pertinently in her book Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory (1995) when she writes, “It is too simplistic to state that there are ‘bad’ images that produce ‘bad’ attitudes and behaviours […] Different audiences may interpret the same images in various ways” (p. 2-3).
The responses elicited by the tote ad clearly exemplify Walters’ assertions, and while there are presumably few who would disagree with Walters’ claims, a distinction must be made between ill-informed readings and informed interpretations. In a world where it appears that ‘anything goes’, it is especially crucial that we are well-informed about the ways ads are constructed, the kinds of messages they convey, and the potentially unhealthy and unsafe consequences they may wreak.
So what are the problems with GUESS adverts?
GUESS adverts promote the objectifying gaze. (Gervais, Holland and Dodd, 2013) By the use of colour, placement, framing, body language, etc., GUESS ads encourage viewers to focus more on the bodies of models than on models’ faces. While it’s understandable that as a clothing brand GUESS must give attention to their clothes and, therefore, the bodies in their clothes, the substantial focus on models’ sexual body parts takes away the focus the viewer might otherwise invest in perceiving the person in the clothes.
Once objectified, a person is then at risk of being depersonalised or denied personhood. (Dworkin, 2000) In other words, once a person is perceived as a sexual object, they are more likely to be denied mental states and deemed less worthy of moral consideration. (Loughnan et al., 2010)
So, if a person is perceived to be less than human, it stands to reason they are at a higher risk of being victimised. In fact, it has been shown that people demonstrate greater ease associating sexually objectified women, as opposed to women who are not sexually objectified, with animal-related words. (Vaes, Paladino and Puvia, 2011)
In a similar vein, a study which examined the effects of sexual objectification on rape victim blame and victims’ perceived suffering demonstrates that, consistent with previous research, “participants denied objectified women both mind and moral concern." (Loughnan et al., 2013, p.458) The study further demonstrates that participants “attributed significantly more blame to the objectified [rape] victim compared with the [non-objectified] control [rape] victim” (Loughnan et al., 2013, p.458). In other words, research participants betrayed a belief that if a woman is ‘provocatively’ dressed and raped, she is more at fault for her rape than is her modestly dressed counterpart.
What does any of this have to do with GUESS? Through its advertising, GUESS contributes to a culture in which people are encouraged, expected even, to view others as objects—as less human. GUESS thus contributes to a culture in which people are often objectified and, when objectified, are placed at a greater risk of ill treatment by others and even by themselves.
Yes, a report has shown that other-objectification and self-objectification are positively related (Strelan and Hargreaves, 2005). In other words, there is a link between objectifying others and objectifying oneself. And the damaging consequences of self-objectification have been well documented. Self-objectification has been associated with:
- decreased subjective well being (Breines, Crocker and Garcia, 2008),
- increased depressive symptoms (Tiggemann and Kuring, 2004),
- increased self-harm (Muehlenkamp, Swanson and Brausch, 2005), and
- increased disordered eating (Fredrickson et al., 1998).
GUESS is but one perpetrator contributing to a culture in which unrealistic expectations about how a woman should look and behave bombard both women and men and young girls and boys. GUESS adverts may be “provocative and adventurous”, but they are also dangerously unrealistic, sexually objectifying, and unequivocally affronting. These are not the messages we want to be sending our daughters and sons.
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