Sex sells — or so the old advertising adage goes. And the use of sex to sell products and services has been prolific historically throughout the advertising media. As such it seems strange that the Windsor Smith shoe company’s recent billboard advertisement — I’m sure you all know the one — is attracting so much attention. This image of a scantily clad, blond, buxom woman seated with legs apart, arms hidden (bound behind her back?), and her face level with the groin of the fully clothed man towering over her, evokes a sense of both sexual engagement and of implicit violence. This continued reproduction of sexist stereotypical images is certainly of concern for the ways in which women are perceived and treated in our society. Yet I am also drawn to question the reasons for the increasing proliferation of blatant sexual images and references that are appearing within the public sphere.
Driving down King’s Road, I am confronted with a billboard claiming that its online employment service is the way to ‘get ahead without giving one’. A Myer billboard, advertising Lipstik shoes, has a man seemingly in the throes of masturbatory pleasure whilst holding a shoe suggestively at groin height. (What has happened to the shoe industry — they appear to be taking shoe fetishism to new levels?) A carwash business billboard suggests that it gives ‘… the best hand-job in town’. And Sex in the City’s much advertised screening of its ‘cunt special’ comes to mind as another example of pushing sex to shock and to grab attention.
Shock tactics are an advertising strategy that has worked well for TAC advertisements. However the search for ways to continue to hold the attention of the targeted audience requires continual reassessment of affect and the creation of other more confronting images. The recent introduction of an advertisement showing a man running over two elderly people is the latest in the TAC’s attempts to horrify and grab attention. In the spectacle society, where the individual is inundated with images and messages and the satiation of individual pleasure, is promoted ad nauseam; advertisers and the media are constantly on the lookout for more ways to attract the attention of their overstimulated audience/consumer. Desensitisation is rapidly leading to attempts at more blatant, more shocking, more violent or more sexual imagery. To combine them all suggestively into one as in the Windsor Smith advertisement is certainly — but momentarily — effective in attracting the attention of such an audience.
The question that comes to mind is: how far can we push or be pushed and at what point do we become unshockable? How then will producers and the media attract our ‘fleeting’ attention? Perhaps as we become more detached from embodied interactions through our work practices and the increasing use of online facilities, we are able to view the use of ‘bodies’ in a similarly detached manner.
This process is changing the ways in which we view embodiment and embodied interactions. Commodification and objectification of bodies has expanded to a level at which the image-educated public is able to view such images cynically, as merely another advertising ploy. Disembodied engagements are altering our approaches to our bodies and to our relationships according to the level of physicality that is involved. In the recent film, The Story of Us, an actor claims that online sex is not cheating. Presumably this is because no physical interaction takes place directly amongst participants even though physical desires are initiated, enacted and reciprocated. This attitude is to equate intimacy simply with physicality. Disembodied or mediated social forms become confused with simulation and representation.
The detached, disembodied, and voyeuristic nature of many of the media images is mirrored in the production of television talk shows aka gladiatorial productions (domestic confrontations cheered on by the feeding-frenzy of a studio audience and ‘managed’ by bouncer-like types) such as Jerry Springer. Voyeurism is the ‘safe’ way to engage in emotional or stimulating activities. As Maurice Blanchot once remarked, through the use of the media:
The whole world is offered to us, but by way of the gaze … Why take part in a street demonstration if at the same moment, secure and at rest, we are at the demonstration [manifestation] itself thanks to a television set.
Yet this raises questions as to why we feel the need for an increase in, or changed form of, voyeurism. For while sex and (implied) violence have certainly been used in the past to sell within magazine covers and on television and movie screens, their extension further into the public domain whereby we cannot actively choose our level of exposure indicates a change in the intensity of such usage. Have we become sensory junkies in search of instant but superficial stimulation? And is this exposure to constant yet apparently superficial stimulation leading to the promotion of instant gratification at the expense of more involved, complex, meaningful understandings and relationships with others?
A focus on the sensations and attention of the individual, at the expense of acknowledging the socially embedded nature of such individuals, narrows the opportunities for meaningful and complex relationships. Violence toward others and the definition and control of sexual relationships are issues to debate within the community. The use of violent and sexual imagery in advertising lifts these issues out of the social environment, in which they are of concern, turning them into decorative suggestion. In the Windsor Smith ad, depictions of violence and sex are flattened to become simply unrelated images used to individually titillate and attract. Coupling these images with the pictures of shoes named Spear, Stone and Snipe reinforces such reactions. The boundaries of reality and of simulation are merged in a manner that carries greater implications than the current debates would indicate. Emptying out the rich and culturally important aspects of being ‘in bodies’ accentuates the danger of turning our bodies and our relationships into irrelevant or meaningless imagery.