There are some ads that just stick with you. One that I’ve never forgotten was a 30 second commercial that began with a terrified blond woman wearing tight jeans, sky high heels and a bustier (it was
the early 90s) and running down an alley as a chain saw wielding maniac chased her.
After discovering an unlocked door, she flung it open and: SURPRISE! All her friends were waiting with a birthday cake. And the guy she had been so desperately fleeing? Well, he followed in after her, pulled off his mask, and grinningly cut the cake with his chainsaw. As the screen faded to a Guess Jeans logo, a sultry voice informed the viewer that these jeans were wearable in any
“Hmm,” I remember musing, “I kind of want those." Then, "Man, that was really messed-up."
Using twisted concepts to sell a product is common, of course, and I am by no means the only woman who has ever been tempted despite (or maybe because of) such tactics. Fashion magazines geared towards women are full of ads depicting everything from what appears to be a gang rape (Dolce & Gabanna) to a woman pulling her purse out of a pool next to a corpse (Jimmy Choo) to a lingerie clad model being strangled by a man’s tie (Duncan Quinn).
But while the brands have clear motivations—develop an image, lure in customers, sell a product, have them coming back for more—the motivations of the female consumers who respond to such ads are more complicated.
To learn more about this issue, researchers, Barbara J. Phillips and Edward F. McQuarrie, interviewed regular readers of fashion magazines and discovered that most women don’t consider the implications of violent sexist ads, but rather, they gravitate to them for the tantalizing narrative.
They recently published their findings in the Journal of Consumer Research
and explain that the women who liked such ads, "Would be transported into the story world set in motion by the ad's pictures, asking themselves, 'What is happening here?' and 'What will happen next? These women would immerse themselves in the images, examining its lighting, colors, lines, composition, and creativity.”
Still questions remain. Phillips and McQuarrie were drawing from a very small sample size (only 18 women were interviewed). So even if we can generalize their findings to the larger fashion magazine reading population, there still has to be more behind a positive response to this type of branding than simply the desire to follow a captivating story.
Maybe women who find these images compelling have internalized the messages they are seeing and don’t find them offensive. Maybe they think the ads are edgy and counterculture. Maybe they have tapped into sexual desires and fantasies. Maybe the response is part of a larger backlash against feminism. Maybe the woman are drawn to these ads like rubberneckers watching a car crash.
The topic definitely needs more exploration. But ultimately, whatever women’s reasons are for finding such ads appealing, I still think that there has to be a better way to sell shoes.