Can you remember the number of advertisements you encounter in a day?

In 2021, it is estimated that the average person sees between 6,000 - 10,000 ads per day, up from 5,000 in 2007 and 500 in the 70’s (read more here). *mindblown* For many of us, 6,000 ads is unimaginable - how do those 15-seconds YouTube advertisements add up to thousands of them?!

Here’s another question: what makes you unhappy? Perhaps it’s that annoying colleague who thinks your time is their time, the relentless pandemic that refuses to disappear like your ex, or the bills that came a bit too early again.

Did advertisements make your list? I’m guessing not! Here’s an interesting finding from University of Warwick’s Andrew Oswald and team: the higher a country’s ad spend was in one year, the less satisfied its citizens were a year or two later.

Yes, advertisements are also making you and I unhappy.

What’s wrong with ads today?

My fascination with how advertising affects us began from the lessons of a university lecturer:

“Advertising is a spectacle.”

A spectacle is understood as something that is heavily visual, and within visual culture studies, “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”. It is as wide as the world that our eyes can take in - colours, logos, photos, videos and so much more that go through us, capable and made to affect the way we think, act and live. They alter us, and the relationships we have with others and ourselves.

It’s fascinating because for most of us, we spend every waking moment seeing something. Just as I took a pause to think about the next sentence writing this piece, I stared at the notebook on my table, just right beside me. Printed on it was the Milieu logo - that’s some form of advertising, isn’t it? Oh my god, I realised, that’s where it all ads up.

But I digress. Beauty ads were chosen as the focal point of this piece because of the obvious visual-heavy nature of beauty ads - often carefully curated images of the “ideal woman”. I sought out to find out what women think through a Milieu survey with N=500 women in Singapore in April 2021. Respondents are asked about their perceptions of beauty product ads, and the kinds of diversity they want to see in them.

Nearly half of women feel flawed watching beauty ads

Nearly half of respondents (45%) indicated that these ads make them compelled to fix flaws in their physical appearance. 16-29 year olds skewed highest from the average, and similarly, women from racial minority groups indicated higher percentages than their Chinese counterparts.

This result may or may not be surprising to you. However, it is important that we recognise how ads can potentially affect adolescents who are undergoing an important stage of identity formation, as well as the alienation of minority groups. On the whole, ads have a significant degree of influence on women’s perception of their own bodies.

Mainstream standards perpetuated in most ads, but many don’t realise it

Apparent to 57% of respondents, beauty ads usually perpetuate mainstream beauty. However, it is concerning that a quarter of respondents do not notice or are unsure about messages of beauty behind ads.

Some may argue - so what if an ad perpetuates mainstream beauty? If it does what I want, it’s a win-win, isn’t it? No need to know too much.

Not really.

If a whitening product does its job of lightening one’s skin tone, the customer is happy, great! Yet, in the first place, why is having lighter skin something to be happy about? What do people of colour think about such standards? The same can be said about age-reversing products and their ageist undertones.

Research has shown that advertisers reach consumers through affective conditioning, which “occurs when consumers decide on a purchase mainly based on the positive feelings gained from choosing a product”(read more here and here). With the image of conventional beauty in our heads, we seek out products that bring us closer to this ideal because we associate them with feeling good about ourselves.

Perhaps as consumers, we can move the needle by first asking ourselves: what does a ‘good’ product mean to you? Who defines and reinforces what ‘good’ is? Are we chasing after something that is truly what we want? Do we impose these standards on our fellow women?

What do women really want to see in beauty ads?

The issue of colourism in whitening products has come to attention in India in recent years. One product line, previously named ‘Fair & Lovely’, came under fire for its colourist undertones and only recently renamed to ‘Glow & Lovely’ after 45 years in the Indian market. It is owned by accredited global company Unilever, which had acknowledged that the former product name “suggest[ed] a singular ideal of beauty”.

In our survey, the majority of respondents (81%) agreed that beauty companies are responsible for how they influence consumers’ self-esteem. The incident above is one of the many signals from consumers who want the beauty industry to be held accountable for the messages they put out there.

As an avid social media user-slash-Millennial, I’m surrounded by many young individuals who are hugely in favour of diversity and representation in the media. This is reflected in the survey results - diversity of representation is especially important to 16-29 year old females whose votes across the options skew higher in comparison to their older counterparts.

Meanwhile, the latter skews slightly higher in terms of their desire to see more representation from diverse ages. Women from minority ethnic groups in particular, want to see more representation from diverse ethnicities.

These results show that not only is there room for improvement when it comes to diversity, they also possibly hint at the dissatisfaction of consumers who are underrepresented in beauty ads, whether it is along the lines of (not limited to) ethnicity, age or body and facial types. It makes perfect sense that people want to be accepted for the skin they are born into, or the body that has simply been through a natural process of ageing.

It is noteworthy that brands have started to realise the importance of diversity in their ads, such as these lingerie brands, which have boldly embraced body acceptance in almost its barest form. Among respondents who have encountered beauty ads that celebrate individuality, Fenty Beauty - known for setting new industry standards with its extensive range of foundation shades - came up as the top brand.

Unfortunately, some brands were too hasty to perform diversity, such that these ads wound up offensive rather than inclusive. Or in the case of Unilever’s renaming of ‘Glow and Lovely’, some have viewed the change as “selling its old wine in a new bottle”. It is thus important that companies engage meaningfully with the messages they put out there, or bluntly put - know what you’re talking about, and walk the talk.

We’re now looking at a shifting landscape from “I want to look like other women” to “I want to look the best version of myself”. Terms like “representation”, “diversity” or “inclusivity” may sound like slangs of a passing fad among Gen Zs and Millennials, but should we see them as a strong and growing echo to tear down the preconceived image of the “ideal woman”?

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