The Truth About Advertising: Selling the White Woman™

Hank Willis Thomas’s work examines the ways in which advertising has fabricated notions of gender and race, and then convinced us all to buy into them. “I always talk about racism as the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” Thomas says. His work serves as a sort of counter-campaign; one that aims to muddy the myths we’ve been marketed. “I want to complicate the way that I’m seen and the way that I look at other people.”

His latest exhibition is Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015, in New York. It follows Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2000, his 2007 exhibition that surveyed the branding of blackness. A Century of White Women examines how advertising has helped construct gender ideals over the last 100 years. If racism is the most successful advertising campaign of all time, then sexism, as the work illustrates, isn’t far behind.

Thomas’s work “unbrands” advertising: stripping away the commercial context, and leaving the exposed image to speak for itself. Without the text and taglines we would normally lean on to decipher the adverts, we are forced to read between the lines and think more deeply about what the images are actually selling – which, you begin to see, is an ideal of femininity encapsulated in AdLand’s “white woman”. While the specific product attributes of White Woman™ have diversified over time, there are certain characteristics a number of the images reinforce. So if you were to write new, more accurate, taglines for the ads, they might look something like this:

Will not go dull and lifeless,1953/2015. Photograph courtesy Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

White women: friend-free since 1915

A lot of the ads in the exhibition show women with their husbands, or their daughters, or their lovers. But there isn’t a single ad that shows female friends together, enjoying each other’s company while fully clothed. When groups of women are pictured together, they tend to be in bikinis and looking at the imaginary man behind the camera, not at each other. Indeed, women are often seen as a source of competition, not companionship. This is communicated with no great subtlety in an ad from 1960, which shows a coven of crouching, conservatively-dressed women, literally green with envy, pointing a cannon at a woman who is posing for the camera in her underwear.

Come out of the Bone Age, darling ..., 1955/2015. Photograph courtesy Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

100% less black than black women

Many of the earlier ads show white women attended by black servants; a large part of whiteness, these images imply, is being in a position of power over black people. As blatant racism gets less socially acceptable, the message becomes coded. An ad from 1974 shows a spectrum of female faces going from black at the bottom to white at the top: a hierarchy in which blacker is definitely not meant to be better. Female beauty means white female beauty. Darker bodies can be exotic, they can be erotic, but they are always “other”. Thankfully, things are slowly changing and the whitewashing of beauty standards is on the wane. As Thomas notes, through “the rise in appreciation to a large degree of Michelle Obama, the Williams sisters, Beyoncé … people have to face black women in a very different way.” This shift is dramatised in a 2010 ad, where a white woman kneels in front of Serena Williams, offering up a gift. (It turns out to be a box of Tampax, but you know, it’s the thought that counts.)

House rules!, 1967/2015. Photograph Ccurtesy Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

It's cool you have a job, but you still don't have a penis

Between 1915–2015, the role of women in society changed dramatically, and you can track the cultural developments in the adverts’ visual shifts. In 1920, American women got the right to vote and suddenly they are pictured in ads driving cars. In the 40s, they are dressed as soldiers. Soon there are career women, working mothers, even lesbians! But as women become more empowered, advertising (largely the domain, even today, of white men) seems to punish them for it. Violence and objectification creep into the imagery; this is particularly evident in the 1960s where many of the ads show women decapitated, bruised, caged, or being pulled apart by men. You can count your freedoms, the images seem to say, but the sum of a woman still boils down to ageing skin and sexual orifices. This is perhaps best dramatised in the juxtaposition of two ads from 1952 and 1953. In the first you see a woman holding up her head in victory; she has just won an election. In the second, you see a woman with her head down; she is about to fellate a lipstick.

Hank Willis Thomas’s Unbranded: A century of white women, 1915-2015, shows at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York until 23 May

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