Psyching Out the Female Consumer

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“The use of a male figure is one strategy, in contemporary ads, for representing compulsive eating as “natural” and even lovable. Men are supposed to have hearty, even voracious, appetites. It is a mark of the manly to eat spontaneously and expansively, and manliness is a frequent commercial code for amply portioned products. “Manwich,” “Hungry Man Dinners,” “Manhandlers.” Even when men advertise diet products (as they more frequently do, now that physical perfection is increasingly being demanded of men as well as women), they brag about their appetites, as in the Tommy Lasorda commercials for Slim-Fast, which feature three burly football players (their masculinity beyond reproach) declaring that if Slim-Fast can satisfy their appetites, it can satisfy anyone’s. The displacement of the female by a male figure (displacement when the targeted consumer is in fact a woman) thus dispels thoughts of addiction, danger, unhappiness, and replaces them with a construction of compulsive eating (or thinking about food) as benign indulgence of a “natural” inclination. Consider the ad shown in Figure 10, depicting a male figure diving with abandon into the “tempered-to-full-flavor-consistency” joys of Haagen-Dazs deep chocolate.

Emotional heights, intensity, love, and thrills: it is women who habitually seek such experiences from food and who are most likely to be overwhelmed by their relationship to food, to find it dangerous and frightening (especially rich, fattening, soothing food like ice cream). The marketers of Haagen-Dazs know this; they are aware of the well-publicized prevalence of compulsive eating and binge behaviors among women. Indeed, this ad exploits, with artful precision, exactly the sorts of associations that are likely to resonate with a person for whom eating is invested with deep emotional meaning. Why, then, a male diver? In part, as I have been arguing, the displacement is necessary to insure that the grim actualities of women’s eating problems remain obscured; the point, after all, is to sell ice cream, not to remind people of how dangerous food actually is for women. Too, the advertisers may reckon that women might enjoy seeing a man depicted in swooning surrender to ice cream, as a metaphor for the emotional surrender that so many women crave from their husbands and lovers.”

[Pp. 108-110 in Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.]

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