Imagery, literature and language - modes of communication - are all ways by which a society constructs its beliefs and narratives, and how we are able to find meaning in the world. As contemporary notions of capitalism have reigned in North American culture throughout the 20th century, an awareness of production and consumerism is essential to an understanding of culture itself. As psychologically savvy advertising executives plague the fashion industry, it is often cited that "sex sells", that consumers are drawn toward purchases due to the sexual content and appeal of an image; but is this clichéd utterance enough to grasp the cultural phenomenon of material fetish? Even if one accepts that mass culture is driven to consumerism as a result of selling by sex, one must wonder: what is sex selling?
Through imagery, especially the print media, the emotional effect of advertising can be witnessed. Viewers always have an emotional reaction on some level, whether admitted or not - how else would one be able to designate favorite or undesirable advertisements without having assigned some type of emotional value to it? The question as to how these commercial images work, and how they are successful, however, remains unanswered. Their connection to a consumer cannot be wholly conscious; otherwise, one would be able to comprehend it in simple, logical terms. The rationale for the thriving advertising industry cannot be as simple as sex selling (that buying clothing/fashion is buying sex), or idolization and imitation (that one desires to be the woman in the image and tries to emulate her).
Thus an analysis of four advertisements from the October 2009 issue of Vogue magazine will demonstrate that the efficiency of commercial advertising, in particular women's fashion advertising, is due to the two-fold process experienced by the viewer: (1) of participation in patriarchy, and (2) of participation in societal taboo and rebellion.
Initial notes and observations
The first advertisement, that for Anne Klein available at Lord & Taylor stores, is an excellent starting point for this analysis as it represents a common advertising style - it seems transparent, honest, and is in no way offensive. The image clearly denotes the characteristics of Anne Klein designs - professional and business-oriented, yet stylish and sexy. The brand-names (of both Klein and L&T) serve as signifiers of a high-class lifestyle, thus the viewer is instantly aware that this woman is successful, powerful and in control. Her body language is also interesting: while in an obviously manufactured pose, she is gently pulling down her jacket, intentionally "covering up" from and deliberately ignoring the gaze of the viewer.
The second advertisement, for Burberry, boasts many similar elements. The well-known plaid design clearly indicates affluence and luxury. The black and white shading of the image, as well as the car, also contributes to the conveyance of class and...