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All-consuming ads

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Wednesday, 4 May 2005

You’re stuck in traffic behind a bus and there's no way to ignore it.

Three chicks dressed only in their knickers look winningly at you. Yes, it's an ad for Hot Tips, Hot Lips or Hot Hips. Whatever. I've seen this one so often I feel I know the girls, especially the slightly bow-legged one.

Visual pollution or just the way of the world? Is there any point in getting het-up and what would you get het-up about? This particular ad is for women's knickers, so I suppose it's only fair that we have three girls with knickers on. So, they have nothing else on but any more clothing would take attention away from the bottom line.


For a small project I'm doing I've been immersed in ads. As Emma Tom wrote in a column in The Australian recently, most are moronic, some are funny and increasingly the joke in ads seems to fall on the man.

One that is particularly tragicomic is for some company called Repco. Wifey struts around the living room in her new sexy knickers and bra and all hubby can say is, "Have you seen what they've got at Repco, honey?"

Wow, power generators and carseats.

You can't really use the line that it's sexist. It's more husbandist or a sad commentary on married couples.

Sure, some ads are still in-your-face tits and ass. But even in the egregious Cougar ads, where the bloke orders a bourbon and Coke with a slice of lemon just so he and his mates can get a flash of the barmaid's cleavage as she bends down, it's the men who come off looking dumb. Or just very ordinary. All the blokes in the Cougar ads are as down-market as, well, cheap bourbon and Coke. It's a pretty devastating representation of your average bloke.

If we can no longer scream sexism at advertisers - especially when that's the desired response calculated into the advertising campaign - what's left to say?


That's the question I face teaching my large undergraduate course on media and gender. A lot of students come expecting the "that's sexist" type of critique. They're quickly disappointed. It's no longer as easy as that. It never was. Apart from some vulgar versions of Marxist feminism, ways of thinking about visual representations have always been complex.

An oldie but a goodie is John Berger's Ways of Seeing. Published in the early 1970s it co-incided with a BBC program in which the upper-class and nattily dressed Berger lisped his way through the history of Western art. Berger, who is now a renowned novelist, certainly knew his stuff and for the time delivered it in an accessible manner. I still show his video and while the students titter at his accent and retro shirt, they get his point: from at least the 14th century women have been painted in ways that portray a "to-be-looked-at-ness". It's what he calls presence and, as he points out, their modest gazes were directed at the assumed male spectator-owner. Juxtaposed with masterpieces, the ads he shows replicate the same structure of looking.

Berger's argument rests on debates at the time within film theory. The psychoanalytic moment was much less amenable to public understanding. Laura Mulvey's article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema set the stakes high. Pleasure in looking, or what Freud called scopophilia, had to be destroyed. This is where my students go, "Huh?" Why would you want to do away with the pleasure of cinema or television?

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First published in The Australian on April 27, 2005.

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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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