I discussed this poster in the second blog of the Looking at Adverts series. The way the framing, camera angle and colour palette created associations between the image and other photographs really interested me.
The company, Protein World hit the news headlines recently because of an advert displayed on tube trains and in stations in London. In many ways the styling is similar to the 2014 advert; there is a combination of mono-chromatic photograph with bold yellow background and an isolated figure. But the audience response to the adverts couldn’t be more different. The 2015 ‘beach body ready’ advert has resulted in mass protests, posters have been defaced and a very public and acrimonious argument is currently playing out between the CEO of the company and feminist activists. So what is it about this image that has caused such offence?
The text on the 2014 poster links the product and the people that consume it to revolutionary progress; the association of the Rodchenko-like composition reinforces this. The 2015 advert also carries the slogan ‘leading the protein revolution’ but the main emphasis of the text lies in the question ‘are you beach body ready?’ The 2014 advert doesn’t directly address the audience in this way. Does this suggest that the male consumer already has a ‘beach body’? Or perhaps it is assumed they have already asked the question and know the answer. It seems women need to be prompted…
The viewer of this poster is supposed to look at the female figure in the image as an exemplar for the ‘beach body’ and determine if their own bodies measure up. Advertisements with bodies in them provoke the audience along two axes –identification and envy. I look at an image of a woman and I compare my body to hers. I identify with similarities and pinpoint differences that may become the basis of my envious response. Adverts generally show idealized bodies because products are sold with the implication that the differences between the body in the advert and our own bodies can be eradicated if we buy the product. This could be the cause of contention surrounding the 2014 advert but these mechanisms are also at play in the 2014 one. The muscular male figure is designed to make men feel inferior to and envious of the body depicted. So what is the cause of the recent furor?
In Ways of Seeing John Berger describes how men and women have been depicted differently throughout the history of portrait painting. He says that a painting of a man informs the viewer of his place in the world; objects that describe his ‘moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social and sexual power’ often surround him (Berger uses The Ambassadors by Holbein as an example of this). The female body in a painting tends to be presented as an object to be viewed and possessed by a male audience. He says ‘men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’ (1972 p47)
When I compare the two Protein World adverts I am immediately aware of the difference in gesture and framing of the two bodies. The male body is active and dynamic. The low camera angle literally makes us look up to him – it is aspirational. He doesn’t return our gaze but looks at something outside the frame. The female figure is static, she stands with legs apart and shoulders back giving the impression that she is holding her body out for us to see. Her eyes are in shadow so it is unclear if she is looking back at me. If they are closed, an imbalance of power is implied because I am voyeuristically looking at someone who is unaware of my gaze. She is ‘an object of vision’.
Perhaps I am missing something, but when I view this image I am unable to come up with any art or photography history counterparts akin to Rodchenko / Greek sculptures. Are there visual associations I have overlooked?