Monday, August 25, 2008

What Are Wal-Mart Ads Saying?

Watching the Olympics means I saw more commercial television than I normally do. And I've seen a lot of Wal-Mart ads. Like, a lot. And the ones about the girls seem to be based on warming the cockles of the heart -and about being an individual through buying power. Like this one:

I especially appreciated the line, "But I can give her what she needs to feel good about herself -without breaking my budget". Which is nice, if they were talking about self-confidence instead of a yellow tee shirt. It also astounds me exactly how quickly these girls are the bestest of friends. One lunch conversation involving an astute shopping choice is apparently enough to bond girls of a middle school age for life. What also struck me, beyond the whole "buying her confidence, buying power = friends" message of the commercial is how incredibly it contrasts with Wal-Mart ads featuring boys. In the ad below, the boy is proactively placing actual school supplies into his book bag. His back-to-school shopping includes things like glue and binders and probably paper. He is actually preparing to go to school. The girl above? Doesn't. All that is highlighted is her clothing, and nothing else.

It continues on through the college Wal-Mart ads. The ad below shows a college-age guy hooking up his stereo equipment. The contrasting ad featuring a girl (which I have been unable to track down) has the same "worried mom" voice over as the girl middle school commercial, and talks about how buying at Wal-Mart has helped her daughter express her individuality on a budget -seemingly not grasping the irony of having the girl's roommate owning all of the same stuff as the girl, down to the exact pattern on the bed spread, but in a different color.

What do these ads really say? Because I think they say something important. One question that comes up is where are the boys' respective parents? Do they not have the same worries and fears as the girls' mothers? Obviously not. The ads conform to the conventional wisdom of girls needing social interaction and depending upon familial bonds (think Bedtime for Frances) along with being passive, and of boys being independent and active (think Where The Wild Things Are). Boys are actively putting things in book bags and setting up electronics, whereas girls are passively wandering down the halls hoping that their tee shirts say "I'm cool enough to befriend" with their mothers doing the voice overs. And that is a problem for me, along with the idea that all you need in life to succeed is stuff you can buy -and stuff made in China and sold by a company that disregards workers' rights, tries to influence the political process, and that systematically forces Mom and Pop businesses to close, no less.

1 comment:

John said...

I'm normally very skeptical when it comes to misogynist messages in the media, but commercials tend to be a bit more conducive to this sort of scrutiny. Since you only have 30 seconds and need to dedicate most of your audio to extolling the virtues of your product/service, every choice has to be deliberate and has to sell a message. In this case, the message is "poor and unimaginative girls can buy clothes from Wal-Mart to gain the social acceptance they so crave." Fun!

I think the funniest part is the idea that buying anything from Wal-Mart will help you express yourself as an individual. I can't think of many organizations more dedicated to global homogeneity.

Of course, taking on Wal-Mart in any capacity almost always guarantees my support :)