in Philippine Advertising:
A Subtle Attack on the Filipina?
“Choose wellness, choose Nestlé!” Tweety de Leon’s lively voice resounds in one of her Nestlé commercials on television. Here the modern Filipina is presented. No longer is she the stereotypical passive and shy female who simply accepts what circumstance brings. According to present-day advertisements, the world is hers to conquer; success, happiness, health and beauty are now in her hands. If she wants to be beautiful, all she has to do is take the necessary steps to wellness. There are now a myriad of products and services that can enable her to improve herself. The media’s noticeable emphasis on personal responsibility is a departure from past collectivism, where, according to Rogan (1999), the individual is of minor importance compared to the collective whole; it is advancement toward the more western individualism. This revolution seems to have made Filipinas more mindful and caring of themselves, and because of this increase in self-awareness, it is natural to expect that they would be happier and more self-asserting. Yet why is there so much talk about feelings of inadequacy, ugliness, and fatness among many Filipinas nowadays? Why is there a Dove Real Beauty Campaign going on? Truly, there is something wrong with the messages that the mass media is forwarding these days. Although westernized concepts and standards of beauty prevalent in the mass media, particularly advertisements, have increased women’s self-awareness, these western ideals seem to have objectified women, which is detrimental to the Filipina’s physical and socio-psychological well-being; therefore, they should uphold their own beauty.
Currently, there is a westernized media trend in the Philippines. This is because most present-day beauty standards reflect some of the western ideals of feminine beauty. But what are these said ideals? In affluent societies of the west, the perfect womanly figure is the slim, toned, but full-breasted figure. Positive social meaning such as happiness, success, social acceptability, youth, elegance, and self-control are associated with slenderness, while negative ones are attributed to overweight. Fatness is seen as a sign of inadequacy and immorality. Generally speaking, over-all outward appearance, especially slenderness, is directly linked to a person’s over-all integrity in the west. This is said to be the result of their highly individualistic culture that stresses personal responsibility and self-actualization above everything else (Rogan 1999). This means that outside beauty and personal responsibility go hand in hand, and they are almost equated in western societies, creating a complex beauty ideal that is not solely aesthetically-based.
Brannon (2002) claims that the media is a very powerful propaganda device for it can present attitudes and beliefs that viewers will most likely consider as the norm. Moreover, media portrayals can even become a person’s standard for self-evaluation. With this in mind, it can be said that the country’s advertising industry can be a key perpetrator of westernized ideals for women. Many billboards portray the new, liberated Filipina, as in billboards by Pond’s Skin Care Institute and Myra vitamin E. Both ads show slim, flawless-skinned, “blooming women. These ads imply that women should not let time eat away their youth and beauty. They should take responsibility for themselves so that they, too, can become blooming. Furthermore, there are television and magazine ads. Most television ads offer a wide variety of products for the self-care of Filipinas. Examples of these are Nesvita and Century Tuna ads that promote the maintenance of slim and fit bodies. These commercials show women who take care of their bodies not just by eating healthy. The women also engage in fitness activities whether in the gym or through outside sports. On the other hand, magazine ads concentrate more on fashion, health, and beauty trends to help Filipinas keep up with modern times. This is seen in make-up ads like those of Maybelline, which is famous for the slogan “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline,” and those of Avon, which sports the slogan “Let’s talk about the power of having it all” (from a lipstick ad). The campaign slogans motivate women to take action; women are particularly advised to improve their current appearance so that they may attain success and self-actualization. All such ads, billboards, television, and magazine, forward the western ideal of feminine beauty.
The media hype seems to have increased people’s self-awareness, and this may be behind the ongoing health and beauty revolution in the country. Corey & Corey (2006) claim that the mind is a powerful agent in determining one’s health; thus, as ads continue to promote personal responsibility, people are becoming more aware of the part they must play in attaining beauty and wellness. Wellness, after all, entails dedication to a way of life that is beneficial to one’s mental, physical, social, and spiritual health. Currently, there are various advancements in skin care and cosmetics, as seen in Olay and Pond’s anti-aging creams. Many food supplements for weight-control and over-all health have also been developed, like the herbal supplements Fitrum (green tea, L-Carnitine) and Theraherb (virgin coconut oil). In addition, more programs for dieting, weight-loss, and fitness have become popular, giving more options that make weight management relatively easier. In an article, Victor (2004) cites Dr. Mary Anne Lim-Abraham, chief of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism section at the University of the Philippines-Philippines General Hospital, who enumerated some new methods for weight management. Liposuction and bariatric surgery are some possible options for obese patients who have failed at both diet and exercise, while less- invasive methods like Lipodissolve or simply joining a gym class are recommended for normal weight individuals. In general, the increased interest in exercise is very advantageous. Exercise, after all is a vital part of attaining health; moderate physical activity has been found to improve not just bodily processes, but mental functions as well (Corey & Corey 2006).
On the surface, the westernized beauty standards in advertisements seem harmless, and they even have good effects. Increased self-awareness and personal responsibility are some of the said benefits. But looking deeper, one will see that these western standards are an assault on the Filipina. How is this so? Earlier, it has been mentioned that affluent western societies directly link outward appearance to a person’s over-all integrity, but appearance is not to be limited to body shape and size for it is also important to not e skin color. A large part of the west is known for prejudice against dark skin tone, and for years, people of color have been underrepresented by the media in many fields. While fairer people are usually sensationalized since white skin has been associated with wealth and social status, colored people are kept at a lower profile (Brannon 2002). This trend can now be seen in Philippine advertising. Most advertisements use white/ fair-skinned models who are often thin as well. The media notoriously forwards the belief that beauty is thinness, and vice versa (Corey & Corey 2006), while also promoting preference for fair skin. Many women’s magazines are filled with slim, foreign or fair-skinned models. Philippine Tatler is an example. Its May 2005 issue is carries ads by brands like Rolex, Lacoste, Maja Soap, Samsung, Ayala center, Kamiseta, and others that all use slim and fair models. Billboards are often similar in format since they are often blown-up versions of the same magazine ads, like the Kamiseta Billboard featuring a famous Hollywood star, Kate Hudson. Many TV ads also conform to the trend. Commercials by Pond’s, Sunsilk, Pantene, and others feature mestiza stars, and there is only a handful of appearances by morena women, like Angel Aquino and Tweety de Leon. The morena population of Filipinas is seldom portrayed in advertisements. It is made to appear that the only Filipina beauty is the slim, mestiza woman, and this seems to have lead to the current obsession with attaining the western ideal of slenderness, which is shown as a symbol of health and vitality. The said media portrayals may also be behind the rising obsession with artificiality that is evident in the mushrooming of cosmetic products and methods for changing one’s appearance—skin whitening, make-up, and cosmetic surgery.
Wanting to improve one’s appearance is natural, but obsession or over-fixation on appearance may pose a problem. Recent studies have shown that women, in general, are more open to accept other people’s assessment of them, making them susceptible to act in accordance to these outside evaluations without giving them a second thought (Brannon 2002). Since ad messages concentrate so much on outside appearance, they may have ill effects on the Filipina. The constant stress on physical appearance may objectify their self-concept. Kilbourne (1999) explains how ads often turn people into objects, a process known as objectification. Since girls are the most likely targets, they may develop a negative self-concept. Not only are girls seen as items, they are treated as imperfect objects that need improvements. Benokraitis (1997) expounds further, saying that treating women as mere items creates the atmosphere for them to be judged according to their physique rather than the more important unique personality. Since a perfect appearance becomes a sort of standard according to many ads, Filipinas can be lead to believe that they must be thin to be successful, and that they need to overhaul themselves by wearing make-up and using “beauty” creams to be considered modern, presentable, and beautiful. A Careline make-up commercial is a good example. The model, Toni Gonzaga, is described “prettilicious” after applying the said products. Objectification is evident in the association of prettiness to being delicious, as if the model were something to be tasted/ consumed. As ads continue to sow and foster bodily dissatisfaction through objectification, depression, poor body image, and low self-esteem may increase among Filipinas. A healthy body image requires a positive outlook toward one’s body (Corey & Corey 2006), but such a perspective towards oneself is difficult in a society that swims in media messages that promote objectification. Women are portrayed not as whole persons, but as dismembered body parts that constantly need improvement. A shocking example is an ad in a Women’s Journal magazine by Prettylooks, cosmetic surgery clinic. The whole page is taken up by the picture of the naked legs and buttocks of a woman, where one foot is the only concealment for her genitals. This is supposed to be an ad for varicose vein treatment, yet it looks more like it is the woman’s lower extremities that are for sale.
Ciaramicoli (2004) asserts the point that most often, women see physical improvements as the keys to acceptability. He attributes this obsession with physical perfection to the media, where the thinness of a celebrity or model is the measure of his/her star quality. Women may change some part of their bodies to attain fulfillment which is fleeting. But since, to begin with, they have become dissatisfied with who they are, feelings of inadequacy remain deep-seated. A study by Bartky suggests that the media is a double-edged sword; it gives women a chance at actually feeling good about themselves through products, but at the same time, it bombards them with messages that the always fall short of the ideal, creating a cycle of dependence. Most ads can use these feelings of inadequacy to create false needs in women (Rogan 1999). An article by Kilbourne (2006) expounds on this, saying that ads feed on the human need for love and acceptance by eroding self-esteem and making people think that a certain product can answer their problems, become a substitute for a loving relationship, or even love them back. An example is the use of cosmetic plastic surgery. A billboard by Belo medical institute says “One hope, one vision, one nation.” It sounds very noble, suggesting an answer for the disunity among Filipinos. But what does it mean by one nation? Is this a nation of Filipinos, or a cosmetically-modified people who have molded themselves according to western ideals? Another example is skin whitening, make-up, and weight-loss which many ads offer as keys to happiness, confidence, and even health. Ellen’s Miracle Whitening Cream ad says “Get rid of those [unsightly blotches] before they eclipse you for life…” It is as if one’s whole life depended on his/her fairness and skin clarity. But an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (15 May 2006) warns about the dangers of many easily accessible skin whiteners in the market. Although many skin whiteners like mulberry and licorice are safe, these are more expensive than dangerous bleaching agents manufactured across Southeast Asia. Thus, unsafe compounds like cancer-causing hydroquinone are more widely distributed than the safer ones. But ads that market skin whiteners rarely reveal the active ingredients of their products, leaving buyers ignorant of the peril they are possibly exposing themselves to.
Moving to the point about weight-loss, for some years now, slenderness has been promoted and depicted as the picture of health, while overweight is linked to disease. This is a common misconception. Although it is true that obesity can increase cardiovascular disease risk, it is important to note that there are differences to the levels of overweight (mild to moderately overweight). According to some authors, moderately overweight people (those who are less than 20% overweight) are in no significant health risks (Rogan 1999). But many ads have joined the bandwagon promoting weight-loss, successfully creating a fuss among viewers to get their weight down because there appears to be a serious obesity epidemic. If the setting were America, the fuss can be justified, the National Statistics Coordination Board (2007) has revealed that as of year 2003, 5.7% of Filipinas are obese, 21.5% are overweight, and 58.6% are normal weight women. This is evidence of how ads can create false needs in women. The human need to achieve health has been manipulated to sell diets, “diet” foods, and weight-loss drugs.
There have been various studies that show how women may suffer from malnutrition and disordered eating patterns due to following fad diets. Diet is not just the food one eats; according to Brenner, diet is a relationship between the person and the food she/he eats (Corey & Corey 2006). Therefore, it is not only the body that food nourishes, but also the mind. Yet the media has simplified the term diet to refer to caloric restriction for the purpose of losing weight. Many women have gone on diets unaware of the ill effects they may cause, like the greater tendency to gain weight after one has dieted and lost weight (Rogan 1999). One highly popularized diet type from the west is the high-protein diet (e.g. South Beach Diet). Kelly (2003) discusses the pros and cons of this said program. She argues that despite the fact that high-protein diets encourage people to limit their carbohydrate and sugar intake, this diet can leave people feeling sick of meat, which leads them back to their old habits. Furthermore, aside from the fact that the lack in food variety can lead people to miss out on some vitamins not found in meat-products, too much protein can strain the heart and kidneys due to their high saturated fat content. Clearly, the high-protein diet is not as glamorous as ads make it appear.
Taking into account the afore-mentioned disadvantages of westernized beauty standards in Philippine advertisements, the Filipina truly needs to accept her uniqueness and uphold beauty standards that can empower her. Some might suggest that women should simply ignore the ad campaigns, but this is highly impossible. Godrej (2006) claims that no one is exempt from the effects of advertising. Ads are very pervasive, in fact, according to a renowned publication—Advertising Age—only 8% of ad messages are taken by the conscious mind, while the rest is left working on the subconscious (Kilbourne 2006). This means that everyone is subject to the prevailing system and societal environment. But this does not leave women helpless. Chapkis argues that although women cannot escape the beauty system, they can bring changes if they learn to accept themselves and begin to reject the beauty regimes they follow to conform to the present ideal (Rogan 1999). A good start would be to reject the thinness craze, by avoiding unhealthy fad diets, so that a healthy (medically-recommended) body size for the average Filipina may be upheld. Stacey (2005) suggests an individualized diet approach, for each person has different nutritional needs depending on his/her age, height, ethnicity, gender, and many other factors. Another step would be to accept and promote the diversity of the Filipina race, which is not limited to the slim-and-fair beauty. This follows Sandra Bartky’s proposition for women to create a model of female beauty that celebrates diversity, which “could be an ideal that actually makes women feel better about themselves” (Rogan 1999). This may be done by simply avoiding dangerous whitening products, or by deciding not to use any skin whitening regime at all. The Philippines, after all, is a melting pot of a myriad of races, Chinese, Spanish, and American, just to name a few, so it would clearly be an injustice to the Filipino race to exclude any part of the population from the beauty system.
As discussed earlier, the advertising industry in the Philippines has helped forward some of the western ideals of feminine beauty. The said ideals directly link outside appearance to one’s over-all integrity; billboard, television, and magazine ads have forwarded these westernized standards through the repeated use of slim and fair female endorsers. The media’s emphasis on personal responsibility may have helped increase Filipinas’ self-awareness, but despite this point, various negative effects may also result from focusing too much on women’s physical aspects: a limited beauty standard that excludes the non-fair-and-slim Filipina population; the exploitation of Filipinas through objectification; the cultivation of false needs in women as a result of increased bodily dissatisfaction, and the promotion of unhealthy body image and diet. Certainly, the latter outweighs the former, and the Filipina needs to counteract these possibly disempowering effects by advocating beauty standards that do not marginalize certain portions of the Filipina population, but instead, encompass the wide spectrum of the Filipina beauty.
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