The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Billboard Mystery Solved

Amazingly, I've managed to go hiking on the Norwottock Trail once a week for the past four weeks! That may not seem like much, but my New Year's resolution was to hike more and for a New Year's resolution of mine to survive into May is practically a miracle of self-discipline. Most years my resolutions (if any) are dead and buried by the third week of January!

Anyway, I was strolling along the trail near the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in Northampton, where it runs parallel to Route 9, when I noticed something odd about a billboard with a Budweiser ad on it (above). At first I couldn't grasp what was wrong, but then I realized that something was missing. It was the slogan in the lower right hand corner. Part of it seemed to be erased. All it said was "Expect" and then something appeared to have been blacked out.

What was it? What did the billboard originally say? Who had blacked it out and why? I decided I needed to look into this, and so resolved that when I got back to Amherst I would try to find out what the billboard originally looked like, in order to discover what had been erased.

I was surprised to find that I couldn't find anything on the official Budweiser website. You would think that samples of all of their advertising campaigns would be available on the web but apparently not. However, looking through the the other Google entries, I was surprised to discover a local website called Objectify This! It is written by a local feminist who is always on the look out for examples of women being objectified or otherwise trivialized and degraded by the mass media. As she (or am I being sexist in assuming it's a she) explains the blog's purpose:

I created this site to spark discussion about the objectification of women in popular culture, because I believe that raising consciousness about it can help people develop healthier attitudes towards normal variation in their own and other's bodies, and about gender equality in society. I aim to create a montage of pieces of visual culture which will together tell part of the story of the conflicting pressures on women in the United States today. I want to explore the social and psychological significance of words and images used by advertisers, the media, and musicians, because I believe that it is only through understanding those meanings that we can gain the power to subvert them.

To my surprise, the woman (or person or whatever) behind the Objectify This! website had not only noticed the Route 9 billboard, but had photographed it in its original form, using it as an example of media oppression.

So it turns out the billboard had originally read "Expect Everything!" as in all the booze and sexy women you want - it's all yours if you'll just stock up on Budweiser! Here's what the feminist behind Objectify This! had to say:

The obvious parallels between the shape of the woman’s hips and the beer bottle and the tagline “Expect Everything” unite the woman’s body with the beer, as something to be consumed. The addition of the belt buckle in the shape of the King of Beers’ logo implies that this image of the female body is the (male) viewer’s territory; that he is entitled to reign there. The buckle also serves to focus the viewer’s attention on the woman’s crotch rather than on the shape of her body, and the logo shape there suggests that the way into her pants is through alcohol. The woman’s belly button appears to have been enlarged to suggest a hairless vagina , and the central prong of the crown buckle points to it, while the other prongs radiate out from the model’s crotch, and along with her fingers and the wrinkles in her jeans, draw the viewer’s attention there. The presentation of the woman as an object, whose face, personality, and indeed, race, are up to the viewer’s imagination presents the woman as an object of fantasy, subject to the viewer’s will. The subjection of this image to the viewer matches the domination connoted by the absolute power of the “King”; this advertisement, loaded with ideas of gender hierarchy and political oppression, empowers the male viewer at the expense of the female.

Well, the feminist jargon is laid on a little thick, and I'm not sure I buy into the "woman’s belly button appears to have been enlarged to suggest a hairless vagina" but basically I agree that the advertisement is crass and vaguely insulting to women. I say vaguely because just how seriously can you take a beer advertisement? At the end of the day there is nothing more sinister going on here than an attempt to get you to get sloshed on Budweiser this weekend as opposed to Miller or Heineken. It is taking this ad way too seriously to make it a part of an evil conspiracy against women. Yet at the same time, the ad is effective at selling beer because it is leaning on certain societal and sexual attitudes which it both exploits and re-enforces. It is less a force of evil than a mirror, and what is reflected in that mirror isn't very flattering in what it indicates about our society's sexual attitudes.

Apparently not all viewers of that billboard were willing to simply condemn it in an intellectual critique. They decided to arm themselves with spray cans and attack the billboard itself. Here is what the billboard looked like when their sabotage work was done.

The owners of the billboard apparently became very upset, and quickly arrived to paint over the damage. As they did so, another Valley blogger happened to be walking by and wrote a report on their blog about what happened next. Here is part of what he said:

I stopped into the Fish and Chip shop on the edge of town. After a simple meal and cup of BBC, I decided to relax and walk 8 some miles of rail-trail home. To my dismay, after I crossed the bridge, I saw two men finishing up a repainting of the sign. I spent some time composing a picture with my phone, as a middle aged man in jeans and sweatshirt approached with an inquiring hello.

I found out who he was quick, when he asked me how I felt. He was shocked and defensive when I told him my opinion. He told me the shame of the frequency of billboard vandalism. He told me it cost $10,000. He told me he didn't know what misogyny was. I told him. He vaguely and insecurely asked if I was involved. I told him of course not. He asked me my name. I told him I didn't owe him a thing. He followed me as I walked away. I told him I meant no trouble. He called out "Hey dad, this guy thinks the vandalism is okay".

An older man walked from his ladder to meet us. Instead of grilling me, he asked me how I felt. I took the time to respectfully elaborate on my feelings, which he received and respected well. He took a moment and walked over to review the contents of the sign, in consideration. Like his son, he didn't know about misogyny, nor the controversial content of the billboard itself. He told me the owner of the sign lives in Florida. He told me about the right to advertise....

I'm a big supporter of free speech, but realistically speaking, money talks. Advertisement is one of the most impossibly lucrative markets I can imagine. All too often, demonstration of quality is undermined by the selling of lies. We are bombarded by these images, from the objectification of women to racial stereotypes. It's profitable and practical to advertise to potential consumers.

The original ad and the act of defacement are equally immature. The consumers are the public at large, who, without education and perspective, tend to buy into a life sold to them. But people are going to fight back. Frankly, I'm proud to live in an area where they do.

According to yet another Valley blogger there was an interim battle over the billboard preceding the one where it was changed to "Expect Misogyny." In this incident the "Expect Everything" was changed to "We Infect Everything" which to me is actually more clever.

Anyway, all this had already gone down by the time I stumbled across the sign, and it turns out there was little opportunity left for more drama. This week when I did my trail walk the offending sign was gone, replaced by a Rolling Rock ad with no sexual overtones, or for that matter, without even any human beings.

Was this just the natural changeover at the end of the month, or did the enemies of the billboard drive the offending images away? Was the whole thing an over-reaction? Probably, but on the other hand I'm glad to live in a place where such intellectual controversies are not just possible, but the norm.


Mary E.Carey said...

You always get the greatest stories, Tom! What a Johnny-on-the-spot.

LarryK4 said...

Whatever happened to the First Amendment? If folks don't like what is on that billboard then pool your money and rent the one a mile further down the road and put up whatever you want.

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, Larry, the first amendment applies to speech censored by the government. I very much doubt the vandals were government-funded, so it's not a free speech issue.

Vanda said...

I don't think one can seriously talk about the "defacing" of billboards. How can you "deface" something that's already an eyesore? I consider it improvement when a tagger gets hold of them, especially if they really put an effort into it, even if they are using the space, disregarding the context. However when it's a smart or funny comment on the content of the ad, I applaud. I call it social commentary.