The Purchasing Power of Porn

Popular culture in 2015 reflects and revolves around images and messages promoting sexual objectification and consumerism. Reading between the lines of those messages emerges the belief that pornography in mass media is both acceptable and normal. As argued in “Eroticizing Inequality,” not only has pornography been seamlessly mainstreamed into society, but the entire porn industry has also “had an incredible influence on popular culture” (Crabbe and Corlett 2). And as Jane Caputi contends in “The Pornography of Everyday Life,” “So imbued is the pornographic world-view, it is extremely difficult to imagine a sexuality outside of it” (382). I contend that pornography in media messages has become a cultural norm, and a powerfully pervasive one at that. In this essay I argue that pornography is prevalent in a variety of forms, both blatant and subtle. This continues to develop and encourage preexisting gender norms and social hierarchies, which serve to promote and sell products. And in its most powerful sense, pornographic imagery commonly used in advertising has created an addiction to consumerism, similar to the addictive nature of watching porn itself. By analyzing the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s commercial for the Memphis Barbeque Burger, I argue pornography’s inextricable link to purchasing power. The commercial called “BBQ’s Best Pair” features models Sara Underwood and Emily Ratajkowski, this extended Director’s Cut commercial was banned from some certain markets for its highly sexualized content. Brad Haly, chief marketing officer for CKE Restaurants (which owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s) stated, “We don’t cross the line, but we like to get right to the line” (Ryder). I argue that the regulatory use of soft pornography in advertising has created a culture heavily addicted to consumerism.

Pornography is difficult to avoid. In fact, according to Crabbe and Corlett, within the current era of accessible technology it is “almost impossible” to not be exposed to it in everyday life (1). Sometimes pornographic messages are relayed subtly within advertisements, and sometimes they are overtly offensive. According to Ran Gavrieli, if you have viewed a Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga video clip recently, or even a regular television commercial, you have inadvertently viewed pornography. Gavrieli, who writes and lectures at Tel Aviv University on porn and porn-influenced cultural damages, calls these common visuals evidence of our heavily porn-influenced mainstream culture. In a TedTalk in 2013, Gavrieli describes porn as “overtaking,” labeling the aforementioned popular culture videos as “porn with clothes on” (Gavrieli). He adds that pornography is pervasive in our households whether we want it or not (Gavrieli). According to Sut Jhally in the article “Image-Based Culture,” advertisements continue to take up more and more space in our lives (247). In other words, almost everything we engage with on a daily basis is attempting to sell something, and imbued into those visual advertisements are pornographic images.

According to Jane Caputi, pornography occurs everyday and is largely evidenced in mainstream images (374). One of the most prominent examples in visual advertisements is what Caputi calls “gendered pornography.” Gendered pornography depends on the placement of men in positions of power and stability, while presenting females in the same ads as “unsteady, usually do to the shoes she is wearing” (374). Captui adds that, “Sometimes she is in a state of partial or even total undress, and what she does wear is coded as sexually alluring” (375). In the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s commercial for the Memphis Barbeque Burger, the central figures of the advertisement are Sara Underwood and Emily Ratajkowski. The commercial opens to Ratajkowski cooking pulled pork on a barbeque, dressed in a star-spangled bikini top and shorts that would be best described as denim underwear. Cue the blonde. The camera closely follows Underwood’s backside as she walks into the scene, sporting equally miniscule clothing choices and carrying a platter of cheeseburgers. The true action of the commercial kicks off when a classic ‘cat fight’ appears to be in the works. The two women push each other around, unsteady on their tottering high heels, for control of the grill. The use of clothing, or lack thereof, and subsequent presentation of the women as unsteady perfectly exemplifies gendered pornography.

Another common aspect of pornographic messages in media is the notion of the pure and the dirty, according to Caputi. Women are usually split into two distinct categories: “pure or dirty, virgins or whores…” (Captui 378). Dirtiness is associated with an easily accessible woman, the hints of which are obvious in the Memphis Burger commercial. Strong emphasis is placed on both leading female’s bodies, with slow-motion scenes of them licking the meat sauce off of their fingers. In many scenes within the short ad, the audience watches the two women, glistening in sweat and perhaps meat juice, eyeing one another up. Underwood even helpfully removes a bit of leftover meat sauce from her newfound friend’s lips. Despite being clad in aprons and also participating in the “Memphis Barbeque Cook-off,” the two men in the ad do not have a single stain or splatter of meat sauce on their clothes. Therefore the intentional use of dirtiness in association with the females causes a viewer to subliminally associate these women as “accessible” (Caputi 375).

Another line that advertisers do not always cross, but see how far they can put their toes over, is drawn at the subtle hints towards violence or rape pornography. In “BBQ’s Best Pair,” the women are featured holding sharp cooking utensils and playfully swatting at one another with them. Despite the fact that this commercial is only 60 seconds long, a few seconds are allotted to a slow motion close-up of the knives stabbing into the meat. What may seem like a strange use of precious airtime is actually the quintessence of violence pornography. As Gavrieli contends, pornography is whatever men find appealing. If men are turned on by violence, then porn will show violence (Gavrieli). Crabbe and Corlett argue that as pornography has become increasingly mainstream it has also shifted towards “rougher, more aggressive sex” (2). “What was soft porn is now popular culture; what was extreme is now mainstream” (Crabbe and Corlett 3). Gendered pornography, notions of the pure and the dirty, and violence or rape pornography are just some of the ways porn has invaded advertising. Viewers may not recognize some of what is shown in regular advertisements as pornography right away, but that is not because it isn’t there, rather because it has been there so long that our culture has stopped looking.

Another aspect of pornography that advertisers rely on is the continued use of gendered stereotypes in order to sell products. Pornographic advertisements are wrought with heteronormative gender roles and imbedded with sexism and racism. The article, “Gender Portrayals in Food Commercials,” contends that, “Advertising sells many different values, images, and concepts including those of sexuality, romance, success, and even normality”(Aronovsky and Furnham 170). Since visual advertising in North America have been warped by pornographic messages, then it makes sense that the concepts of “normality” being sold are not natural or realistic.

Despite the fact that women have worked and fought for gender equality throughout the years, pornographic ads serve to perpetuate images reminiscent of the past. Women are most frequently represented in roles that reinforce gendered representations deemed “best” or “natural” to an audience (Aronovsky and Furnham 170). In the commercial “BBQ’s Best Pair,” the two women are shown actually cooking the burgers and pulled pork while their male counterparts ignore their barbeque in order to watch the mildly erotic sideshow. Timeless stereotypes dictate that the natural place for females is wherever there is cooking to be done, and therefore the entire commercial centers around the women behind the grill. Indeed it’s shocking the entire commercial was not set in a kitchen in the 1950’s. Not only do commercials promote the natural female role as the chef and the nurturer, but they also claim that men require a woman in the kitchen in order to achieve happiness and success. Aronovsky and Furnham contend that most documented instances of men eating on television will be, “Inextricably tied to a female offering of love, suggesting a well-fed man must have a women that feeds and nurtures him” (173). The Carl’s Junior and Hardee’s commercial uses the two leading women to symbolize the ideal woman, one that presumably could well-nurture and feed a man. Despite the fact that there are no men to compete over in the beginning of the advertisement, viewers see the leading women placed in immediate and unquestioned competition with one another. The very fact that more than one woman is present and attempting to use the grill is enough of a reason to begin a ‘cat fight.’ In “BBQ’s Best Pair” this works to imbue the message that a woman’s worth is dependent on her ability to get a man, or succeed more than her female counterparts. Another powerful consequence, according to Aronovsky and Furnham, of the way women are portrayed in these visual advertisements is that they become “the object of another’s gaze” (172). In the commercial the men stop flipping burgers and immediately pick up their cell phones to record the women feeding each other the barbeque burger. Not only does this reiterate the message that women are objects and men are subjects, but it also brings the power of media into the mix. The use of cell phones to record and relay gender norms reveals the ease at which pornography is created and disseminated in modern society. Crabbe and Corlett argue that, “Technology has assisted in this movement of porn to the mainstream by providing ever cheaper and easier ways of manufacturing sexually explicit material and by providing platforms through which to deliver this material” (2). Gone are the days when an advertisement would reach only a small segment of society. The rise of YouTube has brought with it all of the reach advertising firms could have never dreamed to achieve in the past. “BBQ’s Best Pair” (the directors cut) was actually banned from most television markets, yet the accessibility of social media effectively made it globally accessible.

Additionally, when it comes to the central characters in a commercial, women are most frequently younger than their male counterparts. While males are equally as likely to be represented as young or middle aged (Aronovsky and Furnham 185-186). According to Aronovsky and Furnham, “Advertisers always seem to prefer younger women whatever the product” (186). “In consequence, they are often perceived in ‘decorative roles’ as self conscious figures who’s rewards are generally concerned with the self ‘enhancement’ or social ‘approval’ related to a products consumption rather than any pleasurable or practical rewards yielded by the product.” (Aronovsky and Furnham 172). These pornographic messages state that it is normal for women to be constantly critiquing themselves, rather than actually enjoying the good life, as promised by the ads. Crabbe and Corlett argue that, “porn is an effective tool for the promotion of misogyny” (3). Perhaps watching flawless models lick meat juice off one another isn’t making the men around the world hate the female sex. Perhaps misogyny, or “women hating” seems too strong a term to be used. But I argue that a large portion of the problems generated by this type of advertising is massively detrimental to women. The people promoting misogyny are actually women themselves: the biggest result of this type of advertising is the annihilation of female self-esteem worldwide. The less confident women feel, the more beauty and self-improvement products will be purchased, and once again pornographic advertisements are deemed effective and acceptable. The highly sexualized gender stereotypes found in pornography have transferred over into advertising, and consequently are accepted as normal.

Pornography in advertising is common. So common in fact, that society hardly notices the gender norms it promotes. But what is the biggest blow that the advertising industry dominated by a pornographic world-view has dealt to North America? An addiction to consume. Advertisers have developed links between purchasing power and sexualization with the purpose of developing an addiction to consuming goods, in the same way one develops an addiction to viewing pornography. It takes Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s 50 seconds in a 60 second commercial to actually promote the Memphis Barbeque burger, the product itself. As some of Ratajkowski’s pulled pork lands on Underwood’s cheeseburger and the revolutionary new burger is created, the audience finally understands the purpose of the commercial: to simply purchase a burger. At the very end of the clip the hashtag #meatembrace flashes up on the screen as the two girls reestablish friendly relations in the most natural way, by crossing arms and biting into their newly created burger. This effectively ends the brief moment of actual advertising by tying in a little more soft porn. The time in this commercial is unequally allotted, with 90% of it spent on images of underdressed models and the final 10% spent on promoting the product. Yet the product sells. I oppose the oversimplified concept that “sex sells,” and instead contend that habits in society, developed by intentionally advertisers, are what have formed our pornographic economy.

Advertisers have worked long and hard to create habits and patterns that tell consumers that power comes from purchasing and owning. In the cultural climate of sexual objectification, possession has become strongly tied to desire, “…with the most luxurious items defined as the ones carrying the greatest sexual charge” (Captui 380). A Memphis Barbeque burger may not initially be seen as “luxurious” by nature, but the effort put into sexualizing it renders it desirable. In the book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg describes a process that advertising executives are keenly aware of: the creation of cravings. Cravings are the cue that create routine. Routines, when met with positive rewards, develop into habits (Duhigg 33). North American society has been taught via advertising to crave luxury, the American Dream, and “the good life” (Jhally 248). These manufactured cravings drive “habit loops,” which keep people repeating the same routines over and over, regardless of whether they are harmful or beneficial (Duhigg 59). Advertisements tend to portray pleasure as the main reward for buying a product (Aronovsky and Furnham 186), and have therefore inextricably linked the habit of consumption to sexual pleasure. These pervasive “habit loops” in modern society have the increase of new media technologies to thank for their influence, specifically the overwhelming impact of television and other “imagistic modes of representation” (Jhally 247). In “The Meaning of Memory,” George Lipsitz argues that television not only serves to advertise products, but also puts “…acts of consumption at the core of everyday life” (23). Purchasing a product has become the unchallenged means of avoiding unpleasant realities of real life (Lipsitz 26).

But, as the influence of television has grown, so has the “aspiration gap.” The aspiration gap refers to the common feeling in a consumer-based society of wanting more than one can feasibly attain within financial means. It works the same way in economic terms as it does for regular porn viewers. In both cases, emotion-inducing imagery is used in order to sell the public what they want to see but cannot realistically achieve. Jhally argues that, “Advertising doesn’t always mirror how people are acting but how they’re dreaming” (248). As pornography is also designed to mirror an unattainable level of sexual prowess (large penis’s and eternal erections) (Gavrieli) the use of pornographic images to sell commodities has created an addiction to consume. The “ensemble of satisfactions and dissatisfactions” experienced by regular pornography viewers between expected sexual encounters and real life is the same as Jhally’s notion of a “joyless economy”(248). As Jhally contends, “The image-system of the marketplace reflects our desires and dreams, yet we have only the pleasure of the images to sustain us in our actual experience with goods” (248). Advertising through television has successfully created links in consumer’s brains between sexuality and purchasing. But, just as viewing pornography is not the equivalent to actually having sex, purchasing an item is not the actual path to fulfillment. The first step to battling an addiction is admitting it exists. In order to begin the process of removing the constant use of pornography in commercials, North America must first acknowledge how widespread porn, in its many forms, has become.

In conclusion, either advertising must be removed as the epicenter of the consumption-based economy, or pornography must be removed from the advertising. Viewing pornography is no longer seen as a shameful activity, one needs only turn on the television as it has invaded nearly every aspect of popular culture. Additionally, the pervasive and regulatory use of pornography in ads promotes and disseminates discriminatory gender norms. And by linking porn to advertisements, modern day consumerism has shifted from an economic model to one of unnatural addition. The only way to remove North America’s media–induced pornographic worldview and the culture of sexual objectification that accompanies it, is by completely eradicating pornography from advertising.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Aronovsky, A. & Furnham, A. (2008). Gender portrayals in food commercials at different times of the day: A content analytic study. Communications, 33(2), pp. 169-190. Retrieved 4 Mar. 2015, from doi:10.1515/COMMUN.2008.010

 

Caputi, Jane. “The Pornography of Everyday Life.” Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader 4th Ed. (2015): 373-85. Print.

 

CKE Restaurants. “BBQ’s Best Pair: Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s Commercial” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2015

 

Crabbe, Maree, and David Corlett. “Eroticizing Inequality: Technology, Pornography and Young People.” DVRCV Quarterly 3 (2013): 1-6. Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

 

Dines, G., & Humez, J. (Eds.). (2015). Gender, race, and class in media: A critical reader (Fourth ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.

 

Duhigg, Charles. “The Habit Loop.” The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Canadian Ed. ed. Anchor Canada, 2014. Print.

 

Gavrieli, Ran. “Why I stopped watching porn.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 26 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

 

Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture.” The World and I (1990): 506-19. Print.

 

Lipsitz, George. “The Meaning Of Memory: Family, Class, And Ethnicity In Early Network Television Programs.” Cultural Anthropology 1.4 (1986): 355-87. Print.

 

Ryder, Bradley. “Carl’s Jr. Super Bowl Racy Commercial: The ‘Naked’ Truth About The Ad.” The Inquisitr News. The Inquisitr News, 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.