Advertising agencies spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to grab our attention. The average American is exposed to 3,000 ads a day and spends 3 years watching TV commercials alone. What then, are the consequences of this? Does it mean, to quote my dad, “Americans don’t spend enough time studying maths and science, and sit in front of the TV and computer whole day”? This is definitely worrisome, but there’s another, more serious consequence. Ads sell more than just products. They sell values, morals, sexuality, and concepts of love, success, and normalcy. They define who we are and whisper in our ears who we should be. Exposure to the subliminal messages of 3,000 ads a day closes our hearts to the point where we can’t even recognize this evil. They conform a whole culture to the vision of a few men in expensive suits.
Here’s a glimpse of how advertisements have affected women in the US. One Armani Exchange ad stated, “The more you subtract, the more you add”. This has a series of connotations. The more weight you subtract, the more clothes you subtract, the more of your voice you subtract, the more attraction you will add. It is no coincidence that girls at young ages feel the need to be sexually attractive (these days middle schoolers look like they came straight from Toddlers in Tiaras, with their, pre-pubescent faces caked in makeup) and that 8 million Americans have an eating disorder – seven million of which are women.
Advertisements quite literally subtract from women by either trimming their body sizes with photo-shop, or showing only parts of a women’s body. Girls are striving to become these computer “enhanced” women, when in reality the women photographed don’t even look like the photo-shopped end result. Showing only parts of women implies that certain physical parts of women should be valued and looked at, which turns them into objects: things that can be used for someone else’s pleasure and then carelessly discarded. Jean Kilbourne, who is internationally recognized for her research on the image of women in advertising warned in her documentary, “Killing Us Softly”, that “turning a human being into an object is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person”.
The implication that the more of your voice you subtract, the more attraction you get is a scary one that needs further explanation. Many ads have women with their hands over their mouths, or a turtle neck covering half their face; the body language is often vulnerable, passive and promotes a “get used” mentality. For example, an ad for a makeup company urges you to, “let your eyes be heard without making a sound”. And how often do we hear the phrase, “hair that speaks volumes” and think nothing of it? In these ads, the women are simultaneously promiscuous and vulnerable. What are they trying to sell here? That women are sexual mutes that are willing to let men take advantage of them.
This also taps into that innate desire in men. Rather than controlling his desire, by lowering his gaze, men give into his desires because that has become the norm. One three page ad for men’s cologne reads, “Do you want to be the one she tells her deep, dark secrets to? Or do you want to be her deep dark secret?” the last page says, “Don’t be such a good boy.” Advertisements teach men to be sexually intimate, not emotionally intimate, and that women should submit to this norm at a young age. This is essentially hidden pornography; whispers of Shaitan. It’s injustice to brainwash a culture with an invisible hand. This mentality destroys the workings of marriage that are outlined in the Qur’an and Hadith; it really is no wonder nearly 40% of men and women between the ages of 20 and 24 are divorced. There is a Hadith that says, “O young people, those among you who are able must enter into marriage, for it helps to divert your attention from women, and it is a safeguard against lust. And those who cannot marry should observe fasts, for the fasting too is a safeguard” (Al Bukhaari and Muslim). Whereas the straight path urges men, “do not marry women for their beauty. It is possible that their beauty may destroy them….Instead, marry them on the basis of their faith…” (Ibn Majah) these ubiquitous advertisements tell women that men don’t care about their personality or morals, but their perfected looks. Women take this message and flaunt themselves, which makes lowering the gaze—something that is already hard for men—even harder. As the Prophet (saw) said, “There is nothing left after I go, more dangerous to men than the temptations of women” (Al-Bukhaari).
I’m not writing about this to promote Emirates or attack American culture. I just think two can play at this game, for lack of a better phrase (the effects of these ads are more serious than a game). On a local level, Muslims can counter these ads. Sure advertising agencies have billions to spend, but we have a religion that says a women’s character, not body type, dictates their beauty. Whereas these ads set impossible standards for women, Islam sets righteous standards set in stone. We already know advertising is successful because why else would agencies spend billions? The ummah should take advantage of this effectiveness to make a positive change, and what better place to do this than on the campus of the party school? How many Muslims at Rutgers succumb to the new social norm by going to parties, drinking, and dating?
A group called Inspired by Muhammad (www.inspiredbymuhammad.com) has started their own ad campaign by running ads about Islam around London. These ads are a bit different in that they explicitly promote Islam in opposition to the media’s rubbish, whereas the ads I’ve been talking about are subtle in their messages. It doesn’t matter whether we consistently put up flyers that explicitly tell people about Islamic concepts, or make flyers that implicitly oppose the messages spewed by everyday ads, as long as we’re doing something, thereby following the footstep of the Prophet (SAW).
“Whichever of you witnesses an injustice should correct it physically if they can; if they are not able to do so, they should caution with words and if they are not able to do this either, they should despise it in their hearts. And this is the lowest level of faith.”