Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unpacking a Tiffany Advertisement

First, new publication news: my review of Wood Street Galleries’ exhibition Audiospace appears this week in Pittsburgh City Paper.

Second: let’s talk about this Tiffany & Company advertisement, which appears on the back of last week’s New Yorker magazine. It apparently also runs as a double-spread in the December issue of Town & Country, which is where this image (sampled here from another blog devoted to an actor who plays the male role) comes from.

When I teach English, I like to look at the messages hidden in essays. For example, what are the underlying assumptions? What can we understand about the author or the author’s agenda through the language used to persuade the reader or to convey a call-to-action? In my literature classes, I usually bring in advertisements contemporary to the composition or publication date because this allows students to understand some of the prevailing attitudes, both projected and imposed. For example, when I teach the 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I bring in images of period women so that the students might understand how women figured in the popular imagination. What should a woman be? What is reflected back at ladies and what must they measure up to? These notions of the "ideal woman" drove the main character in "The Yellow Wallpaper" mad.

I also pass around images of corset ads, like the one pictured here. Why? Because corsets are a manifestation of the same psychological circumstances Jane, whose name is purposefully mentioned only once in Gilman’s story (think “Jane”, as in “Jane Doe,” the anonymous everywoman), finds herself in as a doctor’s wife and new mother suffering from post-partum depression during the late Victorian era. Corsets are as symbolic of uncomfortably repressed flesh as they are of repressed desires and aspirations. They are the reason for fainting couches and the cause of miscarriages. Check out the image (below) of what the corset does to a woman’s internal organs. Are these not somehow like the Chinese foot binding rituals that were intended to reveal fortitude and submission as much as it was to prevent the women from actually running off (or sneaking away under their own power) with other men? In China, a small foot was more valuable than a beautiful face because it revealed obedience to parental wishes, which in turn indicated a similar willingness to uncomplainingly obey a husband.

Anyway, back to the Tiffany advertisement. Let’s unpack it, shall we? First, there is the image of the nuclear family. The mother has provided two heirs, one a daughter and the other ostensibly also a daughter. Two and done, we can surmise. And although every suburban soccer mom can project herself into this woman, she is still a figure of fantasy. How so, you ask? Let’s look at the particulars: she is slender, chic, and trouser-wearing. She is still long haired, but women’s-movement-conventional in appearance, reminding me of those Enjoli commercials from the 80s, whose jingle began, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…” The woman is, from all appearances, a Manhattan mom, living in high fashion—but of course with traditional tastes—in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Other women may begin to think beyond the boundaries of this ad. Here's the internal monologue I imagine: I bet she has a reliable baby sitter or some kind of daycare. I bet she goes to parties with her husband. And there is probably champagne there. Oh, the dresses. I wonder if she owns one with sequins. I bet there’s in-home daycare. A nanny. I mean, her husband buys her Tiffany jewelry—there’s got to be a nanny. Sure, I could handle that life.

In the ad, the woman is receiving a kiss from her husband (or partner, but most likely a husband). He is carrying the famous turquoise-colored bag. The kiss and the bag say: “darling, you have done well. Here is your reward.” Because she is holding the baby and he, the bag, a sense of control still seems to exist in the fibers of this metaphorcial fabric: I will give you the reward when I am ready (perhaps on Christmas Eve, but who knows). I will not allow you to wear it out of the store like a pair of new sneakers. You must be patient, darling, and wait until gifts are granted.

But then again, maybe the contents of the turquoise bag are for his own mother. And wouldn’t that be a kick in those dark trousers? Indeed it would.
What's my point? Well, isn't the underlying message here something about the ideal and its physical manifestation--this is, to some degree, what the ideal is supposed to look like. But exactly whose ideal is it? Perhaps it is that of an anonymous and long-suffering soccer mom, eternally strapped behind the wheel of minivan (as noted above). But the ad agency has upcycled old social archetypes (think a post-modern June Cleaver and her white picket fence having gone a penthouse on Park Avenue). And by doing this the agency has attempted to implicate Tiffany as part of this ideal (an old-garde ideal). Here, they are not so subtly indicating that if you have the "perfect wife", she deserves something amazing (and overpriced) in a small turquoise box. And if you don't do at least that for her, you don't measure up, you cannot be considered a "perfect husband." (Even though being a perfect husband involves so many things that do not come in a turquoise-colored box, really that aren't even tangible).
Yet, do we even consciously realize all the messages that are sent to us, and that we readily accept as truth, as fact? No wonder antidepressants are, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the most perscribed drug in the US. (Which is, by the way, what my story "American Soma" is all about.) Who can live up to the expectations people have, which are fuelled in part by products we do not need? Ay!

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