Selling Addiction to Women


This article originally appeared in Issue# 54-55

Beverly is an art director. She works with images all the time, and knows just how advertising tries to work on her. And she's fought hard to maintain her independence - to be herself. But I hear her talk about her friends, and she always ends up comparing them to some famous face: "Oh, you know her, she looks like Cheryl Tiegs." And when I ask her whom she looks like, Beverly glances down and shrugs, "Oh, nobody, just plain old me."

Everybody struggles to develop a sense of security, a sense of personal identity, but most of us end up constantly glancing around to see if we measure up to those around us - and that includes supercharged media models. We hate ourselves for it, especially if we can see exactly what buttons the advertisers are pushing, but many of us buy into the images just enough to wish we could do it all… be that thin or that rich or that happy or that confident. And then, telling ourselves that we're not affected by advertising, we find ourselves shelling out for the product.

It's one thing for a woman to purchase too many cosmetics or jeans in a convoluted effort to gain love and acceptance by measuring up to Madison Avenue. At that point she's buying into the cultural myth brought to us through the wonders of advertising, that women must be young, ingenuous, gorgeous, and innocuous. But what about when she's being lured with products which are dangerous, even lethal, and addictive? The stakes are much higher, and the trade-off for a woman isn't just a genuine sense of self, it may be her life.

Young women comprise America's fastest-growing population of smokers, and their rate of lung cancer has increased fivefold in the past two decades, finally beating breast cancer in the mortality sweepstakes. When the tobacco industry went fishing for women back in the late 1920s, what baited its advertisers' hooks? Promises of slender sophistication, pleasure, and freedom. When the tobacco industry hunts women of the 1990s what are its magic bullets? Promises of slender sophistication, pleasure and freedom.

When Lucky Strike developed its famous slogan, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet," complete with an image of a young, slim woman emerging from the shadow of an older, fatter self, Lucky sales skyrocketed 215 percent. The marketing success of Virginia Slims, powered by images of svelte, fashionable models liberated from sepia scenes of woman's drudgery and shapelessness before the Tobacco Liberation, is similarly impressive.

How can the same advertising strategies continue to be so effective with women? To be a smoker in America is to distinctly lose points in the winning-friends-and-influencing-people department. Everywhere smokers turn, they are faced with stomach-churning medical counsel, dramatic spasms of hacking, disdainful glowerings, and unsolicited advice on quitting. When I'm with a smoker who answers, "Smoking, please," to the hostess' seating question, the scene always reminds me of the one in Monty Python's Life of Brian, where, on Good Friday, prisoners are directed toward the proper sentencing: "Crucifixion, right this way." Why are so many women choosing to hang themselves on tobacco's cross?

Despite the real societal changes that have occurred in this culture with regard to women's career and role opportunities, little genuine progress has occurred psychologically. Repeatedly in my clinical practice, repeatedly in consumer interviews, I hear the stories of women who, underneath their mantles of intellect and achievement, remain addicted to external approval. They may look all grown-up on the outside, but inside many still have the insatiable needs and insecurities of children who have never been accepted and loved as competent, separate individuals.

Drugs such as tobacco and, of course, alcohol, offer transient solutions to the problems of self-esteem and identity, not only because of the stress-reducing properties of these substances themselves, but because of the heightened independence and self-fulfillment that advertising constantly associates with their use. The particular images that tobacco and alcohol advertisers rely on most are those that feed into women's underlying sense of themselves as emotionally empty and vulnerable. They offer up tantalizing glimpses of endless pleasure and vitality.

In a recent ad for Newport lights, we see a young woman deliriously happy to be encased in a bizarre two-person sweater, seemingly designed to demonstrate the joy of symbiosis, for the purpose of selling the fantasy that she'll be "Alive with Pleasure!" She has no identity as a separate individual, her very life drawn from her connection with her masculine counterpart. As long as she smokes Newport Lights, her needs for emotional bonding will be met. Never mind that we see her hands outstretched beyond what she's already got, seeking still more "pleasure." She is addicted and insatiable - just the kind of woman a cigarette company wants her to stay.

Decoding the Real Message

R.J. Reynolds' ad for More cigarettes taps into these feelings even more explicitly. Its appeal depends upon the fantasy of filling the bottomless pit of need and longing that drives the insecurities of so many women. Regressive desires for on-demand feedings are embodied by the cigarette brand name itself - More. Ask for it by name and you verbally reinforce both the addiction and the psychological drive behind it.

The model shown is close to a paragon of the cultural definition of feminine sophistication. She radiates self-confidence and insouciance (who cares if her elegant white dress gets dirtied by the pier?). This image of ease and individuality acts as a decoy to the unconscious question: How could this woman possibly be in a state of constant need? She seems to have it all; to want "more," and, as the subhead instructs, to "never settle for less," must be hallmarks of a mature, desirable individual.

But this ad goes the extra mile in getting its target to identify with this image: the green water and pier, the huge "More" across the top of the page, and the double white stripe to its right, all precisely match the design of the cigarette package she holds. She is the package. When you inhale a More cigarette, you internalize her image. And what is this role model's "favorite indulgence", as the body copy asks? Her "special reward" isn't really smoking (after all, smoking is a dirty habit which leads to unsightly spots on the lungs and she's all in white), it's "the time I spend with More." This denial of the addiction, the seeming innocence of this simple pleasure, is given heavy advertising support. And what is by her side to further uncouple her ties to the reality of her lethal "indulgence?" A glass of wine.

For addictions to maintain their hold, a huge amount of psychic energy must be invested in the defensive denial of the consequences of the behavior. Newport Stripes offers a stunning example of this kind of psychological sleight-of-hand in an ad which has as its centerpiece two hysterically laughing, nearly identical blonde women cuddling big, fat, jolly snow "babies" on their laps. They're little-girl-women-mommies, in exuberant good health (a glow heightened by the intensely hot pink color of the surrounding page). Their cigarettes are "smooth and delicate" (like a baby's skin) and they are "light, refreshing" (and harmless) as the candy features on their "babies." Why do so many young women smoke? For one thing, their mothers do. The messages in this ad insidiously support continuing the habit in the next generation by showing these delightful young mothers who enjoy "the latest in pleasure" and have fine chubby children (to whom they will pass on their addictions). The Surgeon General's Warning is the piece de resistance in this ad's denial of reality, and ironically, the selection of warnings is purely by chance: "Smoking by Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, and Low Birth Weight."

Women are constantly portrayed in tobacco and alcohol advertising as creatures of pleasure who, because of their childlike freedom from the ordinary humdrum of reality (growing old, getting cancer, becoming an alcoholic) live lives of fun, fulfillment and romance. Lack of an adult sense of identity and accountability is transmuted, through the wizardry of advertising's fog and mirrors into the imagery of women with independent spirits. The illusions of freedom obscure their slavery to their addictions.

There they are, jogging along a perfect beach foamed with surf, two beautifully constructed women talking about a man (what else do women talk about?) whom they both seem to admire very much. They are interchangeable, and the headline could be coming from either: "He loves my mind. And he drinks Johnnie Walker."

How unfettered. The model's insecurity about being loved for who she is ("my mind") is so profound that she and her friend display their bikinied backsides, just to be sure. They are mirror images of each other and need each other's smiling agreement to shore up the illusion that it is natural and somehow intelligent for a woman to equate a man's valuing her "mind" with her appreciation of his brand of whiskey.

Regardless of the modern cultural wellspring of support and admiration for intellectually accomplished women, advertising reflects and magnifies women's insecurity about whether their acumen will really result in a man's approval. This piece for Johnnie Walker takes no chances and shows women who have enough sense to know that they have minds, but keep them tucked under cute little baseball caps while they show their least threatening assets to the guys. As the tag line says, "Good taste is always an asset."

People who are secure enough to develop an enduring, mutual, affectionate relationship with another person have accomplished an extraordinarily difficult psychological task. Too often both men and women get stuck in a desperate determination not to expose their insecurities as they frantically try to fill a sense of emptiness with packaged facsimiles of love. This culture holds up an endless array of tempting surrogates to emotion, packaged like passion and romance but containing alcohol as their main ingredients.

Women searching for intimacy through fantasy are particularly vulnerable to this approach. And Gilbey's gin reels them in with the glamour of black and white film star lovers, filling the page with the sultry glow of moonlight and caresses while the headline works its magic, and begins to construct a script about the forging of relationships built completely on fantasy and held together by shared alcoholism: "The men never asked, the women never told, and martinis were their passion." Translation: "Shut up and drink, dear."

The copy promotes the endless pursuit of passion ("When one look could ignite your heart like a million candles") in lieu of a mature, enduring relationship. The pursuit of passion is fueled by a sense of inner deadness, and as such, is doomed to failure - even if it succeeds. The cycle is truly vicious: the inevitable loss of passion leaves an ever-increasing sense of worthlessness and insecurity. In other words, it's a winner if an advertiser wants to hook women on alcohol. As the copy tells us, after World War I, people were "drinking in hopes they would make up for what was lost." Drink to try to feel something, to try to feel real. Gilbey's tells its target consumers that martinis, which should, of course, be made with its brand of gin, "Weren't meant just for sipping." Yes, it takes a lot of booze to mask the pain and, as the story ends, bring back "the taste for passion." And what does Gilbey's, this dealer of delusions, call itself? The Authentic Gin.

The more women try to fill themselves up by propping up the outside, the more terrified they are about exposing who they really are on the inside. The discrepancy becomes too great, and the investment in the decoy self becomes too high to risk losing whatever security it does provide. Probably the single biggest barrier to love is the fear of psychological exposure, of being found out and found lacking. The need to hide can become obsessive. The shame can be stupefying. The denial of reality can become all-consuming. When advertisers of products like tobacco and alcohol lock in with people's deepest fears of being unlovable, they offer their products and images as the roads to love, when what they really provide are tickets to addiction.

Author Bio: 

Carol Moog, PhD is a clinical psychiatrist and president of Creative Focus, specializing in developing creative, effective advertising communication for advertisers and agencies representing a broad spectrum of consumer, healthcare and professional products and services. With graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, she works with children, adolescents and adults, emphasizing the discovery of personal resources, goal clarification and skill development. In her work, she draws from her training and experience as a writer, musician, and improvisational actor, having trained with some of the finest in the field. Over the years, she has been regularly sought out by the media for her input on consumer behavior, has published numerous articles and is the author of the William Morrow-published book Are They Selling Her Lips?