This week I came across this advertisement on Twitter and I honestly thought it was a hoax. Having heard Jessica Milner-Davies discuss the difference between practical jokes and hoaxes at the 2014 International Humour Summer School, I was utterly convinced that someone would do the ‘big reveal’ at some point as it was such a textbook example.
I thought there was no way that this incredibly offensive caption could be real; someone’s photoshopped it in. This was one just of those traps that people set to enrage feminists online in order to laugh at their ire and then berate them for being so stupid to fall for it…..however this was not a drill.
This advert exists in print in the 2015 catalogue for American department store Bloomingdales. ‘SPIKE YOUR BEST FRIEND’S EGGNOG WHEN THEY’RE NOT LOOKING.’
Image from Bloomingdales 2015 brochure
This story has subsequently been heavily covered in the media (see here for the Guardian’s recap) with may questioning how the hell this ever got signed off. How did an advert for ‘holiday season’ clothing enter such dark territory and how is it possible in 2015 that someone didn’t spot that this caption was a problem?? In my own opinion it looks like it should have some kind of warning message underneath it (‘This festive season remember to watch your drinks everybody’ or ‘ 90% of rapes are committed by people previously known to the victim’ etc.), so stark is the connotation of date rape.
Once I had gotten over my initial shock that this image existed in the world, what I found particularly interesting was that the key thing about this advert that tipped it from a completely average shot of fashion models to highly offensive pro-date rape image was the text.
Surely if you are going to do a fashion shoot inspired by, or even remotely visually similar to, the highly controversial music video for Robin Thicke and Pharrell William’s Blurred Lines (as this is in its choices of colours, black, cream, white, red lipstick… see the image below), then you think long and hard about the caption you add to ensure the image is not read as a continuation of the problematic consent-related discourse of the song itself. The song and video were heavily criticised in the media (see here) and so it is no surprise that this advert has attracted similar levels of critique along the same lines.
Image from Robin Thicke’s video for Blurred Lines (2013)
We are invited by this advert, irrespective of the text, to position ourselves as the man, as we are in the overwhelming majority of images, film, media etc. See, as always, Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) for her seminal articulation of this idea. His gaze is the one we follow and the woman, head thrown back and smiling is the subject of his (and therefore our) stare. This means that whatever caption was written in this space was more likely to be attributed to the male rather than the female model as he is the active protagonist of this scene. Again the fact that none of the designers or copy editors picked up on this is astonishing.
Today is conveniently International Men’s Day and, sidestepping the obvious discussion about why this day exists in the first place (See comedian Richard Herring’s work on this here), I think this advert provides an example of how patriarchy limits both men and women in its perpetuation of patriarchal gender roles. This advert invites us to think that this man is about to, or maybe already has, spiked a woman’s drink. It normalises the idea that this is just something that men do, for a laugh. It reinforces the idea that men only think about sex and will stop at nothing to get it irrespective of the consent of their partner as so beautifully articulated in Blurred Lines‘ chorus ‘I know you want it’. Does knowing I want it mean you don’t have to ask me? This is patronising, constraining and offensive to men as much as it is women.
So how does this link to your work on humour and comedy studies then? Good question. Well, I’m particularly interested in this as my research sits within the wider realm of cultural studies. I’ll be looking at how Angela McRobbie’s work on the complexification of anti-feminist backlash often takes the form of irony in advertising, which is also explored in the work of Rosalind Gill (I’ll be looking at this in terms of the U.K comedy industry and advertising for comedy). An interview where McRobbie briefly talks about her work can be found here.
The Bloomingdales advert uses a tone that makes the suggestion of spiking someone’s drink seem a cheeky joke, in a ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ kind of way. The advert knows that what it is saying is not acceptable, invoking feminist scorn, but then diffuses the problematic content of the statement by falling back on the ‘this is a joke’ ironic tone. I’m sure they didn’t anticipate this level of backlash but they knew this statement was tongue in cheek at the very least. The issue here for me is that women’s everyday experiences and the jokey suggestion of this advert are not sufficiently different to be fertile territory for irony or humour.
I am also reminded of an excellent animation about sexual consent that uses humour to get the message across in a clear way. (click link below image).
I love this because I feel it demonstrates how comedy can be used to critique society and throw light on to issues by highlighting their faulty logic. There is something ridiculous about a stick figure pouring tea down someone’s throat, justifying it by saying ‘well you wanted tea last week’.
Most of the press around comedy and consent focuses on rape jokes but I think this provides just one example of how comedy can also be used to highlight inequalities and violence against marginalised groups too. Comedy is another weapon with which to smash patriarchal norms and this is a call to arms.