What’s in a face?

Over the past week or so I’ve been looking at advertisements with  new interest. Not in what they were trying to sell : I am more immune to that than to the common cold, having learnt all about the power of hidden persuasion and subliminal suggestion a long time ago. No, I was solely interested in the human faces appearing in all kinds of ads, from huge hoardings to small leaflets blowing in the wind. It was my version of anthropological field work, trying to collate these anonymous portraits into two collective images, according to gender, and discover what the creative art directors of the advertising universe consider to be the ideal, irresistibly attractive and desirable women and men able to promote their wares.

Starting with the female image, I promptly came unstuck. Woman’s “infinite variety”, established by Shakespeare, demanded several sub-classes. There was the healthy outdoor type with her long shiny hair, impeccable complexion and the clear eyes of someone who lived mainly on organic vegetable juices and unsulphured apricots. (A long time ago, when I was a fashion writer on a women’s magazine and had to supervise photographic sessions, I most dreaded this kind of model girl who rarely spoke and never smiled except for the camera, for fear of creasing her skin.) Then I noted images of the professional glamour puss dressed to kill or be simply ridiculous, followed by the sultry temptress (mainly connected to hair products), with a gaze that may have been meant to be the ultimate “come hither” look, but instead suggested that this femme fatale could easily become a femme catastrophe. To counteract her, I collected the many female faces expressing total ecstatic bliss, so profound and personal that I began to wonder how this was achieved – or faked – by the subjects. The sub-classes were multiplying. I rounded them off with the  unglamorous images of jolly, slightly overweight middle-aged ladies in striped aprons, inordinately pleased with their saving accounts.

My patient analysis of the material resulted in a disappointing insight: none of these images contained a grain of reality, nothing to recognize or identify with. Rolled into one or in their respective categories, trying to please at any cost in many different ways, what kind of unreal image of the feminine were they spreading?  Since they bore no resemblance to real women, not even the ladies in the striped aprons, what were we or others to make of them? Fortunately answering that question was not part of my project.

Collecting male images was much easier.. For one thing, there weren’t many of them: perhaps one for every twenty or so female portraits. Also, I didn’t need  any  sub-classes, except to concentrate first on those under 25. Unlike the female images trying to please in their different ways, these males didn’t. Most of them looked handsome, but their facial expressions were invariably stern, severe, sulky, serious, brooding, menacing (ooops, sorry, was that meant to be sexy?) and suggesting overwhelming male superiority. Again the question arises: what kind of unreal image of the masculine were they projecting? Compared to men of similar age one met in the street, they might have belonged to another species.

Ah, but all that changed in ads featuring men of thirty-five and over: with their wives and regulation two children, they actually smiled! In fact all four of them smiled, showing four sets of perfect teeth, reminding me that humans were the only mammals that signalled friendliness and pleasure by showing their teeth (tigers, please note).

So, I concluded, after all even ads can contain some reality.  In promoting suitable products, such as family holidays or life insurance,  they admit that time passes, family life changes everybody,  both brooding males and sultry temptresses age and put on weight  instead of brooding and/or tempting, but, from the advertising point of view, as long as they keep buying stuff, that’s okay, too.

However, wearing a striped apron is not compulsory. And that’s the final conclusion of my exploration.


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