According to evolutionary psychologists, youth is considered as the main basis of attractiveness on a universal level – regardless of the culture and the era. While the media might not be able to manipulate the direction of our beliefs, it most certainly increases the amount of time we think about this topic and radicalizes how we understand the relationship between these two attributes. This is why (among other factors) technological advancement leads to differences between cultures.
“I’m beautiful again” states the model depicted in a cosmetics ad alluding to the changes she achieved using Alaiska crème and powder, both considered having antiaging effects. The main idea behind this ad might feel familiar for those who watch TV, read women’s magazines or simply walk with open eyes. A clear pattern seems to emerge
in modern days: a lot of advertisements focus on fighting aging. I argue that no matter what year we are writing, no matter what culture you look at, there still is a universal beauty ideal that promotes youth. Also, it seems that the media increases this idea, radicalizes how we think about beauty and increases the quantity of our thoughts relating to this topic.
So what makes this specific ad so interesting? I came by it in a newspaper that has been published in 1903, in Hungary (see Appendix A). More than a century has passed and little has changed. “I’m 58… But look like I’m 38” another quote from a commercial presented in the early 2000s, leaving no doubt that everybody should be happy to look 20 years younger after reaching such an age. It even goes further than this; not only does this specific ad go on about its rejuvenating effects on all skin types, it also states that “Women of all ages rave about it”, seemingly describing youth as a desirable state no matter the age you might be in (see Appendix B).
The message conveyed clearly is that no matter how old you are currently, you need to look younger, without any wrinkles, to look beautiful; the ideal should be to look completely alike and join in on society’s universal norm of attractiveness. You might argue that there are in fact ads that challenge this notion and communicate acceptance toward greater diversity. I did too. For this reason I looked up some campaigns related to this topic and found the opposite of what you might call diverse. A specific Lancome ad stood out as a result of its popularity and broad acceptance. The particular picture in question depicts four women of different ages using the same anti-aging product. Each of the four has a number written above her head, implying their current age. You indeed need these guidelines, since they all look the same age and they all seem to have been Photoshopped (see Appendix C). Apparently when Jean Kilbourne states in “Killing Us Softly 4” that “you almost never see a photograph of a woman considered beautiful that hasn’t been Photoshopped”, she is right.
The ideal woman – no matter how old she might be – still has no wrinkles or imperfections, has strongly colored hair without any grey patches, a perfect posture and overall looks a lot more like a twenty-something old than a women of age. It does seem that very little of these changes actually affected the ideal and broadly accepted depiction of what feminine beauty should look like. Kilbourne states that although over the past forty years she has been talking about the connections between advertising and several public health issues, things have only gotten worse. It seems to me that this might be in fact the same case with the topic of aging.
New anti-aging products flood the market; several types of crèmes and hair dyes are available in almost all supermarkets and the number of ads for anti-aging surgical procedures has skyrocketed. Although there might be researchers who believe that even the presence of these ads might solely influence consumer decisions increasing the usage of these products, I think that is questionable to say the least. After I first watched Kilbourne’s video, I couldn’t help but focus on a single sentence in it. She mentioned that according to an editor, “Only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and reworked deep within the recesses of the brain”. Immediately I remembered the infamous experience conducted by Vicary (Packard, 1957) on subliminal advertising and how the results were never reproduced. Although there is current research on the topic that suggests that some level of influence might be achieved using similar methods (Karremans, Stroebe, & Claus, 2006), the statement and belief of the human unconscious being flat out manipulated by these ads is not well-supported. Some preexistent notions have to be present for an ad to gain such impact and this leads to the question of how our innate nature plays a role in all of this.
From the evolutionary psychologist’s perspective, the parts of basic human nature at hand serve survival – more precisely, the survival of the fittest. According to some researchers (Vörös, Bereckei, Bernáth, & Gál, 2001), adaptive decisions on mating choices still depend on one main attribute: reproductive quality. Even in modern times the youth of a woman is a marker of health and of the potential of having more offspring. Based on this theory, I do think that there might be a universal beauty ideal that normatively affects our thoughts and feelings towards aging. What about cultural influences?
While according to the evolutionary theorists these preexistent ideals do not necessarily differ on a cultural basis, some historical and technological differences might result in a wider variety of ideals. Technology might have a huge role in these processes with media both confirming and amplifying the issue in several cultures, thus resulting in a never ending cycle of (pre)existent ideals and affirmation. According to the agendasetting theory described by McCombs and Shaw (2006), the media has the ability to influence the prominence of different topics on the public agenda. This is why an issue that frequently and prominently occurs in the media will be regarded as more important by the audience.
In conclusion of the thoughts above one might theorize that media-driven communities such as the US and many other Western cultures value youth more highly on a collective basis when it comes to attractiveness than others do. This does not mean that these other societies differ greatly in their individualistic features; neither does it mean that women of age may not be considered attractive. It simply means that a basic human attitude might be reinforced in such a way within a culture that it becomes painful, even harmful on a collective basis.
My main argument is that for the most, aging is considered as an opposing affect to being attractive regardless of the year or the society, but the extent of this belief differs among cultures. While ads might not be accountable for these beliefs, they can affect the importance we bestow upon this question and radicalize our pre-existent feelings that are based on an aspect of human nature. Timeless beauty might not be on the agenda for all women, at least not in ways Western societal expectations currently work. Some of us might just need to take a step back and re-think whether this ideal and the heavy burdens hanging from it serve our survival or a very different purpose.
The author was supported by the Hungarian Templeton Program that was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc.
Karremans, J. C., Stroebe, W., & Claus, J. (2006) Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: the impact of subliminal priming and brand choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 792-798.
McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (2006) Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187.
Packard, V. (1957) The Hidden Persuaders. David McKay Company: New York, NY.
Vörös, Sz.,Bereckei, T., Bernáth, L.,Gál, Á. (2001) Adaptív döntések és mechanizmusok a párválasztásban. In: Pléh, Cs., Csányi, V., Bereckei, T. (Eds): Lélek és evolúció (pp. 229-243). Budapest: Osiris Kiadó.