Media literacy is such a buzz-term in our society, that to many people, particularly young people, it may feel like a broken record: “Yes, we know advertisements objectify women.” “Yes, we know diet commercials make impossible claims and set unreasonable expectations for beauty and thinness”.
Are we diluting the impact of the media literacy message by repeating it over and over? Maybe. At the same time, however, media messages are changing, and our ability to assess and interpret those messages must evolve as well.
Case in point, a recent print ad for Diet Pepsi shows a sunny pier on a jewel-blue ocean, a splash in the water nearby, as if someone just dove in, and on the pier, a male beer belly “suit”, presumably taken off by the man who just leapt into the water. The tagline states Unpimp your body. More and more, men and especially adolescent and young adult men are the target for body image messages. In this case, the messages are unequivocal: a round stomach is undesirable, a round stomach is something a man has “done to himself”, a man who wants to be seen at the beach would not have a protruding belly, and lastly, a drinking Diet Pepsi is a choice any man can make to remove his excess stomach.
The ad conveys a somewhat lighthearted tone; maybe Pepsi wants men to find it funny. In their use of the word “unpimp” (not grammatically a word, but that is beside the point), it is clear that Pepsi is targeting younger males, ones who are familiar with current slang. While it is very possible that the makers of the ad do not intend to convey any potentially damaging message, it is equally possible that they were very precise in their choice of imagery and tone. Diet sodas have historically been viewed as feminine beverages, and were marketed as such – a diet soda is something a “normal” and weight-conscious woman drinks, and is a way for a women to satisfy her thirst without consuming “bad” calories. This ad takes the same type of message, but shifts it entirely onto men. Pepsi wants to access a previously untapped market, and does so by targeting a common body image insecurity in men.
Visually, the ad is very striking, and seems to say that a man is only defined by whether or not he has a protruding stomach. So much of what we teach youth about media literacy focuses on the so-called disembodied woman, such as a torso, legs, or the arch of a nude back. The diet Pepsi ad is the same strategy, but directed at an entirely different audience, one that has never had to contend with such a level of scrutiny. Eating disorder specialists and clinicians are now saying that, in the eyes of media advertisers at least, being male now is like what being female was in the 1960s and 70s. The male body is analyzed, parsed and dissected for its aesthetic value, and therefore its intrinsic value. A man should be slender but muscular, “manly” but in touch with modern feminist trends, and above all, never pudgy.
It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of such a culture shift will be, but now more than ever, media literacy must evolve to address the body image distortion taking place among both women and men.