Several years ago I listened to Ken Myers interview a woman on Mars Hill Audio (Volume 62). I was writing a book on advertising at the time and her insights jumped out of my dashboard and into my notebook. No, really. I pulled into a Blockbuster parking lot and began penning her comments.
Since then, I’ve quoted her numerous times in lectures and discussions, recommended her book, Eve’s Revenge, to friends and colleagues, and continued to savor her words about spirituality, the body, and popular media.
For the second New Breed of Advertisers interview, I’d like to introduce you to that woman, Lilian Calles Barger.
Lilian is a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She received her undergraduate degree in business from the University of Texas-Arlington and an MA from the University of Texas-Dallas. After a twenty-year career in business, she founded and led the Damaris Project, an initiative to provide resources for women to start meaningful conversations in their communities. She has written for numerous publications and is the author of Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body (Brazos Press, 2003), which received outstanding reviews, and Chasing Sophia: Reclaiming the Lost Wisdom of Jesus (Jossey-Bass, 2007). Lilian is a frequent speaker on the intersection of faith and contemporary cultural issues. She lives in Dallas with her husband and two sons.
NBoA: What sparked your interest in writing about women’s bodies?
Lilian: When I began to read women's history, biographies of women, and look at the media targeting women, the thing that stood out is the role, meaning, and even obsession with women's bodies. I figured anything that culturally significant had to have profound spiritual implications. No matter what women do, or how successful they are in any other area, the implications of the female body are hard to escape.
NBoA: In Eve’s Revenge, you wrote that women “are constantly bombarded by concrete and codified images of beauty that assault the senses” (44). I like your description. Are there codes in advertising’s images that you find particularly assaulting to the senses?
Lilian: When all you see is very slim, young, women with no pores, and vacant looks, you are not seeing anything close to reality. Or at least nothing that does not require constant physical monitoring to achieve. Images of the human, while not necessarily needing to capture an absolute realism, should project a fully engaged, alive, and aware human being – not a zombie.
NBoA: You started The Damaris Project in 1997 to encourage conversations about “women’s lives, culture and the teachings of Jesus.” How would you host a Damaris conversation for women who work on Madison Avenue?
Lilian: I would assume that women who work on Madison Avenue have the same concerns that women everywhere have. They may experience more intensity in some areas; but overall, most women are concerned with body image, relationships, and having a sense of wholeness while standing on their own two feet.
NBoA: In a blog post you wrote,
“Fashion is the most personal form of art, close to the body and communicating a great deal about the wearer. It’s an art form hard for any of us to completely avoid. Who would want to escape the possibility of beautiful adornment?”
Are you suggesting that the fashion industry (and therefore her bedfellow, popular advertising) can be something good for consumers?
Lilian: I am not assuming a consumer ethic. I have a great deal of problems with consumerism and what comes with it, including what has been called the "organized creation of dissatisfaction." In my post I am assuming that clothing is something human beings have been involved with since the beginning of culture. People clothed themselves even in non-consumer-oriented societies. Advertising uses art to sell products and as far as it does it is also a creative expression. However, when the fashion or advertising industries give narrow definitions of what is acceptable, and lie about the true nature of art or the value of the human person, it's a problem.
NBoA: In an earlier post on these “narrow definitions,” I quoted one female student’s lamentation: “There’s no wiggle room.” Okay, so she sees a problem and you see a problem and plenty of others do too, but women still head into these industries. There seems to be a disconnection here.
So let’s imagine there’s a 22 year old who’s fresh out of college with an advertising degree and a related job that starts next month. This past semester, however, she read Eve’s Revenge and suddenly realized how the value that God places on our bodies is often diminished and disfigured by popular advertising. Should her new job feel like a quandary or an opportunity?
Lilian: I think she really needs to think about the ethics that will guide her career. There are some careers that are harder than others to be true to values greater than the market. Particularly when you are just starting out and you don't have enough power to influence major decisions. It can be an opportunity, but I think she is going to have to make some tough choices. Is she up to that?
NBoA: Well said. I’ve heard young professionals wrestle with this dilemma of when to live out their convictions: “Now or later? When I’m at the bottom of the ladder or the top?” It doesn’t seem like it should be an issue, but then I wonder if anyone’s job is free of ethical dilemmas.
And speaking of those, Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” comes to mind because it uses ads to try to improve self-esteem. Is this a legitimate attempt? If not, are there appropriate ways to portray the body in advertising – ways that might bolster a healthy, biblical, view of the body?
Lilian: Let's consider another question. Is it okay for us to buy into the values of consumer capitalism? Advertising is the lubricant to consumer spending. Bottom line is that Dove is trying to sell you a product. They are not primarily concerned with your self-esteem. I think the idea that a consumer product company can improve our self-esteem is silly. While they can certainly aid in its destruction, I doubt that they can really improve it because whatever improvement it offers is built on buying the product. Advertising can reinforce false cultural values but I don't think it can remedy them. Why? Because ads have one overarching aim: to sell you things. On the other hand, there are companies that do have ethical values, and buying their products can be less destructive than buying others. Ethical means fair trade, fair labor, fair pricing, and fair dealings with the environment, but it also means honest advertising.
NBoA: True, but don’t certain Dove products have honest-to-goodness value for the consumer? Like their Energize Beauty Body Wash (random pick from their website), which “contains an ultra-light hydrating formula, invigorating beads and the sparkling scent of grapefruit and lemongrass to give you a boost in the morning.”
This is pretty wording and the cynic in me wants to dismiss it, but moisturized skin and a morning boost makes anyone feel a bit better – privately and publicly. Is it possible that someone at Dove (maybe not from sales, but possibly a copy-writer or graphic designer) cares about women’s health more than money?
Lilian: Lemongrass may give me a one-minute boost, but something else has to drive my morning motivation. I’m not picking on Dove. I have no idea who is on their ad project, or their intent beyond wanting to sell a product. Wanting to sell a product is okay, and telling you it smells good or that it’s a good value is fine, too. I would rather use soap that smells good versus soap that smells like lye. What they can’t do or imply is that I will be prettier, more loveable, or more motivated if I use their product. Soap can make you physically clean and therefore healthier, but it can’t really make you a more confident person. It seems rather pitiful that we look to marketers to help us feel better about ourselves. The social poverty is astounding.
NBoA: I wonder where readers are on this point about a product’s social benefits. I know it sounds vain and even contrary to my cynicism, but, personally, I derive a great deal of value from certain products. Perhaps this just discloses my own social poverty.
Last question, Lilian: To the female reader who is necklace deep in her advertising career, what encouragement would you offer?
Lilian: Evaluate your career based on your values. To what end have you sought to increase people’s desire for a product? The question of how followers of Jesus can live ethically in our economic system is not a simple matter. It's never just about making the sell or closing the deal. I suggest reading Being Consumed, by William T. Cavanaugh. It provides some good faith-based cultural analysis of our consumer culture without rejecting it all together. For those seeking to follow a spiritual path, the question of human flourishing and whether what we produce aids toward that end is a very serious question.
Lilian, thank you for contributing to this ongoing conversation. Folks in the advertising world have quite a challenge before them (as do all of us), and your final point about the end to which we work is critical if we hope to succeed at love. I’m glad for your efforts to re-orient our perspectives.
Readers, don’t hesitate to comment here. You can also connect with Lilian by reading her books and visiting her blog at www.lilianbarger.com. Learn more about the Damaris Project at www.damarisproject.org.