Filipinas are victims of gender stereotyping in their own land. This theory paper explores sexist and feminist advertising to deconstruct the various portrayals of Filipinas in local billboard ads. It explains how these portrayals are being conveyed through the chosen advertising medium as guided by Roland Barthes’ theory of myth. It also provides a brief critique on the practice of stereotyping and empowering Filipinas in local billboard ads through a feminist perspective.
How do you define a Filipina?
Answering this question is not as simple as reading it. The term “Filipina” is just as controversial as the person it refers to, which is the female Filipino. In fact, many years ago, the entire nation was outraged over the rumor that an Oxford dictionary entry defined the word ‘Filipina’ as domestic helper, which was later proven false and answered by the Oxford University Press (Callo, 1988).
Another controversial issue with regard to Filipinas is a Hong Kong commercial ad by an insurance company wherein a male Chinese actor portrayed a clumsy Filipina maid named Maria. The ad drew criticisms on social media and from domestic helpers’ rights group for racial and cultural stereotyping (Choi, 2014). Almost the same incident was reported when Hong Kong-based British blogger-activist Tony Grundy posted a photo of a page from a Hong Kong textbook showing an illustration of a female Filipino with a speech bubble saying “I am a Filipino, and I am a domestic helper in Hong Kong (Carleon, 2014a).” In 2008, Philippine Ambassador in London Edgardo B. Espiritu together with different organizations demanded an apology from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) comedy show, Harry & Paul, for committing an act of racial prejudice by portraying and stereotyping Filipinas as domestic helpers and sex playthings (Pidd, 2008).
Perhaps one can argue that Filipinos are being too onion-skinned for over-reacting on the stereotypical portrayals of Filipinas in the international scene. But forms of racial, cultural and gender stereotyping in any part of the world are unacceptable and need to be given much attention. What’s even more upsetting scenario here is that Filipinos often fail to notice that their women are also victims of stereotyping in their own land. Proving this is as easy as going outdoors.
This article focuses the attention on the various portrayals of Filipinas in local outdoor advertising scene or billboards, to be specific. By exploring sexist advertising in the Philippines, it uncovers how the chosen advertising medium is using popular women stereotypes to depict Filipinas. In the end, the article discusses feminist advertising or ‘femvertising’ as a new and emerging trend that gives hope to break gender stereotyping in billboard ads and advertising in general. It also provides a brief critique on the widespread practice of stereotyping Filipinas in local billboard ads through the feminist perspective.
What are the common women stereotypes communicated through billboard ads? And why is it a social issue that needs to be addressed? Or rather, what is stereotyping and how does it affect Filipinas as women in their home country?
In the Cage of Stereotypes
Stereotypes act as cages that imprison a particular group in a classification that makes a member of that group easy to judge and identify. No one is exempted regardless of race, gender, age or culture. American journalist Sharon Begley once said that stereotypes present a trap into which people can fall (Brannon, 2004). They’re prejudiced, generalised and simplified conceptions of a person, group, organization or topic. They can either be negative or positive, but they usually imply negative consequences (Fourie & Karam, 2007).
Stereotypes are derived from socially shared knowledge. They can be seen as cognitive structures. They are acquired as a body of knowledge during the socialization process in the broadest manner, which includes the individuals’ own observations, statements of significant others and peers as well as the media (Tomasik, 2012). Stereotypes are so much part of the culture of a particular group that members accept them unquestioningly as a kind of natural law (Fourie & Karam, 2007).
Negative stereotypes are believed to cause stereotype threat. It is a phenomenon wherein one perceives a situation as a risk of confirming a negative stereotype of the group they belong (Tyler & Tyler, 2009). Studies found that stereotype threat has adverse effects on the performance of women as well as minorities experiencing negative stereotypes in school and workplace (Gorlick, 2009).
Throughout the years, women have been victims of gender stereotyping or “the acceptance of certain features and characteristics that are attributed to a group of persons (Tomasik, 2012).” It consists of beliefs about psychological traits and characteristics of, as well as activities appropriate to, men or women. It affects conceptualizations of women and men and establishes social categories for gender. These categories represent what people think, and even when beliefs vary from reality, the beliefs can be very powerful forces in judgment of self and others (Brannon, 2004).
In the Philippines, it is believed that gender stereotyping began during the Spanish colonial era. In her article entitled Roots of Feminist Thought in the Philippines, Lilia Quindoza-Santiago (1996) said that women in Philippine history were enjoying equal or sometimes higher status than men before the advent of Christianity and Islam. Gender was not a basis for division of labor because women were free to perform the same activities men were doing. Women enjoyed equal rights in terms of community affairs as well as social and political matters, not to mention the potential to become political and cultural leaders. The arrival of Spaniards brought the patriarchy system to the archipelago and changed the images of Filipinas as meek daughter, a faithful housewife, an obedient follower of the Church and a chaste virgin before marriage (Rodriguez, 1990). Two of the first Filipinas stereotypes are Maria Clara as a martyred maiden and Sisa as a martyred mother, which national hero Dr. Jose Rizal created himself (Quindoza-Santiago, 1996).
These and other popular Filipina stereotypes continue to exist today. Many of them are being communicated through mass media, most often in advertising. One major reason of adopting stereotypes in advertising is that they have become a popular persuasion strategy for depicting specific groups in relation to the whole irrespective of individuality and uniqueness (Wolska, 2011). This practice is more popularly known as sexist advertising.
Sexist Advertising in the Philippines
When there’s mass media, most probably there’s advertising. It has become part of our daily lives, always trying to persuade us to patronize consumerism. And because ads themselves are targeted to a specific demographic, they become vast sources of gender stereotyping (Wolska, 2011). This leads the discussion to sexist advertising.
In a feminist perspective, sexist advertising are ads that promote gender stereotypes and depict women in a disadvantaged way. These include portrayals of women as a sex symbol or a sexual object and as housewives or caring mothers. Ads expressing dependency of women on men and promoting beauty ideals for women characterized by less weight and large height, long legs, long hair are also forms of sexist advertising (Tomasik, 2012). Signs of femininity in ads rely on a concept of femininity connected to weakness, dependency, emotionality, lack of self-consciousness and servility (Tomasik, 2012).
The Philippine advertising scene is guilty of promoting gender stereotypes through sexist ads. A multitude of ads project Filipinas as housewives or someone fit only for the bedroom, kitchen and home. This also includes portraying women as a sex symbol (Quindoza-Santiago, 1996). Research showed that local print ads implicitly communicate women as someone who belongs at home; who has a soft personality and beautiful appearance; who exists to gratify men; and who is inclined to believe in traditional sayings and superstitions (Fernandez, 1989).
Advertising in the Philippines is a big industry where a huge amount of money is involved. In fact, a total of Php 190 billion ($4.31bn) were spent for tri-media (print, television and radio) in the first nine months of 2011 while outdoor advertising, into which billboards are categorized, has risen up in recent years, hitting Php 2.2 billion ($49.9bn) in the same period (“Tuning in,” 2012).
One major reason of billboard popularity among advertisers is that they are cheap alternatives to tri-media advertising. With traffic jams and congestion in highways particularly in Metro Manila areas, advertisers are gaining high viewership from motorist and commuters stuck in highways (“Tuning in,” 2012). But while billboards are booming, every Filipino would agree that it’s one of the most controversial advertising medium today. For years, billboard ads have been a favorite of critics and concerned citizens due to content issues. Other issues being linked to billboards are their monstrous sizes and fast rising population.
In Metro Manila alone, a total of 8,000 billboards in 2004 were recorded according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP) (De los Reyes, 2009). In Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), over 2,000 billboards flank the highway which are equivalent to 90 billboards per kilometer. Billboard sizes measure up to 500 square meters (Masigan, 2011). A July 2011 AC Nielsen survey showed that around half of the billboards in Manila were positioned along EDSA while 29 percent were located along South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) (“Tuning in,” 2012).
In connection to this, slow traffic in the metro is also being blamed to monstrous billboards as outdoor advertisements containing sexy images are distractions to drivers causing them to slow down for a view (Macairan, 2009). Other concerns include uncontrolled obscenity that distracts the attention of drivers, which threatens road safety. These sexually suggestive images are said to also corrupt the minds of youngsters (Carleon, 2014b).
To address the billboard craze in Metro Manila as well as other issues associated with it, mayors of Metro Manila have agreed to regulate the dimension of billboards across the metro, which was initially implemented in Makati. The regulation will address billboard height, illumination and location (Frialde, 2014). Also in early 2014, a bill called “An Act Prohibiting the Public Exhibition or Display of Obscene and/or Distractive Motion or Still Picture along Major Thoroughfares” was introduced in the Lower House hoping to address obscenity issues in local billboard ads (Carleon, 2014b).
Given its boom, rising population in the metro, popularity both to advertisers and the audience and the issue being thrown to it, billboards are interesting advertising medium to choose for this article. Just like other advertising platforms, once can argue that billboards are also vehicles of sexist advertising through which Filipina stereotypes are being communicated and maintained. This is what the article will delve into as it progresses.
What is the role of local billboards in portraying Filipinas with popular women stereotypes? What are the common Filipina stereotypes seen in local billboards flanking the Philippine highways? In what way can we uncover these stereotypical portrayals in local billboard ads? All these questions will be answered and these stereotypes will be uncovered as Roland Barthes’ theory of myth guides us.
The Theory of Myth by Roland Barthes
When studying signs and how they come to represent objects, ideas, states, situations, feelings and conditions outside themselves, one has to deal with semiotics (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008). Perhaps one of the most noteworthy names in semiotics is Roland Barthes due to his theory of myth. Myth, also known as connotation, is the connotative meaning that signs carry. But myth, according to Barthes, is the second order of signification. The first order is called the denotation (Griffin, 2012). Take note that in this article, the author will use myth and connotation interchangeably.
Denotation or the first order of signification is a sign consisting of a signifier and a signified (Chandler, 2014). The signifier is the physical form of the sign as we perceive it through our senses while the signified is the meaning we associate with the sign (Griffin, 2012). Meanwhile, connotation is a second-order of signification which uses the denotative sign (signifier and signified) as its signifier and attaches to it an additional signified. In this framework, connotation is a sign which derives from the signifier of a denotative sign (Chandler, 2014). The literal, obvious meaning of a sign falls under denotation while connotation or myth refers to the socio-cultural and personal associations, including ideological and emotional (Chandler, 2014).
Myth transforms the cultural into universal and natural. It makes dominant cultural, historical, values, attitudes and beliefs become natural and normal while still recognizing its status as myth or as a cultural product (Allen, 2003; Chandler, 2014).
Ads act as a vehicle through which myths are conveyed as metaphors. The role of ads goes beyond introducing and promoting products. It is also about persuading consumers to accept the ideologies that consumerism brings pleasure and our possessions define our social status. Thus, ads communicate and shape its audience’s ideologies with purpose (Zhang & Ai, 2011).
Myths are mainly communicated through stereotypes (Fourie & Karam, 2007). Again, stereotypes have social and ideological connotations and are associated with a particular group. The same way myth was defined above, stereotypes are seen as normal and natural (Fourie & Karam, 2007). From here, we can infer that stereotypes are forms of myth delivered through various forms of mass media, particularly in advertising.
Deconstructing the Filipina Stereotypes in Local Billboard Ads
Barthes’ theory of myth is this article’s main guide in understanding the presence of different stereotypes associated with Filipinas in local billboards. With this, the author opted to use sample billboard ads for the analysis. The author recognizes that the selection of sample billboard ads for this article was purely random with no many definite scopes to follow. Only two bases of selection were observed: one of the main subjects in the billboard ad must be a Filipina model and a media representation or stereotype must be identifiable to be applicable to the intended analysis. In the selection process, the author also recognizes the constraints of time allotted for the research article, the degree of exposure to billboard ads and the online availability of eligible images.
The Queen of Household
Image 1 (left) shows TV personalities and sisters Gelli and Janice de Belen for Alaska condensada and evaporada milk ad (Djsammy2k7, 2007). Image 2 (right) features actress Jodi Sta. Maria and her son Thirdy Lacson for Purefoods FunStuff Nuggets billboard ad (Lao, 2013).
Sometimes, the simplest ad contains the most common stereotype. Image 1, for instance, possesses few elements but clearly shows a common stereotypical portrayal of women. It features two mom celebrities with their happy faces while holding dishes prepared with the advertised milk products. Other signs in the image are product cans, tagline and brand logo. Same as Image 1, Image 2 shows a celebrity mom holding a platter of nuggets to serve to her son. Other signs are the son performing different kinds of games, the product, tagline and brand logo.
One can easily say that the billboard ad is more than just a promotion of their respective products. Image 1 is not just about infusing home-made dishes with the brand while Image 2 tells a story that goes beyond preparing and serving a bowl of crunchy nuggets. Those big smiles and happy faces tell us a story. Both billboard ads sell the idea of finding happiness for coming up with delicious dishes to serve to their families. It communicates to moms a sense of fulfillment achieved with delectable concoctions that can delight their families. It is apparent that the ad is aimed to appeal to moms, banking on the notion that they are the ones in charge of preparing meals at home. They are the queen of the kitchen.
Inferiority of Women to Men
Image 3 is a billboard ad in EDSA for clothing brand Maldita featuring actor/host Luis Manzano and singer/actress Nikki Gil.
Another example is a billboard ad in EDSA by clothing brand Maldita, which contains a demeaning stereotypical portrayal of women. Shown in the billboard ad is the male model wrapping his left arm around the collar and chest area of the female model. The female model, wearing only a short V-neck dress (or more like a t-shirt), is standing with legs apart while holding the wrapping arm of the male model with her left hand. Based on the clothing and pose, one can say that the female model is portrayed in a sexy way. But there is more to that. The wrapping arm of the male model communicates a stronger message. The wrapping arm itself is a sign of dominance and power over the one inside it. Thus, one can interpret the image as an illustration of men’s superiority to women as suggested by wrapping arm of the male model. Women are inferior to men.
Sizing Up Female Beauty
Image 4 is a billboard ad of a slimming product named Lesofat (Quilao, 2009).
It has been said that sexist ads with stereotypical portrayals include those that promote false beauty ideals on women (Tomasik, 2012). Image 4 above is an example of such. The billboard ad features an overweight woman in green dress trying to cover her body with her yellow shoulder bag. Her minimal facial expression and posture show her shame for having excess fats. On the other side of the image is a slim lady in body-fit blue dress with a big smile. If there’s something overweight in the second lady, it would be her confidence. With these two combined, the ad highlights women insecurities with regard to weight. It suggests that excess fats and large body built in women are something to be ashamed of while promoting a leaner shape as the one considered beautiful and desirable, which boosts self-esteem.
The Ultimate Sex Symbol
Image 5 is a billboard ad for beauty clinic Belo Medical Group (Brommel, 2007).
Speaking of beauty ideals in local billboard ads, Image 5 above, a billboard ad by Belo Medical Group for its Smart Lipo service, creates an interesting association with beauty. It shows a woman in a kneeling position. She’s wearing black lingerie, a pantyhose and long gloves while her right hand holds a black whip. It is clear that the ad does not only highlight the figure of the model, her sexy curves and lean arms. It does not only promote the false beauty ideal that favors to slim body and small waist line. It goes beyond that. The image has sexual implications. It associates women’s desire to be beautiful with sex. The sexy model in her seductive clothes and whip is a representation of dominatrix or “a woman who controls and hurts her partner during sexual activity in order to give her partner sexual pleasure (“Dominatrix,” n.d.).” Women are sex symbols.
Women and Automobiles
Image 6 features actress Angel Locsin for Suzuki Skydrive billboard ad (“Untitled image of Angel Locsin,” n.d.).
Many of us might have noticed that using women in automobile ads has been a common practice of advertisers. In Ending Gender Stereotyping and Sexist Portrayals, it was explained that automobile companies and advertising agencies do not perceive women as target market but use them to create the illusion that women are one of the gadgets that a male automobile owner could enjoy (Tomasik, 2012). While it’s more popular in cars, motor brands like the sample image above adhere to this practice. Image 6 is a billboard ad for Suzuki Skydrive motor featuring actress Angel Locsin, who was once the number one sexiest woman in the country by FHM Philippines magazine. Angel is wearing a black body-fit leather race suit while she sits on a red motor. Other signs are another two models of the advertised motor in black and white colors in the background, brand logo and tagline. In Image 6, the message is easy to decipher. Men desire motors the same way they desire Angel, who represents sexy Filipinas. Women are a source of desire in men or an object they have to own.
The Depiction of a Shopaholic
Image 7 (left) is a shopping sale billboard ad by MasterCard and SM Store while Image 8 (right) is a promotional billboard by My Dream credit card.
Images of women with a bunch of paper bags on their hands are not new to us. We always see them on billboards especially when there are sale promotions or during shopping seasons. Examples of these are Images 7 and 8 above. Image 7 shows three poses of a lady shopper in overflowing joy with her paper bags. Other elements are the credit card, brand logo and promotional line. Image 8, on the other hand, shows a mom leaning back-to-back with her daughter. Both of them are holding a heap of paper bags. Beside them is another sign, which is the credit card.
Both Images 7 and 8 are ads intended to promote credit card use for shopping. To do such, the images illustrate the joy of women with thoughts of sales and shopping. They emphasize the idea that women love big discounts and rebates. They highlight the notion of materialism in women and their obsession with shopping. It strengthens and uses the common stereotype of women as shopaholics.
With thousands of existing billboard ads in Philippines highways, thousands of women representations are also present and open to analysis. But the samples above are enough proofs to say that Filipinas are being depicted with common stereotypical portrayals of women in local billboard ads. They expose the different kinds of women stereotypes seen along our thoroughfares. They can prove that the case here in the Philippines is not different from those in other countries. Filipinas are stereotyped in their own land. On a positive note, a new advertising practice is now emerging to address this. It aims to break the cage of women stereotypes. This approach is called femvertising.
Femvertisng: Breaking the Filipina Stereotypes
Women empowerment is the heart of feminist advertising or femvertising. SheKnows Media defined femvertising as “advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages, and imagery to empower women and girls (Flom, 2014).”
Internationally, one of the most popular femvertising campaigns is Dove’s Real Beauty, which emphasizes natural beauty instead of perfect curves and shapes. Its success is being rooted in the fact that female audiences would rather watch women with whom they can identify rather than those they cannot (Wolska, 2011). Other impactful femvertising campaigns in the world are Always’ #LikeAGirl and Verizon’s Inspire Her Mind (Flom, 2014).
While it’s still a relatively new and emerging trend, femvertising has garnered positive feedback from its audience mainly from female viewers. An international survey showed that 51 percent of women like pro-female ads that focus on gender-equality while 71 percent of respondents think brands must be responsible in promoting positive messages to women and girls through advertising. Femvertising were also proven beneficial to advertisers as 52 percent of women asked had purchased a product due to the brand’s positive portrayal of women (Bahadur, 2014).
Locally, one perfect example is the Whip It campaign by Pantene Philippines, which addresses sexist stereotypes in workplace, encouraging Filipinas to dismiss the labels that are holding them back from achieving success, happiness and fulfilment in life. The online video ad was a big hit. It became so viral on social media and gained much attention from the international audience due to its powerful message (Cantor, 2013).
But while it gained rave reviews globally, the ad campaign was also bashed by feminist critics for using feminism to sell. Katy Waldman (2013) of Slate.com said in her online article that the ad campaign equates challenging sexism and gender stereotypes to buying a shampoo. Others critics said that the ad is promoting an arbitrary and unfair beauty ideal which undermines its pro-woman message (Merryweather, 2014). But whether or not the feminist approach is profit-driven, the significance of feminist ads like Pantene’s is that woman-empowering messages are being conveyed in influential platforms that are reaching a wide audience. Not many ads, local or international, have the spirit to do this.
Pantene’s ad campaign is only making rounds on social media and tri-media for its promotion. While it could have been an ideal subject for the analysis intended for this article, it does not leverage outdoor advertising or billboard ads to the best of the author’s knowledge and research. In addition, the author was not able to find other billboard ad campaigns that depict Filipinas with an empowered image or those that address women stereotypes. This, however, does not conclude that no pro-woman billboard ad aimed at empowering Filipinas exists in the local scene. But this could mean that there is a clear lack of it. With this, we can infer that billboard ads containing Filipina stereotypes overpopulate those that oppose them, and this needs attention.
A Critique on the Filipina Image in Local Billboard Ads
Feminism exists because this sexist world needs a rethinking. Quindoza-Santiago (1996) summarized three points why the feminist thought deserves to prosper in the Philippines. One is that the innate strength, firmness and creativity of Filipinas, which originated from pre-colonial times wherein they used to equal rights and high status, remain despite the changed concept of womanhood promoted by colonizers. Secondly, the subordinate position of women in many aspects of national life continues to prevail as strengthened by stereotypes and idealizations of motherhood and virginity. And despite various movements to break stereotypical images and concepts of woman, they still survive.
But to break these women stereotypes in our land is not a mission of Filipinas alone. In her feminist speech as the new U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson emphasized gender inequality as men’s concern too and highlighted their role in a solidarity movement by inviting them to become advocates too (Robinson, 2014). Thus, empowering women and addressing issues about gender inequality and Filipina stereotypes have to be a collective effort of every Filipino – both women and men.
The same goes with the advertising scene. Dismantling stereotypical portrayals of Filipinas in local ads is a responsibility of both the audience and the advertisers. Pieter Fourie and Beschara Karam (2007) suggested ways on how to change stereotypes which an individual as well as media practitioners including advertisers can do. They said that individuals and practitioners must be: critical of their own views; sensitive towards the feelings of others; and be aware of the possible harm their views and perceptions can cause to others (Fourie & Karam, 2007).
It is important to note that advertising did not invent these stereotypical portrayals of Filipinas. It, however, plays a huge role in maintaining and strengthening these image constructions in the society (Tomasik, 2012). This is where femvertising enters the story.
Certainly, femvertising has its own merits. It opens new doors of hope to women imprisoned in stereotypes. It serves as a source of women empowerment when inspiring messages are being channelled on a large scale like billboards. However, there is an apparent lack of femvertising presence in the Philippines including outdoor advertising like billboards which are seen by a large population of motorists and commuters daily. This tells a lot about us as Filipinos, a nation and a society. The prevalence of Filipina stereotypes and lack of women empowerment messages in local advertising tell a lot about how we perceive and treat our women. Thus, this presents a challenge to local advertisers to be part of the worldwide effort to break popular women stereotypes or even spread awareness of the issue. Given their wide audience reach and influence locally, their impact on Filipinas and the entire nation, when pro-woman messages are conveyed in a commendable fashion, would be immense.
But while femvertising is promising, this new advertising technique also requires rethinking and assessment. The advocacy must go beyond the usual platforms or ads. One way to do this it to practice the “walk the walk and talk the talk” concept suggested by panellists of AdWeek 2014, an annual gathering of marketing and communications leaders in the world. Here, companies and advertisers are encouraged to extend the responsibility by supporting and donating to women empowerment organizations (Bahadur, 2014). This way, consumers and critiques will not see the advocacy as a shady advertising tactic to ride the trend and use feminist ideas to sell. This way, the advocacy will appear genuine and sincere. Such are significant because in a country like the Philippines where mass media audience and netizens are so opinionated, authenticity and sincerity are valued.
Perhaps putting an end to the practice of stereotyping Filipinas in billboard ads or advertising in general is a long journey. The good news is that it has begun. The rise of femvertising is a hope to emancipate Filipinas from the cage of stereotypes, particularly the negative ones, in the advertising scene. Perhaps one can say that these popular women stereotypes are already normal in local billboard ads, but it cannot be without end. Advertising has the capability to help break this prevalent practice, redefine the Filipina image and turn the tables into making the empowered women the new normal.
All these will not be possible if the people do not cooperate. To fulfill the mission to break gender stereotypes, Malgorzata Wolska (2011) said that the society must develop a certain level of social readiness. She added that attempts to dismantle stereotypes will affect a well-entrenched knowledge about the world. This emphasizes the people’s openness to change. If each and every Filipino is not ready for change then no attempt to end these Filipina stereotypes in local billboard ads or mass media in general will be effective. No advertising technique or feminist movement will be influential enough to break what needs to be broken.
We have a past to go back to. We have a past where Filipinas are not prisoners of gender stereotyping or sexism. Thus, in another perspective, ending these Filipina stereotypes is not just an invitation to change. It is a revival of the empowered Filipina image long buried in the past. We can start where it all began because what’s normal now cannot remain normal forever.
With everything that was explained and analyzed, the author wishes to reiterate the question asked in the beginning of this article. How do you define a Filipina?
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