In the latest edition of TIME magazine, there’s an interesting piece by Virginia Postrel entitled The Twisted Allure of Jihadi Glory. While it features the recent outcry over the Rolling Stone cover featuring Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, it poses a bigger picture question on the power of glamourization.
Postrel shares a quote from novelist Salman Rushdie, no stranger to controversy himself as the author of the 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. Asked about what motivates suicide bombers, Rushdie’s answer is illuminating:
Terror is glamour – not only, but also. [Terrorists] are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic… The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people’s lives.
As Postrel shares in her piece, Rushdie hits the nail on the head when it comes to how glamourizing something offers an incentive to act upon, to increase the perception of who we are and how we act, which made me think of how glamour warps our everyday lives.
The Power of Glamour
You can go back to virtually any point in history, and you’ll find countless examples of glamourizing something that was anything but.
In her piece, Postrel talks about martial glamour – or how war seemed glamourous to those that would follow in their leader’s footsteps. She talks about Achilles from ancient Greece, but you could also look to the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Tennyson, to see how war was glamourized.
Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.
Until the First World War and its huge loss of life, war was seen as a heroic endeavour. Today, we think differently – and yet, as Postrel’s piece shows, some of us don’t.
This is the problem with glamourization – how do we reel in what we encourage blithely?
The Persuasion of Hope
Marketers and brand advertisers have been using glamour in a bid to create desire and action within their target audience for years.
Think back to the black and white movies of the 40′s, where the movie stars of yesteryear would happily smoke on-screen and be regarded as sexy and sophisticated for it. Today, we know the dangers of smoking – just over 70 years ago, it was actively encouraged.
Or look at the success of magazines like Vogue and Elle, that portray perfect women that rarely reflect society’s real women and their various shapes, sizes and lifestyles.
These examples, and others like them, build on the desire of their audience(s) to be more like the actors on screen or the models on the page, as opposed to being happy with who they are.
By tapping into this powerful hope, or desire, brands use the power of persuasion that people need to be something they’re not in order to be valued.
As Postrel shares in the TIME article, that value can come from making powerless people feel significant. In advertising and marketing, that value can come from answering the “if only” question.
- If only I had a better job;
- If only my car was as cool as my neighbours;
- If only I could look good in that tiny bikini;
- If only. If only.
The problem is, even those we aspire to be like aren’t perfect. Magazines take perfectly good-looking people and airbrush them to an even higher plane of “perfection”. Movies use focus filters and post-production effects to showcase their stars in the best light.
By creating an unrealistic desire, we’ve created a culture of hope that can never be met – at least, not until the next campaign where we can start it all over again.
Realism and Reclamation
The problem, of course, is that to deny hope, we deny growth and our future selves. Why shouldn’t we want to reach for something we don’t have, or be like someone we admire?
The thing is, we don’t need to deny ourselves. We should do all these things, and more. But we should do it realistically.
We need to stop glamourizing triviality as being worthwhile. We need to stop building and idolizing false heroes. We need to stop promoting the idea that unrealistic imagery is the norm. We need to stop the encouragement of hopes and dreams as something that can be bought.
Individually and in a wider context, we need to understand that glamour is only a facade of what realism truly is. To continue to glamourize our perfect selves doesn’t help us grow – it merely stunts us, and that benefits no-one.
It’s not as if we need to play the glamour card, either.
- The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has won widespread praise for the way it showcases the beauty of women in all their natural sizes;
- UK retail chain Debenhams has invoked a ban on airbrushing models for their promotional materials;
- Lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan are calling for clothes manufacturers to stop the obsession with unrealistic sizes.
These are important steps from the types of companies on the front line that can truly initiate a different way of thinking. But they’re just the first steps.
As marketers, we need to be able to instil desire without playing the cheap “be better than you are” line. As businesses, we need to be more realistic on who our target audiences are and what they really feel, and need.
Hopes and dreams are one thing. Selling hopes and dreams is another, and it’s the latter that can make the biggest leap to connecting the two together.
It’s time to see who’s up to the challenge.
image: Tor Lillqvist