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Dear Marketers: Stop Selling Self-Esteem

If you want your marketing campaign to reach several thousand people per day, buying ad space in a large metro area is probably your best bet. In an era where it is nearly impossible to check one’s email without being bombarded with ads, (in-app and website ad space! junk mail! sponsored content!) adverts in the form of giant billboards and subway posters are the least intrusive methods of advertising. These ads might be the most forgettable you encounter and still have an impact on your subconscious, silently encouraging your brain to buy that specific brand or product the next time you’re out shopping.

But marketing arbitrary goods and services to everyone simply isn’t enough, not when data mining can keep footprints of your spending habits and browsing history to send you specially catered information tailored to your specific interests. It’s no longer just about making junky fast food look more appealing than what a competitor offers, it’s about creating a brand identity and forging an emotional connection with your customers.

The unfortunate side effect of Big Data and its relatively harmless suggestions is that it isn’t satisfied until it knows the precise science behind your purchases and how to best manipulate it to turn a profit. It wants to prey on consumer insecurities by analyzing when they are most vulnerable and therefore more likely to buy certain products.

If that sounds too conspiracy-theorist for you, take a peek at the world’s worst market study posted earlier this month on AdWeek. The article starts, “Marketers should take note,” followed by a cute and horribly depressing infographic compiled from a PHD study that encourages marketers to capitalize on times when women feel worst about their body image in order to solicit beauty products and advice. The result is a giant visual laying out a typical woman’s emotional insecurity relating her body image to her capabilities and how to best turn it into dollar signs. Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty.

As the study explains, “Monday becomes the day to encourage the beauty product consumer to get going and feel beautiful again, so marketing messages should focus on feeling smart, instant beauty/fashion fixes, and getting things planned and done. Concentrate media during prime vulnerability moments, aligning with content involving tips and tricks, instant beauty rescues, dressing for the success, getting organized for the week and empowering stories.”

With this information, it’s possible to analyze how we as adults process such information and subsequently allow us to take conscious steps to moderate our exposure or learn to minimize the damage caused. But the underlying problem spans much deeper since the societal pressure that causes women to be painfully aware of their appearance at all times doesn’t have an age restriction. Adults within a certain bracket might be the target demographic for predatory advertising, but they aren’t the only group internalizing the harmful messages. Little girls are being conditioned to view their body critically before they reach puberty. The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing showed that 80 percent of girls as young as 10 were afraid of being fat, and that their self-esteem drops significantly by the age 12 due to negative body image.

This is the impetus behind NYC Girls Project, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest public health campaign, which rallies against unattainable standards of beauty projected by the fashion and beauty industry. The project features images of 21 young girls with the wording, “I’m a girl. I’m beautiful the way I am.” in large lettering and will appear mostly on buses and subways. It will also sponsor a fitness program and self-esteem workshops through after-school events.

“I think being a woman in this society, it’s sort of impossible to not be aware of the pressures there are around appearance, around weight, around trying to always look a certain way,” Samantha Levine, project director and deputy press secretary to Bloomberg, said.

The goal is to help young girls grow up in a positive environment where they encouraged to explore their interests develop core values removed from the implication that their worth to society is attributed to their appearance.

The idea behind the campaign is laudable. It’s important to foster a healthy body image at a young age and even better to see a large city take a proactive stance; however, the grim reality is that companies are concerned about their bottom line, not the consumer’s. As a child raised through positive assurance, I know personally that it takes more than encouragement and affirmation to cultivate a healthy relationship with your body. Peers, strangers, the media—literally everyone—has commentary about bodies that don’t belong to them, and society says that’s absolutely okay. As long as insecurity remains an effective marketing strategy, we’ll continue glamorizing impossible beauty standards that leave us prioritizing our appearance over all other aspects of life.

Also posted over at Feminspire! Go join in on the discussion!

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