Culture and "the Gaze" in Advertising

Updated on March 27, 2018
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

What is Culture?

Culture is a concept that has developed numerous meanings throughout history. In our society today, most refer to culture in terms of tradition, religion, or customs held by people in particular societies. However, the term is broader and far more complex than that. A cultural formation is a configuration of practices enacted across space and time: ‘a cultural formation describes the lines that distribute, place and connect cultural practices, effects and social groups’ (Grossberg, p. 71). Cultural formations ‘transcend’ social contexts—people from different backgrounds and localities sharing the same thing, even though they may never meet ‘in the flesh.’ What binds them together is their sharing of the same cultural experience. Culture is the possibilities that humans make for themselves together through mediated practices of self-identification, value affirmation and representation.

Others have called defined culture as so:

[Culture] is a network of representations – texts, images, talk, codes of behaviour, and the narrative structures organising these – which shapes every aspect of social life. (Frow and Morris, p. 8)

The ensemble of social processes by which meanings are produced, circulated and exchanged. (Thwaites et. al. p. 1)

In essence, culture is a sharing of meaning.

Culture is both a mediated set of representations of what we imagine ourselves to be (our desires) as well as a set of practices where we ‘become’ what we desire to be.

What is Culture?

How is Culture Developed?

Culture is the end result of meanings that are produced, circulated and exchanged in order to develop or challenge identities and values within and across social contexts. Culture is us when we see others in terms of what we imagine or desire ourselves to be. We do culture when we go to the movies, a nightclub, exercise at the gym, or have a meal at a fast food outlet, as a way of defining ourselves—as a cultural practice.

Rather, we need to think of culture as something that structures our everyday life in the same way that language structures the possibilities for us to speak, write and communicate with one another (a language structure always precedes any individual linguistic act—it is always in place, making any act of speech or writing possible).

Culture can be thought of like this: an embodied set of conventions and structures that we reproduce routinely in our everyday lives.

We need to think of culture in terms of this broader circulation of fantasies and fantastic scenes no matter how lifelike they seem—of desires for future being. These desires are not derived simply from our own inner feelings but come to us from the meanings that we share with others.

Consumer desire is always produced collectively as part of a more general relation with social and economic factors. The cultural imaginary is this sense of sharing relations with others that are not present to us in any specific social context.

What is Meaning?

Meaning is the way we make sense of something. We do this through signs (words, utterances, symbols, indexes, images, gestures). Meaning is embodied signification: the sense of what we know or feel to be so (e.g. when we say ‘that makes sense’).

Culture in Advertisements

Advertisements are indicators of the way social relations are formed through desire. This is often the desire for an object or experience, to fill a lack in one’s life. Desire relates to lack: we desire something because we feel lacking in some way. Advertisements play on this sense of lack by triggering a desire for some future state where the lack will be overcome. Fantasy is another name for cultural imagination. The function of advertising is to provide us with a fantasy where we can imagine our desires being fulfilled.

An image embodies a way of seeing. We don’t simply look at images as if we (the viewer) were separate from them; rather we are embodied into the image through its way of seeing, its mode of address as a visual appearance.

Many advertisements present images of beautiful people looking either away or out over you, thereby producing feelings of admiration, adoration or envy, and positioning the one who has these feelings (the viewer) as lacking.

Pleasure is the sense we have of fulfilling our desires. When we desire something, we ‘see’ this thing not as it really is, but in terms of our desire.

The product we intend to buy becomes the thing we have to satisfy our desire. The product becomes the object of our desire. It lures us to this fabricated sense of reality. Customers who want a certain object realises they are lacking a lack of fulfilment that object could fill, so they attempt to seek ways to obtain it. For example, if a person is self-conscious about their appearance, they will try to obtain objects to achieve the desired look. They don't long for the lipstick or the mascara themselves, but rather for the confidence and look they are trying to achieve. Often, these desires seem out of reach.

What is the Mode of Address?

Mode of Address simply means how the text speaks to the audience and involves them. It also refers to how a text influences the audience. For example, a direct mode of address would be when a model looks directly at the audience, or the writing speaks to "you".

The Gaze in Advertisements

The gaze is a structured way of seeing that determines how someone looks at you. It positions the one who looks and the one looked at in a power relation. This power relation is based on dominance and subordination. To be looked at is to be subject to the power of the one who looks, whereas to look at someone is to submit that person to one’s power. The gaze always involves a potential exchange of looks. The gaze in advertisements is all about pleasure. More specifically, how to generate pleasure in looking.

The look or gaze constructs our sense of self. When we read a magazine we view many images in which we are invited into a fantasy world seemingly set up just for our pleasure.

Types of Gazes:

  • The motherly gaze
  • The paternal gaze
  • The police gaze
  • The medical gaze
  • The nostalgic gaze
  • The envious gaze
  • The fatherly gaze
  • The bearing-witness gaze
  • The exchange of looks
  • The absent gaze
  • The male gaze
  • The queer gaze

The Queer Gaze

A queer gaze detects ambiguity in images of sexualized male or female images, exploring the possibility that the mode of address might be open to addressee positions other than those defined by heterosexuality (Sturken and Cartwright, p. 132).

The Male Gaze

The male gaze is a gendered way of seeing that positions men to see women as objects to be looked at, while simultaneously positioning women to see themselves as these very same objects to be looked at. Pleasure for both men and women in the male gaze comes from objectifying the female body. The relation between men and women in the male gaze is a power relation, where the one who looks has power over the one looked upon. The male gaze is historically and culturally constructed in such a way that women have been obliged to submit to its authority.

Many of images containing the male gaze are voyeuristic. Not all instances of a gaze where the one looked at do not look back are voyeuristic. In many advertisements, the unreturned look can produce feelings of admiration or adoration rather than sexual pleasure on the part of the viewer.

What is Male Gaze?


1.Cultural Studies 1991, Lawrence Grossberg

2. Australian Cultural Studies 1993, John Frow and Meaghan Morris (Eds)

3.Thwaites, T., Davis, L., & Mules, W. (1994). Tools for cultural studies: an introduction. South Melbourne: Macmillan

4. Practices of Looking An Introduction to Visual Culture 2009 (Second Edition), Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, New York Oxford, Oxford University Press

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