Buy, buy, baby: What washes whiter, cleans brighter and gasps at food mixers? The advertising mum, that's what. Siobhan Dolan finds her in Bradford

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The Independent Culture
In last year's Vauxhall Corsa campaign, which used supermodels including Naomi Campbell, the car is portrayed as being superior even to a supermodel . . . and they're supposed to be perfect.' Sarah Venables, a design student, is reflecting on the role of women in advertising. Her exhibition, 'Buying the Body', a collage of magazine cuttings interwoven with text, considers the portrayal of women in advertising since the 1970s and opens in Manchester this weekend.

In Bradford, meanwhile, at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Action Replay theatre company, inspired by the museum's archive of 14,000 adverts, addresses similar issues in its play Now You're Engaged and through workshops in the museum and in local schools.

The piece, written by Simon Stallworthy, follows a 17-year-old student on a placement at a London ad agency. It is planning its pitch for a new account, 'Micro a la Carte, a new range of traditional stews and hotpots in biodegradable, mock-earthenware pots'. Adverts from the museum's collection form a backdrop to the action.

It is a light-hearted approach, but Andrew Ashmore of Action Replay insists that the play is designed to prompt discussion of the issues involved. 'I'm glad it's not thrashing out a strident argument,' he says. 'What we've done is to write a piece that, through the characters, gives four different perspectives on the subject. The play doesn't say 'This is the answer,' but asks, 'What do you think?'. '

Action Replay's workshops at local schools have proved particularly successful. 'We talk to 16- and 17-year-olds about the ads they've seen, and how ads work in general, and then we encourage them to make up some examples of their own.

'It's amazing how commercially literate they are. You could almost say that ads are their art form. But they also like to reverse the stereotypes. One group imagined a chap driving a car and two girls in school uniform saying, 'I wouldn't mind a bit of that'. He stops, goes to open the door, and they drive off in his car.'

For Ashmore, the project's fascination is that it highlights how advertising has acted as a 'barometer of social trends'. He cites the earliest advertisement featured in the play, intended to sell the Kenwood Chef in 1957. 'Each time the Chef did a new thing, the woman demonstrating it would go 'Ooh, it can extract all the juice from an orange. Ooh, it can open a can. Ah . . .' and so on. It was a wonderfully dated approach. At the end, when the woman asks, 'Is there anything the Kenwood Chef can't do?', a male voice booms out, 'Yes, it can't make your husband buy you one'. '

Ashmore welcomes the stronger contemporary woman in advertising, such as the go-ahead company chairwoman in Kenco's coffee ads. But he insists that there is also a danger in the new image. 'It's creating a new stereotype, a terrifying woman who is only a real woman if she is incredibly successful at work and very beautiful. This could be as damaging to women as to say they have no brains.'

So have the advertisers simply switched one impossible role- model for another? Sarah Venables is pleased that characters such as Kenco's coffee woman are being given a voice, but insists that there is still a long way to go. 'The latest Wonderbra ad proclaims 'Look me in the eyes and tell me that you love me' from a woman with massive boobs. The Vauxhall Corsa ads were a throwback to the 1970s, when Pirelli draped women across motorbikes.

'Fairy (Liquid) may have dispensed with the 'Hands that do dishes' Fairy-mum slogan and replaced it with men washing up,' Ashmore says, 'but while adverts are becoming more refined and subtle, they still deal in sterotypes. If you're selling mass products, you have to.'

'Buying the Body', Pankhurst Centre, 60-62 Nelson St, Manchester to 30 Mar. 'Now You're Engaged', National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford to 12 Mar

(Photograph omitted)