A Look at the Relationship Between Women and Advertising in the Context of Dieting Products in 20th Century America and 21st Century South Korea.


The relationship between advertiser and consumer is often complex and by no means harmonious. This is particularly true when looking at examples of food and dieting advertising targeted at women. I will be attempting to show the overall lack of consumer power that this demographic displays by illustrating the overwhelming success of the advertising industry in persuading women to buy food and dieting products.  Ultimately, I am arguing that although there are examples of consumer power in this context, the extent of that power is very limited and the influence of advertising is so pervasive that consumers are often powerless against it, if they even realise it is happening.

Food is love, apparently.

I will begin by looking at examples in the U.S.A. throughout the 20th century, which were instrumental in setting the standard and style of advertising prevalent in the West today. This will help me understand why food advertisers have had an overwhelming tendency to focus on women, specifically those from the middle and upper classes[1] and the approaches they believed to be most effective when doing so.  However, advertising and consumer culture has become such a ubiquitous part of most modern Western societies that it is often difficult to identify the causal links between advertisements and consumer response, as there are often other influences at play.

Because of this, I will be focusing the body of this essay on the advertiser-consumer relationship in South Korea; a country that has experienced a dramatic modernization process in the last forty years and has consequently provided many opportunities for sociological study.  For the last thirty years South Korea has experienced unusually high economic growth[2], (and the economy has continued to grow in 2009, albeit at a slower rate, despite a reversing global trend[3]), and has embraced some aspects of Western consumer culture enthusiastically.  For example the annual advertising spend within the country increased nearly threefold between 1986-96.[4] Of course, it is still problematic to isolate the stages between the advertising of a product and consumer spending, but by analysing examples I will attempt to demonstrate how food and dieting advertisements directly influence the body image and eating habits of South Korean women.

The 20th century began with an explosion in advertising culture throughout the West, but  primarily the U.S.A., enabled partially by the continual advancements in media and technology (billboards, radio, increasing numbers of newspapers and magazines, and of course television). The food industry in particular was notable for its attempts to cultivate a newer, assertive style of advertising and it became part of an intense discourse on how best to catch the attention of the consumer. Furthermore, ‘the rhetoric in [this] popular discourse remained located in the traditional values and expectations about gender.’[5] Women were seen as the primary consumers of food and household products, as they were responsible for taking care of and feeding their families.  They were also seen as much more predictable[6] than the male consumer and more easily influenced by ads.[7] In addition, the vast majority of advertisers, at least throughout the first half of the 20th century, were white males.  Because of traditionally conservative attitudes at that time, it would have been second nature for many men to connect women with the housewife role.  All these factors shaped the way women were portrayed in food advertisements.

Throughout WWI, as men continued to be drafted, reports began to surface that a third of men were actually ‘unfit for service’. Food advertising campaigns responded by starting ‘a crusade against malnutrition’[8] and encouraged women to believe the solution to their husbands health problems simply lay in the consumption of these so-called health foods.  Ads would even encourage women to ‘diagnose’ whatever health problem a family member may be suffering from and find the ‘treatment’ in the advertised food product. Furthermore, advertisers did not just appeal to a woman’s desire to care for and please her family with their portrayals of a ‘super housewife’ ideal, but they also sought to appeal to a woman’s own vanities.  ‘Advertisers wanted women to connect their product with a woman’s appearance’, for example ‘a  1926 Grape Nuts ad which featured an attractive woman draped in a nightgown…made broad promises about the food’s properties and its ability “to protect health and beauty by properly nourishing the body.”’[9] Taking this idea even further a Coco malt campaign in 1947 attempted to focus on a mother’s desire to have attractive children by asking them, “when she grows up, will your little girl have lovely legs?”[10]

However, as society began to change there were protests about this style of advertising. Following the Suffragette movement and a temporary increase of women in the workforce, which then continued to grow after WW2, women often became very dissatisfied with this portrayal of themselves. A growing movement of female consumers began, that fought for increased respect and honesty from food advertisers.  ‘Many [advertisers] found themselves awakened to women’s power as they staged boycotts, pushed for stronger laws and exposed fraud.’[11] This consumer movement was partially responsible for encouraging the government to impose much stricter legislation on the meat industry and more transparency in the production process.[12]

Despite a small number in the advertising industry who expressed a need to ‘recognise the consumer movement as a legitimate effort…and cooperate in the solution of the problems it has given rise to,’ the vast majority did not wish to.  Consequently, the industry affected very little real change in their advertisements or their style of marketing.  In fact, in response to women’s protests about the unrealistic portrayal of women in ads, many in the industry saw an opportunity ‘to speak to and perhaps exacerbate angst that women felt about their inability to be “superwomen.”[13] This is crucial as it illustrates how advertisers were able to not only survive an example of consumer power, but they were even able to turn it to their advantage, ultimately rendering the intentions of such consumers largely ineffective.  Moreover, this trend in advertising of promoting products to combat the very insecurities in women that advertisers were exacerbating, (and sometimes even creating) is a common part of advertising culture in the U.S.A and much of the West today.

I will now consider the significance of food advertising in South Korea.  What initially interested me in the Korean industry was the unusual paradox of the country’s very low obesity rate; to wit, it was placed 52nd (last) in an international meta-analysis of national obesity rates[14] and yet it is also home to a dieting and health food industry worth approximately £522,603,352.04.[15] With such a high capital value, this indicates it is an important industry. Couple this with the findings from a study on the dieting attitudes of college women -‘among [the] 22 countries surveyed, Korean college women were the most zealous about dieting, despite being the slimmest,’-  and it raises the questions – what is different in Korea, and what is the root of such contradictions?

I have already discussed the tendency in advertising for women to be seen as easily manipulated and persuaded and therefore perfect targets for the advertising industry.  This stigma is now being challenged in a lot of Western countries, partially owing to increasing numbers of women in the workforce and advertising industry. In contrast, the number of Korean women in the workforce is low,[16] let alone those in the advertising industry, and thus the traditional representation of women is only just beginning to be challenged.

I believe there are several main factors that facilitate the direct influence the advertising industry has on the body image and eating habits of South Korean women. Firstly, although to explain all of Korean culture through its’ Confucian roots would be highly simplistic, it nevertheless plays a large part in the shaping of contemporary society. Confucian ideals first came to Korea from China in (date) and are a crucial influence on the strongly patriarchal and conformist tradition in the country. This conformist ideal essentially makes the advertiser’s job that much simpler.  If a food or drink is promoted by a famous celebrity who, in the ad, espouses slimness, continual dieting as an accepted (and even normal) eating method, and one accepted body ideal, then this is what consumers will conform to; thereby increasing the likelihood of sustained sales for that product. As this is the ideal for women, then those in the spotlight, singers, actresses etc, will be the first to pursue this image, especially as they are the women being used in advertising campaigns in the first place, and then women watching at home may associate having such a slim figure with wealth and success, becoming even more likely to succumb to the ideal. As the beauty ideal becomes more standardized, there will be very few other representations of the female figure for women to see. Thus the pressure to conform becomes even greater; it becomes a vicious circle.  I am not arguing that this model only applies to Korean society; we see examples of it every day in the West with products endorsed by celebrities, and beauty magazines which feature mostly standardized versions of the female body (the ‘Perfect 10’ in American and British culture).  Indeed, the West is where modern celebrity culture began.  However, I am proposing that a society such as Korea provides the perfect cultural framework for this style of advertising to be successful. The above factors, combined with the tendency in the Korean school system to descry critical thinking,[17] [18] in line with the patriarchal tradition of never questioning one’s elders, may mean that the average Korean woman can be highly receptive to what she sees in advertisements.  All of these factors help to provide an environment where consumer culture can really flourish, often undermining consumer power and lessening the likelihood of the public going against advertising trends.

Conversely, following this logic, if there was an example of an advertising campaign being publicly condemned because it did not espouse cultural norms –it was too racy or sexualised for example- then the resultant consumer backlash could be huge and it would undoubtedly be hard for any product to be successful under such conditions.

Next, there are some instances of dieting and health food advertising.  A good example is the many black tea-drinks and black bean tea-drinks which have become a common feature in the Korean market over the last few years.  An early example was Donga-Otsuka’s ‘Black Bean Terra’ drink which started a trend of ‘pleasant blended tea-drinks marketed to women in their 20s, who naturally have a lot of interest in dieting and their appearance.’[19] For their advertising campaign they featured Lee Hyori, an extremely famous singer in Korea, often compared to Britney spears (perhaps in her earlier years!) Later products included ‘Namyang’s ‘Make Your Body Lighter Time 17 Tea’ and Gwangdong’s ‘Gwangdong Corn Cob Roots[20] drink.  All of these products, and many others on the market, contain a substance known as, “L-Keratin, which helps to burn fat, … giving these drinks a very strong appeal to young women. Each company is putting a lot of effort into using famous stars to market their products, such as Jun Ji-hyun for Namyang and Kim Tae Hee for GwangDong… and each hopes to have them and their images firmly associated with their brands by consumers.”[21] This is in line with the model proposed in the previous paragraph and highlights the importance companies place on the ‘celebrity role’ in the advertising process.

Lee Hyori in a completely non-sexualised Soju Ad…

Now, consider an advertising campaign for the popular alcoholic drink, soju (similar to vodka and widely consumed in Korea). Obviously, no alcoholic drink is really going to provide many health benefits, and it certainly will not benefit the waistline, but that doesn’t stop it being advertised to the contrary.  Once again, singer Lee Hyori spearheads the campaign for Lotte Liquor BG’s ‘Cheoumcheorum[22]’, it is worth mentioning that part of the reason Hyori is famous in the first place is because of her fantastic figure and slim waistline in particular. The ad features Hyori posing with a bottle of Cheoumcheorum in one hand, the other on her hip, whilst wearing low-rise jeans and a cropped top, all causing the viewer to focus exclusively on her navel region.  The nuance of the ad seems to be equating lower alcohol content soju brands such as Cheoumcheorum, with the acquisition of a slimmer waistline.[23]

So what are the consequences of ads such as these and what is the consumer response? Cheoumcheorum is a popular brand and its sales appear to be continuing well, although available data[24] does not point to any rise in sales since this ad was shown.  Likewise, all of the tea products I mentioned continue to sell well, but not outstandingly. However, it is a highly competitive market; and in any case I would argue that unless these products were obvious market failures, their sales are not the only aspect to consider. The products I have mentioned are merely examples and there are many others in the market with very similar advertising campaigns. The relevance of this is that it results in these types of images and messages in ads being the standard -the images that women will be seeing in magazines, and on TV and billboards etc.  The advertisers are effectively controlling the way women are perceived, by women and men alike, and they are becoming extremely influential in doing so.

Although I consider advertising to be a highly significant factor in explaining women’s attitudes to their bodies in Korea and a crucial aspect in explaining the scarcity of consumer power displayed by women, there are other factors that contribute to the situation. These factors are not the focus of this essay so I cannot analyse every aspect but I shall attempt to determine their significance.  The role of the traditional diet in Korea cannot be ignored.  As is the case with much of traditional Japanese and Chinese food, the fat content is considerably lower than that of many Western foods, and rice is a staple of the diet in all three countries. This may play a big part in explaining why Korean women are normally so slim. However, it most certainly doesn’t explain the presence of a multi-million dieting industry, in fact it makes it even more puzzling. Why else would Korean women be so concerned with dieting if successful advertising was not at least a significant influence (if not the most) on them?

Nonetheless, there is another factor that is instrumental in explaining women’s body images, something that is an intrinsic part of contemporary Korean society; namely, the significance of the body in representing a person’s internal character.  It is not only women who feel the need to control their body image, men do it too.  As Kim Eun-Shil discusses in The Politics of the Body in Contemporary Korea, ‘with modernization, the body became an object of political control.’[25] The meaning of this is that the body can be used as a form of expression; be it of shame, penance, protest or defiance.  Furthermore, in Korea, a woman’s identity ‘is inextricably linked to her appearance’ and, to acquire ‘feminine subjectivity women often begin to modify their appearance through diet and exercise.’[26]

This provides a useful insight on the Korean character and yet, I would argue, it only adds to the significance of advertising.  As advertisers exacerbated women’s fears over their ability to be ‘the super housewife’ figure in America, so advertisers in Korea  can constantly emphasise the importance of external appearances and play on the insecurities of women to match up to the standardized body ideal.  This is not a new concept in itself, but if the external appearance of a person plays a particularly significant role in Korean society, then it is much easier to sell products on this basis.

In conclusion, I have observed theories of advertising prevalent in the U.S.A throughout the 20th century in an effort to better understand the relationship between advertiser and consumer.  I have seen that there is a strong tradition among food advertisers to focus on women, and the tendency advertisers have to exacerbate the insecurities of the consumer to increase sales of a product.  This tendency is also present in South Korean food and diet advertising.  Furthermore, I think when looking at the Korean industry it becomes easier to identify some direct links between advertisement and consumer response. It can certainly be argued that advertisements in Korea have a highly significant influence on women’s body image and eating habits.  Moreover, I believe the ‘perfect cultural framework’ of Korea that I proposed is instrumental in decreasing consumer awareness and thereby reducing consumer power, (perhaps to a greater extent than in America.) Ultimately, although examples of consumer power do exist, they are severely limited, and not able to compete with the highly structured and pervasive nature of the food advertising industry in both America and South Korea.

In addition to the references below I would like to acknowledge one author in particular, James Turnbull over at The Grand Narrative http://thegrandnarrative.wordpress.com whose in-depth knowledge and insight into South Korean consumer culture provided much of the inspiration for this essay.


[1] Food Is Love, Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, Parkin, Katherine. Pg 12.

[2] CIA world factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ks.html.

[3] South Korea’s GDP to Slow to 2% in 2009. http://www.topnews.in/south-koreas-gdp-growth-slow-2-cent-2009-297801.

[4] Food in Society, Atkins, Peter and Bowler, Ian. Pg 290.

[5] Food Is Love, Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, Parkin, Katherine. Pg 21.

[6] Although some industry insiders questioned this belief, it was held by the majority of the men working in food advertising.

[7] Food Is Love, Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, Parkin, Katherine. Pg 15.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Food Is Love, Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, Parkin, Katherine. Pg 170.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Food Is Love, Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, Parkin, Katherine. Pg 19.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Food Is Love, Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, Parkin, Katherine. Pg 23.

[14]Beauty Will Save You, the Myth and Ritual of Dieting in Korean Society, Kim, Eun-shil. http://www.ekoreajournal.net/free_pdf/4702/2PSU.PDF.  pg42.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Korea has the lowest female workforce participation rate in the OECD. http://www.oecd.org/document/0/0,3343,en_2649_34605_41834688_1_1_1_1,00.html.

[17] I should point out this lack of critical thinking is a result of always learning by rote and not questioning, it is NOT an insinuation that Korean school children do not work hard, most of them have school days from 7am until at least 9 or 10pm.

[18] Why Has the Critical Thinking Movement Not Come to Korea? McGuire, John. http://www.springerlink.com/content/e0026674q1kj8771/fulltext.pdf.

[19] Gendered Tea-drink Advertising in South Korea, Turnull, James. http://thegrandnarrative.wordpress.com/2009/11/06/korea-tea-advertising-gender/

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] A brand of soju.

[23] Lotte Hits Below the Belt to Score Instant Success, Han, Jane. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/biz/2009/08/123_49902.html.

[24] Cheoumcheorum sales mentioned in an international marketing report. http://209.85.229.132/search?q=cache:-u73jerdVjkJ:www.scribd.com/doc/22137464/null+Lotte+Liquor+BG+Cheoumcheorum+sales&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk.

[25] The Politics of the Body in Contemporary Korea, Kim, Eun-Shil. http://www.ekoreajournal.net/free_pdf/4903/1KES.PDF.

[26] Ibid.

One response to “A Look at the Relationship Between Women and Advertising in the Context of Dieting Products in 20th Century America and 21st Century South Korea.

  1. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
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    Christian, iwspo.net

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