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You Have a Problem, We Have the Solution

As Coupland (2009: 955) remarked in an exploration of the representation of ageing in (lifestyle) magazines, the problem/solution format is commonplace and is “used in most lifestyle magazines [which] embed solutions in specifically marketed patterns of consumption: the solutions have to be bought”. Not surprisingly, then, Ringrow (2016: 31) also found the problem/solution pattern in her analysis of French and English cosmetic adverts where beauty products offer ‘solutions’ to the many - socially constructed - ‘problems’ that consumers are facing. Although the supposed problem or issue is not always articulated explicitly, some adverts for cosmetic procedures - particularly in the 2001 and 2006 magazine data - identify ‘problem areas’ (e.g. see Cosmo February 2001: 201; FHM June 2001: 237) or ask the question ‘do you have a problem with...’, which is followed by a long list of possible ‘ailments’5 (e.g. Cosmo February 2001: 204).

In the Gay Times, hair loss in particular is framed as a major issue for men; in an advert for The Belgravia Centre, for example, the problem (‘hair loss’) and the solution (‘Belgravia’) are both mentioned explicitly. While hair loss is presented as (one of) the main appearance-based concerns for men, the adverts in women’s lifestyle magazines frame (the appearance of) ageing as a woman’s main worry6. As Coupland (2007: 37, 57) found, the ageing process is equated with the appearance of ageing, which is “pathologised” or even “vilified”. Moreover, this pathologisation of ageing renders the physical, visible signs of the ageing process a problem which can be countered, or at least concealed, by the many “pharmaceutical-sounding creams, lotions and serums offered [in adverts]” (ibid: 45).

During the data analysis, it quickly became clear that Marie Claire in particular includes many adverts for ageing-related services and products - 24% (N=55) of all adverts for (other) beauty products/services promote ‘anti-ageing’ or ‘age-defying’ products. This result is hardly surprising when considering the magazine’s brand identity and target audience, which is slightly older than the average Cosmo reader. However, despite targeting younger readers, 11% (N=23) of beauty adverts in Cosmo also promote ageing-related products; after all, dermatologists are now recommending the prevention of wrinkles (Russo, 2018). Interestingly, there are far fewer adverts for anti-ageing products in the men’s lifestyle magazines - none of the adverts for (other) beauty products/services in FHM refer to ageing and the anti-ageing products advertised in the Gay Times are never the sole or even main focus of the advert.

Echoing Coupland’s (2007: 56) findings, it seems that adverts in the men’s magazines construct “the signs of ageing ... [as] appearing, and mattering, much later in the lifespan”, if at all, for men. Instead of marketing anti-ageing products, grooming brands in men’s magazines promote products that ‘fight’ signs of fatigue and ‘revive’ or ‘energise’ skin (cf. Ringrow 2016). Although this discourse related to energy and looking awake is relatively more common in men’s magazines, it can also be found in some of the adverts in women’s magazines7.

The Choice Is Yours

In order for the problem/solution format to be effective, consumers must be convinced that they are individually responsible for - and able to - change to overcome a particular issue (crucially, with the help of a product or service). The first step in this persuasion process is to appeal to an individualised consumer through interrogatives, imperatives, and the ubiquitous use of ‘you’ (see Cook 2001; Machin & Van Leeuwen 2005). Following this, the consumer is empowered in various ways as (s)he is encouraged to ‘take action’ and be(come), or remain, ‘in control’. This empowerment of the consumer can also be found in cosmetic surgery rhetoric as it promises the consumer-patient “newfound agency and control” through participating in cosmetic procedures (Harris-Moore 2014: 27).

Corresponding to the wider trend in women’s magazines to emphasise ‘powerful’, ‘confident’ women who are able to decide for themselves, both the adverts for cosmetic procedures and those for beauty products/services in Cosmo and Marie Claire underline the empowerment of the consumer through highlighting the choices available and the power to take control8. Moreover, a promotion for GC Aesthetics in Red (June 2014: 177) emphasises how “a woman should feel powerful and in control... It’s your body, so the only real consideration is how a breast enlargement will make you feel” (emphasis in the original). The promotional feature also underlines how “we [the experts at GC Aesthetics, ed.] want women to make the best decisions for themselves, without being swayed by other people, society or the media”, a statement which seems paradoxical in light of its placement.

In addition to the explicit in-copy references to the ‘(em)power(ment)’ theme, an advert for Slendertone, a brand which sells “body toning technology”, includes both a written and a visual representation of the theme:

You can have firmer, flatter abs ... while you get on with your life. No matter how busy you are, you can achieve your goal of firmer, more toned abs in just 4 to 8 weeks, with clinically proven Slendertone Flex.

(Cosmo June 2006: 262)

In addition to the text, the ‘busyness’ evoked by the lines ‘while you get on with your life’ and ‘no matter how busy you are’ is echoed in an image of a female model who is sitting on the floor behind a laptop as she is on the phone whilst her shadow is doing sit-ups (which, presumably, she is too busy to do). However, as the woman is sitting on the floor, not looking at the laptop - which seems to be in standby mode - the authenticity of this representation can be questioned. Moreover, as Machin and Thornborrow (2003: 459-460) have discussed, the abstract setting in which the model is placed lowers the modality of the image.

Although observed more sporadically in the men’s magazines, some direct references to ‘power’ and ‘control’ can be found in FHM and the Gay Times9. However, the nature of power in the men’s adverts appears to be different from the character of (em)power(ment) in the women’s magazines. Whereas the representation of power in the adverts in the women’s magazines largely corresponds to Lazar’s (2006: 506, 510) categories of “agentive power”, which focuses on exercising self- determination and agency, and “empowered beauty”, where “beauty brands and products are represented as empowering agents...”, the adverts in the men’s magazines refer to a more physical power. An advert for SCI-MX, for example, shows a - very muscular - man who is walking away after he has supposedly just crushed the handle of a dumbbell in a gym.

In addition to the categories of agentive power and empowered beauty, Lazar distinguishes a third category, namely “power femininity” - or, as applied to my data, ‘power femininity/masculinity’. This category encompasses adverts in which the reader is empowered through the “acquisition of knowledge and skills that enable one to become self-reliant and experts in one’s own right” through “discovery” and “learning” from well-qualified instructors (ibid: 509). Related to Lazar’s third category, the next section will explore how consumers are presented with an increasing amount of science- and technology-related information, which is used to promote products and services.

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