I came to Armenia to teach marketing and public relations as a Fulbright lecturer with the naïve belief that my subject matter was fairly universal. All I’d have to do is tweak my U.S. lesson plans a bit and – voila – brilliant lectures by the U.S. teacher would be imparted in the classroom.
Um, truth is, I’ve learned some lessons that have sent me back to my computer, performing extensive overhaul on the lectures. Here’s my latest saga.
Last week, I was super-confident about presenting to the class the Harvard case study on Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. For the one percent of the U.S. population who may have missed it, Dove’s re-branding was brilliant. It was based on the premise that women everywhere are beautiful, regardless of what the media and “beauty industry” define as beauty. There are some fabulous video clips from the campaign on Youtube, including “Evolution,” (which exposes the false promises of airbrushing and Photoshop), “True Colors” (pre-teens alarmingly precocious in expressing insecurities about their looks) and “Onslaught” (very young girls exposed to preposterous claims by cosmetic and beauty products).
I figured even if my students hadn’t seen the campaigns, the message was rather simple. After all, sexism is sexism in any culture. And in Armenia 2008, you see it everywhere in their advertising. There’s sexy girls draped over car hoods, holding liquor bottles near their crotches and practically licking the wires off computer accessories. And there’s the other extreme — the happy, completely sexless mother smothering her brood with love, sunshine and the latest snack cakes.
Of course, in the U.S., we like to think of our sexism a bit more sophisticated, but it’s still the same. Dolce and Gabbana puts women in bubbles and other compromising positions. Perfumers glorify date rape. And the diamond industry thinks we’re all just jewelry whores.
Initial student reaction to Dove’s real beauty blitz was similar to what I’ve heard in my American classrooms. Most of the young women loved the spots. The young men who weren’t disinterested in a “women’s product” and “women’s messages” were puzzled. They couldn’t see how this type of “anti-marketing” helped the Dove brand. Of course, it all led to some lively discussion and I was thrilled to have the debate in my class. In fact, everything was going quite well for once. I thought I was really “connecting” with my students.
But one young woman offered a different perspective that left me speechless.
“This worries me,” she said. “When I was growing up we didn’t have electricity or water. So, we didn’t care about how our bodies looked. But now I realize that if I have a daughter, I have to tell her about why she shouldn’t believe the images she sees in advertising. I’m afraid I won’t be able to relate to what she’s thinking.”
Yikes, that was my “anvil on the head” moment. I realized that we really haven’t really shared the same experiences. What bothers us as “stupid sexism” in the States stands for much more in developing countries. It’s a sign that in moving up the Maslow pyramid of needs, societies are faced with a barrage of even more challenges. In 2008, the giant snowball of mass marketing and all its flaws and abuses are coming at Armenia like a giant snowball.
My students will undoubtedly react in different ways. For some, the giant snowball will scare them silly and they’ll actually yearn for the times when things were simpler and concerns were limited to procuring water and electricity. Others will unfortunately get wrapped up in the snowball, buying into it and even perpetuating the worst elements. Still others, though, will want to figure out how the snowball works and fix the onslaught of messaging so that they advance the culture and do some good. I now realize this last group of students may truly benefit from my class.
This strange and often confusing country where I’ve been sent is at a turning point. If I’m truly lucky, I can make a tiny impact and inspire a few young people. This will, indeed, require some revisions in my lectures – but I have a feeling the effort will be worth it.