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Breeding Inequality: Gender Identities in Bulgarian Advertising

March 26, 2012 by · 3 comments

Prof. Dr. Milena Kirova
Translated by: Ralitsa Muharska

Breeding Inequality
Photo: Fran Tapia

Ads are among the most visible acquisitions of public life in Bulgaria after 1989. They are “like air and water” to the “democratic” Bulgarian: they mostly go unnoticed, but are experienced as an indispensable part of our social habitus. Ads are always-present – all around and thus inside us – even when perceived with the periphery of our consciousness or when they end up in sub-consciousness, in that psychic zone, which, unlike the unconscious, can recall memories that have until that point remained repressed in the inactive section of our memory.

Actually it is precisely from this psychic topology of the early Freud (conscious – subconscious – unconscious) that one of the most important concepts in advertizing theory draws its experience: top of mind or the memory that can generate meanings and moods by means of inactive traces of sensory perception. Serious advertisers rarely aim at the immediate effect which their messages could have on the consciousness of the present day viewer/listener/reader, overloaded as it is with information.

What is more frequently implemented is the idea that advertising, with its specific complex impact, can form an emotional and meaningful imprint on the sub-consciousness of the perceiver regardless of their willingness. (That also explains the paradox why advertising swallows huge amounts of expensive viewing time while three quarters of TV viewers in the West claim they “switch off” when the commercials start.)

However, there comes a moment when a certain real life situation recalls the meaning of the repressed message and then consciousness produces a decision “of its own” in the direction it has already been prompted to choose. In other words the term top of mind (closest to the surface of consciousness) denotes the position which is the first to emerge in a specific situation of a need for a commodity or service. The top of mind status is what all commercials strive for and what is enormously valued by all advertisers.

The effect of advertizing can also be understood by means of another psychological term – déjà vu (1), which had been in circulation before psychoanalysis interpreted it, yet it is to Freud we owe one of its most convincing explanations. The image of a steamy bottle of mastika (2), for example, is imprinted on the viewer’s memory in connection with the vague experience of sexual arousal at the sight of enticingly nude female bodies.

The causal relation between the two phenomena can later disappear completely from the consciousness of the commercial’s perceiver. But each time one element (a bottle of mastika or sexual arousal) appears, it becomes potentially possible that the second element emerge from pre-consciousness (or inactive memory), still in the absence of awareness of the distant reason for this connection.

Let us now try to survey the development of advertising in Bulgaria during the last few years of “free” life. To be adequate to its specifics, however, we need to go back to the traditions of Bulgarian advertizing from before 1989 and the ways gender stereotypes were used in it.

In short, traditions of this kind are simply nonexistent. In the first couple of decades after 1944 advertizing was deliberately chased away from public life as a relic of the bourgeois type of consumption. It was not really necessary, either (at least until the mid 70s) because of the inconcealable shortage of goods and services in society.

What is the point of advertizing a certain make of car if even for the Trabant partly made of cardboard one had to wait for about eight years? The extent to which deficiency makes advertizing meaningless becomes apparent if we consider the TV video clips made as early as the 60s in the GDR where the car was produced. (They can be seen, dubbed in Bulgarian, apparently as a curiosity, on the Internet today.)

In Bulgaria the first socialist ads started appearing about 15 years later, presenting not so much the product as, through the visual mediation of that product, the state-owned company which produced it. The usage of gender stereotypes in advertizing was purposely abandoned. In other words, gender (especially until the early 80s) was subordinate to the class an individual belonged to.

Women from “our” classes – women workers, peasant women and women from the “progressive” intelligentsia – were deliberately desexualized. The sex appeal of “our” woman at least officially was taboo; it was open to depiction only as a characteristic of the women from the “other’, enemy classes. This brought about at least one positive result: there were no manifestations of sexism in advertising because woman (at least according to official ideology) was considered a builder of the proletarian world on a par with men.

Neither attempts at public preaching of gender inequality, nor any discussion whatever of differences between men and women (outside of motherhood) were allowed in the media or the arts. Keeping this in mind, we can gain better understanding of why freedom arrived with outbursts of nudity (in the media) and why the return of the most conservative patriarchal gender matrices is so hard to evaluate as social regress today.

In the early 90s there was something festive in the appearance of adverts in our country, something which voiced one’s own desire for change and visualized “historical progress”. Actually (if somehow we exclude the nude pictures in all newspapers and the triumphant emergence of the pornographic press) there was no real sexism in the commercials of that time.

No wonder, as almost to the very end of the 20th century the proportion of ads produced in Bulgaria did not exceed 10% of all presented in the media. The real rise in the native production of adverts came with the beginning of the new century. Here I will present only data from the last 5 years (3).

In 2006 the 50 largest advertizing agencies in our country reported sales for 462 million leva. That was an 18% increase, amounting to about 390 million, on 2005 sales. In 2007 the President of the Association of Advertizing Agencies in Bulgaria announced a net growth of advertizing in the country by 28%. The fifty largest agencies made 689 million in sales which was 40% more than 2006.

Undoubtedly the most profitable players on the advertizing market were TV channels: the net advertising budget of a TV channel in 2007 was about 240 million. The press comes second with a 21% share of the so called marketing mix and net profit of 104 million. Altogether, 2007 was the highest peak on the Bulgarian advertizing market since 1989.

In 2008 as a result of the global financial crisis quite a few of the big agencies reported a slump in comparison with 2007. Nevertheless, TV advertising went on growing to reach 50% of the total marketing mix with its net advertizing budget of 258 million. This growth was also due to the flexible policies of some national channels, such as bTV and Nova TV which lowered their prices for advertising time by about 26% as early as January (4).

An immediate result of TV expansion was even more shrinking (which had started earlier) of the profit share made by radio and the printed press in 2008. Though still in second place, the printed press incurred more losses due to the recession; the tendency for advertisers to lose interest in advertising there was not only due to the crisis but also to the considerably lowered interest of readers in both newspapers and magazines. Outdoor and radio advertising – thanks to their significantly lower prices – managed to register a small growth in comparison with 2007.

In 2009 the crisis deepened. On the whole, the year “was marked by caution and quite a few of the big advertisers recycled old clips and printed images for their campaigns” (5). Even if television had no growth, it still attracted the largest portion of the audience and made the biggest profit from advertizing.

This is how Ekaterina Tupareva, Managing Director of leading advertizing agency Ogilvy Group explained this success: “Television is still the most effective among the media because of the specific situation in Bulgaria: only two channels offer a low price per 1000 persons audience concentration.” It has to be admitted, however, that the most powerful advertizing clients such as car makers and banks rarely recourse to the so called local creative, that is, they adapt to the Bulgarian market visuals and messages made abroad.

It seems that outdoor advertizing will turn out to have suffered most in 2009. The market has shrunk considerably – by about 20% in Sofia, up to 40% in the rest of the country, where many empty billboards can be seen by the roadside.

The fifth advertising area in Bulgaria, which began its development considerably later compared with the other four, has been growing with notable vigor during the last couple of years. This is, of course, the Net, the potential winner from the crisis and the other media’s difficulties. In 2007 advertising investment in the Internet grew by 89% compared with 2006. In 2008 the growth was 62% compared with 2007.

This means 14 and 21 million leva, respectively. Not impressive figures at first sight but this is the fastest developing sector. More and more advertizing migrates to the Net – because of the lower prices, the more serious targeting and the easier measurement of the effect of advertizing (6). Internet advertising reached 4.03 % of the market mix in 2008.

After the figures – a few words on the male – female ratio among the personnel of Bulgarian advertizing agencies. As statistics of this kind are not available, my generalizations are based on private conversations with people from that business.

In teams which create the actual advertizing campaigns the tendency is towards parity. Thus for example the team which worked out the “Save the man!” advertizing campaign for Kamenitsa beer from the New Moment New Ideas Company agency there were three women and four men. Most graphic designers and creative directors are men, but among the CEOs of leading firms there are many women.

On the whole advertising is among the business areas where women have succeeded in securing good positions for themselves and showing their (creative and especially organizational) skills. Among the important reasons are the strong dependence on the market of the entire sector and the presence of foreign employers who hire workers based on their real abilities for the job.

Conditions for normal competition have developed and they reflect the ambition demonstrated by young people regardless of their sex. “We women have a valuable quality”, said Stanislava Ivkova, director of Cress agency in a personal conversation. ”We tend to give more attention to detail and perfecting things. Men show more audacity and a greater readiness to take risks.” That readiness may be a winning characteristic in a good designer or clip director but caring and discipline apparently give better results when one is responsible for the entire firm.

Good advertising agencies have long forgotten about working “from intuition”. Each campaign has a clearly defined target group; marketing departments make use of specialized programmes for the study of user mindsets; polls are conducted to study interests and preferences. Yet those who pay for advertising have the last word. Often their opinions differ from the agency’s proposal (rarely in the direction of better taste) and prevail in making the final decision.

Generally speaking, Bulgarian commercials can be said to belong to the so called southern type. The human element in them is strongly clichéd, stressing on perfection, on what is unachievable in real life. Faces, figures and clothing are chosen to be emphatically beautiful, glamorously attractive and exceptionally proportional; no specific identification is aimed at for specific groups of men and women with themselves (in age, profession or social status).

The identification sought is rather with the most clearly manifested patriarchal norms for both men and women. The unwritten law of this kind of advertizing is that it should be able to seduce, fire the imagination, provoke dreams… No wonder eroticism is one of the most important mechanisms to achieve this.

In the southern type of advertisement the female personage falls basically into two large, though disproportionate groups. The first one strongly prevalent in number includes images of beautiful, glamorous and attractive women. Here even housewives look like fairies. The second group contains grotesque, caricature-like – in one way or another – images.

In both cases the way the woman is seen is external to her own (it is not even clear what) needs; she is identified with patriarchal stereotypes of femininity – always in their extreme form. Now we can see how this type differs from the “northern” type of adverts, which can be seen mostly in Scandinavian countries. There, personages are emphatically ordinary, everyday and close to those one meets in real life; settings are standard and easily recognizable more often than not; messages are more specialized and addressed to the specific needs of specific groups of people.

Sex Sells

Sex has been selling for a long time all over the world; Bulgarian advertizing has thus rediscovered “the wheel” of an already outmoded model. The lack of eroticism in public life before 1989, however, added the joyful sensation that sex is something new and an attribute of the “free” world. The erotic model imposed itself in advertising with the beginning of the new century, visibly culminating in the notorious “S/M” campaign for the vodka named Ecstasy in 2003 – 2004.

Two naked female bodies, entangled in leather straps were hung all over downtown Sofia, and later shone on national TV. The government’s Council for Electronic Media spent a long time hesitating before finally banning the commercial off the air under the pressure from a parents’ organization. A much more responsible thing to do would, of course, have been accepting some compulsory ethical rules along these lines, for that vodka just marked the beginning. In the next years we witnessed the exuberant blossoming of sexism and pornography in Bulgarian advertizing. Still, that much can be said for our advertizers: they were not all swept by the new fashion.

The sexist-pornographic model went along two directions. One focused on selling alcohol, mostly low in quality and price, produced by a couple of companies. Their pressure is understandable as a result of market competition: there are now 274 alcohol producers in Bulgaria, not mentioning foreign importers, who not only offer high quality products but also advertize them with high quality faces – for example, Bruce Willis in Sobieski vodka commercials.

Flirt vodka, Peshtera mastika, Sixth Sense gin, the beers Kamenitsa and Zagorka – all rely on the Balkan cluelessness regarding sexism. In the commercials commissioned by these producers either the man consumes the woman (along with the promoted alcoholic drink and other attractive objects) or the female figure serves as mediator and first step to the utmost bliss of alcohol consumption (she prepares the salad to go with the rakia, which is shared between men, or has to listen to the exciting commentary that her mother’s “well has not dried up yet”).

In those ads gender stereotypes are unshakably conservative in striving to recycle for media usage the most traditional patriarchal models against the modern urban setting. The paradox in Bulgaria, however, is that it was precisely those hit-making stereotypes that had been repressed out of public space for half a century. For quite a few people, their appearance is not a relict manifestation of outdated social relations, but rather an instance of “innovation” and “modernization” of un-cool Bulgarian morality. That explains the relatively high percentage of positive (or at least indifferent to their sexist message) evaluations they got not only from men but also from women in Bulgaria.

Almost all alcohol ads are produced targeting the consumption passion of men. So man is presented as the subject of exceptionally pleasurable experience. And the joy of consuming (life) without restrictions and without mediation can best be expressed with our “native” word kef (7). The keflia man– the pleasure-savouring male is thus the real character of Bulgarian sexist advertisement – even when his presence is indirect, i.e. coded in the excited gaze with which the perceiver should contemplate the commercial. No wonder the dominant theme can only be sexual (other pleasures are either slightly embarrassing to show in public – like gluttony, for example, or essentially inadmissible in collective space – like aggression or destructive impulses).

Quite a lot has already been written on the esthetics and the psychology of this kind of ads, making use of an array of concepts that contain the word chalga: “chalga esthetics”, “chalga values”(8) etc. These concepts however leave one with the feeling that sexism is something new, as recent as yesterday, as chalga established itself in its present form in our country after 1989.

It would be a good idea to read the entire group of commercials based on male kef using concepts form a book quite famous both in our country and in the rest of Europe in the first decades of the 20th century – Otto Weininger’s book “Sex and Character” (9). It contains a comprehensive philosophical rationalization of modern western sexism. In that book woman is squeezed into the value perimeter of a strictly dual optics: she is either immaculate (i.e. sexless and devoted to her family) mother-Madonna or harlot (i.e. erotic seductress).

Freud himself, (who felt robbed of his ideas by the younger Weininger) not infrequently analyses the psyche of his male patients precisely as divided between these two female presences and therefore trying to find a way to reconcile them in simultaneous relationships with both types of women. Sexist advertising chiefly makes use of the harlot type reconciling it with public propriety by symbolizations of the female body through natural phenomena – hence the many flowers, fruits, fluids in the symbolic visualization of such ads.

Though she also figures here (mainly in her “caring wife” version), the mother type remains the brand name in household products commercials. There, she has to be decently dressed, hysterically concerned for the perfection of the home, fluttering around the happiness of her loved ones, childishly elated and always smiling. Additional colour is derived from her rivalry with other similar women.

Male comfort seems forever secure by the sight of women fighting life and death battles to provide their husbands with the best family life. This is what an anonymous witty (female) participant in Petya Kirilova–Grady’s chatroom wrote about household product commercials: “as for commercials featuring housewives, what makes me particularly indignant is the way they are presented as viciously competing which one will clean best, and of course they are no good at this job unless assisted by Mr Proper who looks like a big walking penis.”(10)

Just like her counterpart from the time (and the book) of Otto Weininger the woman from today’s commercials has two main hypostases. She either incessantly makes her family happy by washing, cooking, doing dishes, hanging laundry or mopping floors with mad doggedness (while in between chores she sits on the hairstylist’s chair to become even more worthy of Him), or quite shamelessly engages her bodily charm in “games for advanced players”.

In between – between the saint of the domestic paradise and the she-devil of sexual pleasures – there is nothing. Nothing that could hint at the fact that the woman has a world of her own, problems of her own and interests outside the perimeter of the male gaze and beyond the threshold of the family home.

Let me go back once again to the symbolic imagery of flowers and fruits in the sexist type of advertisement. Those plants are always bursting with freshness and taste, unmistakably recognized by subconsciousness as a symbolic replacement of the luxuriant female body. There is nothing new in this image parallel between nature and the female body: actually, there is hardly any manifestation (documented in a material way) of symbolic thinking more archaic than this.

The earliest Neolithic ceramic figurines offer proof of an already existing tradition of analogous representation of woman and nature for their common capacity to give birth and to reproduce life. As patriarchy asserted itself it reinforced the inherited line, while at the same time introducing radical changes through the process of its sexualization.

The Old Testament’s Song of Songs is a marvelous demonstration of the poetic force contained in the erotic relationship between the beautiful human body and the beauty of natural phenomena. Without doubt, a connection exists between ancient Israeli poetry and today’s “alcoholic” commercials: one of civilization continuity. There are also differences which hardly speak for today’s democracy. In the Song of Songs both the female and the male body are eroticized by means of “natural” similes; in the ads woman is an enticingly delicious fruit but man remains a human being; here it is the humanity of his gaze that sets the point of view.

In The Song characters are presented as body-soul entities. The text focuses on parts of both bodies, one after the other, but the overall effect is their presentation as psycho-physical entities; otherwise the interpretive process where the connection between man and woman was read as an allegory of the connection between the Christian community and God, which set the Christian Church at peace with the ancient Song would have been impossible. Today, any traces of spirituality are missing in commercials’ heroines.

Their bodies are segmented by the visual focus on their most alluring, “tastiest” parts. There, man and woman demonstrate a mutual desire for sex which it is possible to call love. Here, the female figure writhes, offering herself with unambiguously professional skill. The difference in the presentation of sex in each case cannot be missed: instead of estheticized eroticism our commercials offer mass production pornography “in particularly democratic doses”.

Some comment needs to be allotted to the second group of sexist ads as well; they are much cheaper and therefore much less talented creations abundant in what is referred to as outdoor advertising. They can be seen mostly on roadside billboards where small businesses with limited advertizing budgets promote themselves. The principle of overt sexism is the same, while the lack of money for a good agency lays bare its crude un-artistic face. Here are a few examples.

Klima Air Conditioning with noteworthy persistence demonstrate their quality appliances with the help of lewdly denuded young beauties smiling invitingly under the (apparently) warm breeze form the appliance hanging over their heads. Carwashes and garages recommend themselves by means of a scantily clad female body reclining on the boot of a well washed car. The Ermine leatherwear factory from Sliven is presented by the figure of a naked woman wrapped in a fur coat just enough to allow full view of her breasts.

Words are entirely absent: intellectual preoccupations are not the characteristic of this type of advertising. The voyeur who hurtles past them in his car has to decipher the simplest message in the shortest possible time: the washed car is like a woman after her bath; if you buy an AC you ”heat up” the woman; from under the fur coat of the Ermine factory small but perky breasts peep out like a little animal would… The top-list of arrogant tastelessness, however, is headed by an ad where car exhausts are visualized by two female asses, as round as they are naked.

I feel tempted to go on some more with the sexist theme in order to demonstrate how symptomatic the connection between the quality of an advertised product and the degree of gender imbalance in its visual can be. I will focus on three commercials for similar goods: Straldjanska muskatova otlejala rakia (see fig.1), Peshterska Grozdova rakia (see fig. 2) and Flirt vodka (see fig. 3).

Straldjanska muskatova otlejala is one of the best brands of rakia on our mass market; the gentle taste and the rich flavor make it the preferred drink of people who like to sit down for a meaningful conversation in intelligent company. Sexism is missing altogether from its commercial – all we see are three smiling young people who are “modern” enough to demonstrate “classical” Bulgarian taste.

It is true that the women are dressed to show just a little too much skin (unlike the man who is not) and the “modern-ness” of the personages is measured by the idea of a threesome, but these allusions are kept within the confines of a hidden implication.

Regardless of its slogan “Soft warmth”, Peshterska Grozdova is not the “soft” type of brandy at all: it has a marked “sharp” or “male taste”, but is still a decent enough representative of its popular genre and especially of its popular price. The commercial shows a young wife who has pleasantly surprised her husband by preparing the suitable salad. The consumer (of rakia, salad and caresses) is only the man (we can understand his good mood and the endearing boyish smile), and the woman is the good wife, efficient in ensuring “the soft warmth” of the domestic paradise.

Flirt vodka has commissioned a real masterpiece of vulgar crassness under the motto “Do it!” The setting is an obvious and not too well done collage where the absurdly folded figure of a young woman dressed as an Amsterdam red light district showcase exhibit is attached to the picture of some kind of university library. The clumsy pornography of this advert seems completely adequate only in one aspect – when compared with the qualities of the drink it presents.

It is very useful for my purpose here, though, as it can clearly indicate that the most flagrant sexism manifests itself when a cheap product tries to claim glamour and “quality” provoking the lowest layer in the imagination of the mass male consumer.

The exaggerated gender imbalance in the consumption of sex in Bulgarian commercials apparently must have reached the awareness of those who make them, because (albeit very rarely) we can see breakthroughs in showing a different subject in the active position. The mentioned Ecstasy vodka appeared in an ad where an obviously wealthy grandma is making herself pretty in front of the mirror, while in the background a young man is shyly displaying his muscles.

Towards the very end of 2009 a TV commercial for Domain Boyar wine was released in which “the moment of pleasure” denuded a man comically erroneous in the object of his lust. In both of these cases, however, the female right of consumption is parodic in nature: in the first case as a grotesque of ageing desire, and in the second – as the impossibility of something happening at the sight of a rather unattractive male body.

There is even something of a tradition in making fun of old women in Bulgarian advertising. Even a large company as Mtel which on the whole works with highly professional advertising agencies and was awarded as the best advertising commissioner of 2009 by the Association of Advertising Agencies was tempted to exploit the theme of the “red granny”.

Decorated with extravagant jewellery, beautified with heavy makeup and an absurd manicure in combination with homey unkempt white hair, biting her tongue in effort, the elderly lady is leaning over the computer keyboard in an attempt to achieve her “Internet revolution” (see fig. 4). As if struggling to keep abreast with bad taste, Globul, last year’s second “best” advertisement commissioner ordered a similar commercial for an outdated Samsung mobile phone model: a terrorist granny makes a hold-up in a shop to steal a phone, which is anyway offered at the extremely reasonable price of BGN 9.90 with the respective plan.

Mtel once more based a large advertising campaign on the parodic androgynous personage of a “godfather” from the landline phone business. The gender of this caricature with (again!) curly white hair is hard to determine; anyway, the role is performed by Mtel’s favourite actress Latinka Petrova. It seems more important that in the cases when it sends some kind of message with the figure of the elderly lady, Bulgarian advertising fails to resist the temptation to stress on the de-esthetisized, de-sexualized (whithered, past bloom) female body.

The absence of sex appeal is implicated as the absence of femininity, as unattractive, even caricature-like femaleness. The grotesque granny is the backside of the female body enticingly blooming in its naturalness that gets caught in the mirror of the male gaze.

Should we save the man?

Against the background of the observations presented so far it now seems reasonable to ask: can the man of Bulgarian advertising also be ugly, repulsive or at least ridiculous? In most general terms, the answer will be: he can, but mostly when presented in situations that make him look like a woman. Let’s recall a couple of them.

A stupid husband buys some Nova Brazilia loose coffee (instead of a vacuum pack); A Black man with a wide smile is chewing a “killer” candy bar. A group of parodic “Macedonian” – haiduks are getting ready to steal some Macedonian sausage with the heroic outcry “I’ll die for it!”… What all these commercials, so different at first sight, have in common, is that they show males as not-masculine, and therefore funny. Of course the criterion for their missing masculinity is inevitably hidden in some stereotypical patriarchal notion of a “real” man.

The husband knows nothing about coffee (but then, is it important that a man should know something like that?); the sorry bandits are nothing like the heroic haiduks from school textbooks; the young black man with his African braided hairstyle is apparently very foreign to the Bulgarian ideas of what a man is. “Femaleness” is coded in these grotesques by means of displacing the male from his traditional qualities which have “authentic” value: earnestness, a worthy profession, independence from trivial circumstance, the ability to look down on the demands of the natural body… In other words, what we are looking at is the male as a caricature of the patriarchal ideas of “important” manliness, the-man-not-himself, i. e. the man-as-woman for lack of a third gender position. It is not hard to see that the second one in order (though not in degree) to incur a loss in this situation is man himself, oppressed by the inability to be flighty, disheveled, coloured or gluttonous.

The task to save what is “important” about him was taken up by a recent advertising campaign of Kamenitsa beer. It was directed precisely at opposing the tendencies which threaten to do away with the civilization paradigm of the traditional male. The heroes of this campaign refused to water the flowers, to call their mother in law, to walk the dog, to remember anniversaries, to go to the mall. What was rejected as inadequate for authentic maleness was precisely what is “marginal” and “different” in the behavior of today’s Bulgarian male: heeding to his loved ones, sharing the chores and the care of the home.

Which brings us back to the Other man, the woman-man. For who is it actually that “real” masculinity in our (still) patriarchal world needs to be saved from? Paradoxically, we should answer that the slogan “Let’s save man!” guards and protects man from … himself.

The entire message of Kamenitsa was presented in negative dimensions of male identity: I will not water, I will not call, I will not shop etc. (The slogan that brought together the behavior of all the heroes in the campaign was even more indicative: “We say no!”) It would be interesting to attempt a hypothetical reconstruction of the hidden positive model peeking out from behind this array of refusals.

The subject we can see in the mirror of refused compromise is emphatically selfish, brazen, infantile (uncompromising attitude is typical of youthful reactions). Should he appear kind of nationally familiar, it is because we have already met him in Aleko Konstantinov’s Bai Ganyo. In the first part of this immortal book the character travels in Europe, most of what he does being refusals to accept the norms of Europe’s order: I will not sit quietly in the opera, I will not respect women, I will not behave in the public baths etc.

In both cases the body-soul of the Balkanic male refuses to refuse itself those pleasures which provoke the disintegration of collective ethos. In both cases the immediate satisfaction of the individual’s egotistic needs in disregard of other people comes to the fore and gains primary importance. Behind its simple everyday imagery the beer commercial hides a particularly ambitious and provocative message: while/if we are amused with its ingenuity we actually admit that the male is a perpetual (selfish) child who has the unalienable right to satisfy his infantile whims.

That conclusion does not seem particularly “scary” at first sight: many people are even moved to some sort of endearment. (The entire campaign is professionally skilful and it was not by accident that it won first prize in the category of commodity promotion.) We see trouble on its way only if it occurs to someone to ask who those subjects really are that have to put up with all that male “cute”-spoiled-brat stuff.

Clearly, they cannot be the other males because the commercial emphatically underlines their brotherhood and equality in adversity. Things look even worse if we ask “Why?” In other words, ads are not mere harmless decorations of our everyday environment. They form social identities with a jocular casualness, which, when well made, reinforces existing mindsets and reproduces (precisely because it imitates art – and “anything is allowed” in art) the extremes in the traditional imbalance of human relations.

One final thing which needs mentioning here has almost never been discussed up till now. Quite a few commercials in Bulgaria actually terrorize men. They nail them (just like they nail women) to very large scale models of patriarchal behavior, leaving no room for play to individuality and even normalness. A recent commercial for Tribestan, a medicine for prostate complaints, shows a conversation among a group of pilots. (We could also ask the question why is it pilots that have been the hit in advertising imagery lately as an emblem of “real” manhood?

Why not teachers for example? For sure, there are more teachers in Bulgaria and among them more men with prostate problems than among pilots.) The conversation is fixed in classical male one-upmanship: who “gets up the aircraft” more often. There can hardly be any doubt that it is the one who gets it up several times a night that looks “most male”. Having in mind the fact that the characters in the video are middle-aged men and that the slogan of the campaign goes “Be a man!” we can imagine the impossibility of imitating such a model that any ordinary husband is faced with.

Altogether the ads for prostate medicines are among the most cruel ones in this country; they can crush any man’s self esteem, and not only by means of sexual insinuations. For example, a walking urinal obsessively pursuing a tormented pale man anywhere he goes looks like a nightmare come to life. The viewer of this advertising masterpiece is brutally trapped between choosing the medicine called Prostenal and feeling lonely, unwanted and disgusted by the presence of his “best friend”.

I was already finishing this article when I saw on TV an ad for Alaska vodka. Following the tradition, it was once again emphatically directed to a male audience, although the key message statement was made by a woman this time: “I like strong men!” And somewhat later: “Men who know what they want and how to get it”. The average Bulgarian male was trapped once more.

He either had to be permanently strong, to know always what he wants and how to get it, or he was doomed to keep gulping Alaska vodka until he satisfied the tyrannical “female” standards of a real patriarchal man.

The public images of the “healthy”, hyper-potent male are analogous with the images in which the woman bursting with unbridled naturalness triumphs. They, too, place their bets on collective mythologemes from popular thinking and as mythologemes do, they depend a lot more on the imaginary desires (which are often just inverted inabilities) of a certain group than on actual everyday practices.

Apart from sex and the troublesome prostate Bulgarian adverts are dominated by the young energetic male. Actually we must note that the majority of ads are targeted precisely at young (ages 18 – 40) high income, professionally fulfilled people. The male here is neat and smartly dressed, focused on some kind of business task, his appearance shows him as active (sometimes too much) and self-confident (see fig. 6); he is so good at his work – as if he has not two but a hundred hands (se fig. 5).

The nude male body is rarely seen, unless it is some scandalous show business figure like Azis, or in a jeans commercial where the product stands out gorgeously against the nude upper torso, or else it is the latest extravaganza from “Flirt” vodka. This kind of advert can mostly be seen on urban billboards, especially in Sofia.

The tendency to show beautiful nude male bodies appeared in our country under the influence of advertising from the West (typically represented by “Mason’s” and “Levi’s” jeans). Evidently it is met with mentality-founded resistance by the Balkan masculine model, which insists on presenting the “serious” man seriously dressed. Still, a brand of mineral water demonstrated “the freshness of nature” by means of an emphatically fresh and attractive male body. In another case, however, tradition chose to place the bet on the striking contrast between a smartly dressed handsome man and the innocent naked body of a baby.

Actor Vlado Karamazov shows a suit by designer “Andrews Fashion” elegantly cradling in his arms infant Raya, who looks happy, smiling at her career as a nude model. (The little girl was selected after a casting session from 50 babies. An anonymous note in “Trud” newspaper describes, not without pride, her behavior of a model woman: “Raya acted as a real professional and burst into crying only once.” (11))

To round off the “masculine” theme we could inquire into the ratio between male and female figures in Bulgarian advertising. Statistics of that kind are of course not available so my generalizations must remain approximate. In the summer of 2009 I spent several hours counting the roadside billboards between Burgas and Sofia. The result was a ratio between female, male and mixed images of 2.5: 1: 0.5. (I did not see a single male body stripped partly or fully, rather the opposite: the presence of specific clothes emblematized the man’s respective profession.

Things were quite different with women: here “professionalism” was of a different kind.) In TV videos the ratio seems rather more uniform as the number of mixed ads is much higher. However, if we compare only the ads which present one gender the ratio 2,5: 1 will probably stay. Bulgarian ads still have a preference to female figures though there is a tendency to diversify and dramatize the simultaneous presence of both sexes.

Where there are only male characters they are governed by masculinity stereotypes to a degree not smaller than that characterizing the attachment of female ones to femininity norms. Clichés fall into two groups: good professional realization and mythological hyper-potency (including cases when it is under threat or missing).

The figure of the male sex idol, a “democratic” discovery of our world deserves a few words by all means. It is sought mainly among the artistic circles, among sportsmen and businessmen and in recent years more and more often among political men. The depth of the chasm between two eras can be seen with particular clarity if we try to imagine the members of the Politbureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party faced with the chance to compete among themselves for the position of sex model.)

The triumph of chalga esthetics is simultaneous with the process of loosening and deconstruction of patriarchal gender stereotypes. This process, if not global, is definitely European. The two tendencies are parallel in the post-totalitarian world; up till now they have been neither in touch, nor in a process of mutual resistance, as they still concern different groups of people. Sooner or later, however, the moment will come for them to meet and then the consumer attitude to the “exhibitionistic” body, the body exposed in various ways to public attention, will be directed to men – who are still in the position of the consuming subject – not only to women.

Among the already mentioned categories, “the sufferers” will be the more intelligent and sensitive men and that will inevitably bring them to a state of dissatisfaction and resistance, the same kind of resistance, by the way, which today is contemptuously defined as “feminism”. The future dissatisfaction of the Bulgarian public man will also generate specific strategies of his refusal to be the object of primitive desire for gluttonous consumption. Somewhere around this point, perhaps, men will really turn “feminist”. And (…) then the struggle against the “chalgization” of Bulgarian culture will go uni-gender.

It seems the male revolt against the commercials’ sexist upbringing will have to be put off till better times. However, some alternative tendencies are noticeable at present, among the younger generations. In a study carried out with 530 college students from 8 universities in Bulgaria not only women but men, too, recognize gender discrimination in Bulgarian commercials. Admittedly, intelligent young people on the whole find it easier to identify any discriminatory stereotypes (not only those associated with gender) in media and popular culture.

They appear to be much better prepared to read the symbolic messages in our world, perhaps because they matured together with it. Intelligent people from older generations at the same time can be said to have difficulties seeing what is “wrong”, and when it is pointed out to them they quite aptly manage to rationalize their resistance to such explanations. No wonder: gender stereotypes are not merely ideology, or separate ideas, imported from outside, they are part of the character, of the self a person has lived with for a long time (the older the person, the longer that time) in relative balance.

Educating the gaze

So we have come to the question of “educating the gaze” with which the Bulgarians from the 21 century see the commercials and the changes which should come about in their gender mentality. Perhaps it is shock and personal insult that provide the strongest impulse for leaving the area of the habitual. Maybe overdoing patriarchal stereotypes will finally bring about a higher resistance to traditions than that provoked by any “scientific” explanations. This is what the practical situation in Bulgaria looks like after the end of the 20th century, actually. Public sexism has started producing individual spontaneous reactions of indignation and affront.

The first (and thus historically important) reaction in 2001 belongs to Velichka Hristova from Plovdiv. She filed a complaint against “Zagorka” beer brewery for sex discrimination because of the slogan “What more does man (12) need – a new car, a kind woman and a good beer” demanding 100 000 leva worth of damages. Her attempt failed but only so far as the particular case is concerned. The very next year five women from the “Animus” association filed five separate sex discrimination suits. Some cases were won by “Zagorka”, some – by the women.

Two advertising campaigns featuring nude female bodies as consumption stimuli provoked 13 complaints to the Committee against Discrimination in june 2009. Though none of the women who filed the mentioned complaints went “under the slogan” of feminist, the very fact of their resistance is seen as unusual, improper, abnormal – that is, feminist.

In an interview media expert Georgi Lozanov attempted to rationalize the women’s anger in their attempts to sue “Zagorka” brewery by reproaching them for being mercantile and having “ulterior motives”: “the ulterior motives seemed specially added for the purposes of the complaint”. His kind of anger, though, could hardly have been set off by a few complaints, which, besides, had a very modest moral and financial effect. More likely, it was triggered by the fact that such complaints have appeared at all, that the status quo, sanctified by the unwritten benevolence of media experts has been infringed upon.

It is in this anger of tradition that I see the hope of change having started. Sexist advertising – precisely because it appeared so triumphantly in all its backwardness and outmoded-ness in the new century – managed to trigger off an unexpected and unsuspected social effect: it turned into a school for spontaneous feminism, born from the simple sense of humiliation. Still, if we are counting on Balkan patriarchy to crumble down from these episodic attacks which may sometime grow into a common movement, we may have to wait another couple of centuries.

Where are we today: conclusions

Today, Bulgarian advertising seems very eclectic and lacking in style. Actually, one should perhaps talk of advertising in the plural – incompatible styles of imagery and mutually contradictory communication strategies addressed to different reception types / groups. Eclecticism can even be a characteristic of one and the same advertiser. Mtel’s advertising policy is a good example in point as it wavers between incompatible extremities: from unashamed mockery of old people to attempts at seducing them; from deliberate gender differentiation of the message to complete gender unification in younger people’s needs and behaviour.

Leaflets showing “red grannies”, a group of cheerleaders represented mainly with their legs, a young man communicating with his computer as if with a whimsical unfaithful beloved, a man and a woman sitting under the Eifel Tower in a “shared journey” are offered simultaneously by Mtel… Actually, it seems easy to note that concepts of “sharing” and “sameness” with regard to gender appear only when the ad is targeted at a group of young people – in business, in school or at work, who can afford specialized goods or services.

There can hardly be any doubt that Bulgarian advertising is dominated by the idea that the behaviour of men and women is governed by stereotypes which should be reproduced in different strategies for visual and verbal communication. The stereotypes in question are emphatically conservative – the kind that is disappearing from social practice. Advertising, simply put, is more crudely conservative than life: it often comes in contradiction with the “normal” behaviour of today’s people.

On the other hand it can work as an industry producing imaginary models, that is, it can satisfy the fantasies and dreams of those people who are not always able to find ways for the immediate fulfillment of such dreams in everyday life. In this way it can keep a kind of schizophrenic mindset active in people’s behaviour. The association of advertising with chalga esthetics in popular culture is of great importance; there are tendencies to transfer messages, images and even personages between these two cultural zones.

In spite of the dominant conservative tendencies, signs of a beginning “melt-down” in the gender habits of Bulgarian advertising are noticeable. Even attempts to overturn the configuration of subject – object roles within a sexist plot already show that stereotypes are not as uncompromising as they look on the podium of chalga culture.

Showing female figures as subjects of power and desire does not, of course, lead to the deconstruction of the patriarchal model of civilization; commercials of this type are pseudo-emancipatory and actually harden tradition by provoking resistance against the caricature-like changes. Genuine prospects lie in the attempts – still timid, at breaking through the status quo of our society, which present both men and women outside their traditional, patriarchally prescribed roles or express the (really present) tendency to unify male and female roles in family and social functions.

Youth and financial independence seem the most secure guarantees of this modern “melt-down”. And the other way round: the less educated and socially fulfilled the target group of an advert is, the stronger the temptation for this advert to follow the principle of compensatory-imaginary satisfaction. It is hard to underestimate the role that Bulgaria’s membership in various European structures for further changes in advertising.

Willy-nilly Bulgarian advertisers and advertising agencies will be forced to stick to certain rules of collective gender ethics. What seems important is that the attempts at resistance in this area – judicial, cultural and moral – on the part of non-governmental bodies (women’s, feminist, parents’, gay and other groups and organizations), as well as individual initiatives continue.


1. The most detailed interpretation of this term appeared in Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, written in 1901.
2. The national anis brandy (translator’s note)
3. Data available at the official site of The Association of Advertizing Agencies in Bulgaria: see
4. These prices seemed quite impressive even early in the decade: 9600 BGN for 30 seconds on BNT and 6000 for a spot on the most popular talk show of bTV. See Георгиева, Паулина. Българските рекламодатели акостират при кабелните те¬левизии. – Capital, № 12, 24 March 2001.
5. See Borislav Kondov, Capital (№ 46, 20 November 2009)
6. See Zornitsa Stoilova, Dnevnik, (30 March 2009).
7. The word, meaning pleasure, is of Arabic origin and was borrowed from Turkish, along with the cognate keflia, meaning someone savouring pleasure. (translator’s note)
8. See for example an interview with Svetlana Kuyumdjieva in Programata electronic magazine ( from 23 april 2009.
9. Shortly after 1989 that book, though with considerable abbreviations, reappeared on the Bulgarian market. See Вайнингер, О. Пол и характер. С., ИК Ренесанс към ДФ Декарт, 1991.
10. The site is unequivocally named, and some interesting opinions and thoughts of young people can be read there. Petya Kirilova herself has introduced and maintains a consistent strategy of practical feminism.
11. “Trud”, 25 January 2009, p. 12 Труд, 25 ян. 2009, с. 12. Труд, 25 ян. 2009, с. 12.
12. In the Bulgarian original the word for ‘man’ meaning ‘human being’ is used, not the one meaning ‘male’ (translator’s note).

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