Beauty and the Beast (Of Advertising)

ABSTRACT - This paper discusses the representations of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics from the context of traditional theories of beauty in aesthetic philosophy. The paper shows that the criticisms of beauty in advertising arise from the traditional subjective theory of beauty and that beauty in advertising may best be understood from the perspective of an objective theory of beauty. The paper offers a philosophical basis for understanding the production and consumption of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics.


Barry Vacker (1993) ,"Beauty and the Beast (Of Advertising)", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 345-351.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 345-351


Barry Vacker, Southern Methodist University


This paper discusses the representations of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics from the context of traditional theories of beauty in aesthetic philosophy. The paper shows that the criticisms of beauty in advertising arise from the traditional subjective theory of beauty and that beauty in advertising may best be understood from the perspective of an objective theory of beauty. The paper offers a philosophical basis for understanding the production and consumption of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics.


At a recent symposium entitled "Whatever Happened to Beauty?: Aesthetics in a Culture of Signs" (College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas 1992), philosophers and artists discussed the well-documented disappearance of beauty from the twentieth century aesthetic scene (Tatarkiewicz 1972), a disappearance often forgotten amid the increasing concentration by artists on expressing explicit political and social messages requiring semiotic, rather than aesthetic, interpretation. Philosopher Arthur Danto perhaps summarized the general attitude of contemporary aesthetic philosophy toward beauty and the general conclusion of symposium participants when he concluded that beauty may be in for a lengthy "exile." As a theorist in consumer aesthetics, I was a bit bemused at the nearly cavalier attitude with which beauty was being dismissed, yet I could not help but wonder about the many representations of beauty in film, architecture, and, of course, advertising and consumer aesthetics. There seems no doubt that advertising, like film and architecture,produces aesthetic representations, often the aesthetic representation is intended to be understood as "beauty." And, it is for the representation of beauty, particularly female beauty, that advertising has received the strongest of social criticism (Lakoff and Scherr 1984, Wolf 1991). In fact, one could viably conclude from Wolf's thesis that the concept of contemporary beauty is an illusory and impossible concept created by the beast of advertising (Wolf, pp. 108-119, pp. 276-279).

Beauty as a social issue raises some very intriguing questions for researchers in advertising and consumer aesthetics. While contemporary aesthetic philosophers and artists see little evidence or use of beauty in contemporary art, something intended to be understood as "beauty" is being represented by advertisers in the media. Something called "beauty" is being produced by advertisers and consumed by society in large quantities via the mass media, most predominantly in television and magazines. For example, upon the covers and in the pages of women's and fashion magazines are faces and individuals intended to be understood as possessing beauty, in some manner. Are these representations really "beauty" or are they Platonic ideals impossible to attain? Are these representations called "beauty" objective in any sense or are they merely subjective preferences utilized to market consumer products? [Briefly, objective beauty means beauty is a universal aesthetic ideal derived from reality external to the mind and validated by the mind via reason. Objective beauty means the ideal was derived from the external reality and the beautiful object exists as an aspect of reality independently of the mind's validation of beauty. Objective beauty need not involve collective assent nor disinterest.] [Briefly, subjective beauty means beauty is a subjective ideal derived not from reality but from the subject's mind. Subjective means the ideal is found in the contents of mind and not in the external reality and the beautiful exists as a subjective preference based emotions, feeling, politics, or anything conceivable.] Well reasoned answers to such questions can be very important to consumer research, especially when quantitative consumer research (Kamins 1990, Richins 1991) is premised on certain answers to such philosophical questions. For example, Richins (1991) bases her research methodology and effort on the assumption that the answers to the above questions are, citing Lakoff and Scherr, that the idealized beauty represented in advertising is an impossible ideal utilized to subjectively market products, resulting in self-alienation in consumers. The point of this discussion is not to engage in any market critique polemics, but simply to examine the concept of "beauty" in light of aesthetic philosophy in order to ensure that our foundation for understanding beauty and consumer aesthetics is solid and secure. If I am successful in this preliminary endeavor, then consumer research into beauty will be better founded and we may better understand the phenomenon of beauty, so much in exodus in contemporary art and so abundant in the contemporary beast of advertising.


Perhaps the best place to begin the inquiry is not at the beginning of philosophic thought on beauty, but with the contemporary social critiques of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics. After distilling the essence of the contemporary critiques, we will then examine the various philosophies of beauty in order to see where the contemporary critiques fit and to see which philosophy, if any, may help us understand the concept of beauty.

The contemporary understanding of beauty seems to hold it as axiomatic that beauty is subjective or that any standard of beauty must be relative. We have all heard the phrases "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" or "what is beautiful for you may not be beautiful for me" invoked to explain differences between views on objects held to be beautiful or not. It would seem that nearly all contemporary theorists and artists hold this seemingly truthful and unassailable axiom that beauty is subjective. [An exception would be Kovach (1974), who holds that aesthetic judgments can be objective in a fundamental sense.] It is upon this axiom of beauty as subjective that Lakoff and Scherr and Wolf build their critiques of beauty aesthetics in advertising.

Beauty, for Lakoff and Scherr, is transitory, indefinable, best understood in terms of emotion, and is ultimately subjective.

"Judgments about beauty, being subjective rather than objective, differ from person to person and one person's judgment cannot be 'proved' right or wrong." (p. 67).

From this premise, they argue that the beauty represented in the media and by models in advertising is illusory and artificial. "(H)owever 'natural' the beauty may look, artificiality is at the core of the is pure illusion made to look invitingly common and millions nourished by this fantasy are...trying to create themselves in its image" (pp. 112-114). They conclude that this can only generate dissatisfaction and schizophrenia among women. Wolf adopts the same premises and explicitly takes the conclusions a step further. That beauty could be objective or universal is a myth because

"'Beauty' is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics." (p. 12)

Further, since "there is nothing 'objective' about beauty" (p. 36), representations implying such beauty and perfection in advertising must necessarily be untrue and, therefore, coercive. Thus, for Wolf, ultimately, the portrayal of beauty is coercion. [By the same logic, the portrayal of the ugly must be liberation.]

Now it seems to this author that both Lakoff and Scherr and Wolf have made some rather bold statements about consumer behavior and the power of beauty in advertising. Implicit in their conclusions is the acceptance of the position of philosophic determinism via advertising. It is not necessary here to provide the refutations of philosophic determinism (Branden 1969, Locke 1966, 1969), nor specifically advertising determinism (Kirkpatrick 1986). However, what is key here is to explore the concept of beauty to determine if it is indeed wholly subjective and illusory or if it has any objective qualities which may be misunderstood. As we shall see, Lakoff and Scherr and Wolf are not really saying anything original about the nature or understanding of beauty. In fact, the notion of beauty as coercive or corrupting has been utilized by philosophers since Plato to explain things from hedonism to the rise of totalitarianism (Kallen 1942).

As Tatarkiewicz (1972) shows, the "great theory of beauty" has virtually disappeared from twentieth century aesthetics, in both theory and practice. Perhaps facilitating this disappearance of beauty has been the "dogmatic skepticism" of aestheticians on the possibility or value of defining beauty (Osbourne 1970, p. 252). While there is no doubt that certain difficulties arise in the process of developing a definition of beauty and building theories on such definitions (Jessup 1932), this should not prevent us from assessing definitions and theories of beauty in order to improve the precision of our own thinking about beauty and possibly move us toward a clearly reasoned theory of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics.

Classifications of Theories of Beauty

In the history of aesthetic philosophy, theories of beauty have been loosely classified in several categories (Exhibit 1). Carritt (1914) places the various theories of beauty into five categories: Hedonistic-Moral, Realist-Typical, Intellectualist, Emotionalist, and Expressionist. The Hedonistic-Moral category is exemplified by Plato's view of beauty, wherein beauty possesses potential for moral edification, but is a mere imitation of an imitation of the Ideal Form making beauty a seductress of the hedonistic pleasure derived from worldly things. The Realist-Typical category is best exemplified by Aristotle's view that art imitates natural things as they could be or should be based on their essence (truth). Thus, beauty was represented by symmetry, order, and definiteness. The Intellectualist category is best exemplified by Kant's view of beauty as involving no quality or ideal or concept of the aesthetic object but only the harmony of mental and perceptual faculties. The Emotionalist theories are typified by Schopenhauer's conception of beauty as contemplation and Nietzsche's association of beauty, not with reason, but with Dionysian desire and spirit. The Expressionist category is exemplified by Croce's view that beauty is the passionate expression of aesthetic intuition. Moore (1942) classifies the theories of beauty into the categories of subjective and objective. The subjective theory encompasses empiricism and hedonism typified by Hume and Plato and the objective theory includes Aristotelian formalism.

Osbourne (1970), among his various classifications of general aesthetic theories, identifies three specific theories of beauty. Two of the theories he classifies as idealist, one "perfectionist" and one "metaphysical." The perfectionist idealist theory, popular with the Greeks and during the Renaissance, holds that beauty is represented by the improvement or "perfection" of natural things by eliminating any individual imperfections and focussing on universals. This Aristotelian approach is contrasted with metaphysical idealism, grounded in Plato, which conceives of representing an ideal beauty not found in nature or in the sensible world. Osbourne also identified a "functionalist" theory of beauty, a theory also founded in Greek and Aristotelian thought, which holds that there is no fundamental distinction between the fine and the utilitarian arts. From this, the functional theory holds that "adaptation to purpose" is part of the meaning of kalos ("beautiful") and is a necessary condition of beauty but not a sufficient condition. Thus, an aesthetic object could be beautiful if its formal design was adapted to its purpose and was visibly so.

So far, we have only briefly discussed some key elements in the classification of theories of beauty. The purpose of this discussion, while having been necessarily very brief, has been to show, in a very simple manner, how aestheticians have classified beauty, in order that we may better see where the critiques of beauty in advertising may belong. From there, we will proceed to a more substantive exploration of the essence of the concepts of beauty. To that end, the author has taken the liberty to loosely group the various categories under two headings, the "Possible" and the "Impossible," which summarize the essence of various categories of theories. The "Possible" theory of beauty is primarily of an Aristotelian nature and it sees "beauty" as potentially objective and the result of the purposeful improvement and perfection of natural things (including humans) via both form and idea. The "Impossible" theory of beauty is primarily of Platonic-Kantian origin and sees beauty as residing in some ineffable realm, either beyond the sensible world or entirely in the realm of subjective consciousness, experienced or expressed through subjective emotions or feelings or pleasures. Thus, in the 'Impossible" theory, beauty is impossible to objectively define or represent and is, ultimately, impossible to know with any certainty. It seems rather obvious that the fundamental premises of Lakoff and Scherr, Wolf, and Richins, and the critique of beauty in advertising lie within the "Impossible" theory of beauty. The key questions now arise for understanding the production and consumption of a thing understood as "beauty" in advertising (and perhaps for a better understanding of consumer aesthetics). To explore the questions of objective vs. subjective beauty and possible vs. impossible beauty, we must turn to the fundamental aesthetic ideas of Plato, Kant and Aristotle. For in these thinkers lies the essential foundation for contemporary discussions of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics.

Plato's Theory of Beauty

It is in Plato's theory of beauty that we find the philosophic foundation of modern theories of beauty, most specifically, the theories of Kant (1790), who laid the foundation of twentieth century thought on beauty (Osbourne 1970). For Plato, the world known via the senses was not real in any true sense, but only a reflection or imitation of the world of forms. Art (and beauty) were only imitations of imitations of the true world of forms (Republic 600e5). While Plato thought that art could provide some moral edification, he still held that art was frivolous (Republic 602b) and potentially dangerous, warranting control by the state. Regarding beauty specifically, Plato held an other-world view best summarized by the following quotation. For Plato, the essence of beauty is:

"...that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you;...but what if man had eyes to see the true beautyCthe divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the vanities of human lifeCthither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine. Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but a reality), and bringing forth true virtue immortal, if any mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?" (Symposium 211-212)



Consistent with his general view of art, Plato places the "true" and "real" beauty beyond the senses and the sensible world of mortals and in a realm of pure contemplation of the divine. This contemplation of the divine is a source of true virtue, unspoiled by the mortal world. Thus, worldly beauty is ultimately not true nor real nor virtuous. This is the first philosophical source for the critique of beauty in advertising and the source of the views of Wolf and Lakoff and Scherr.

Aristotle's Theory of Beauty

In contrast to Plato, Aristotle's theory of beauty places beauty (and the perfect) in the realm of nature or the natural sensible world and not in any mystical, ineffable, or supernatural realm. Nature or the natural world, in Aristotle's meaning, is all the elements and particulars of this world, including all living things such as trees, animals and man. And, importantly, the productive and creative works of man are also natural, to man. For Aristotle, beauty is found in nature and is known through man's reason via the senses. This conception of beauty is complex and has important ramifications.

"Beauty" and "the good" were synonymous for Aristotle in a fundamental sense (Marshall 1953). The beautiful and the good are in nature and are at the beginning of knowledge and movement of many things (Metaphysics 1072b31). Thus, beauty has an ontological and teleological status, not just an aesthetic status, both of which are fundamental to its aesthetic status. The source of beauty is nature (including the works of man), and, nature can often cause perfect beauty, even in animals and man (Parts of Animals 645a16-25). Because beauty is an ontological concept, Aristotle held that the sciences and mathematics can demonstrate the definition or prove the attributes of the beautiful (Metaphysics 1078a31-35). The attributes or content of beauty would include order, symmetry and definiteness (Metaphysics 1078b1); number and magnitude (Politics 1326a33); a unity and perceivable wholeness (Poetics 1450b35-38); and an absence of the haphazard and a purposefulness of all parts to an end (Parts of Animals 645a16-25). Since beauty is natural and possible for both woman and man (Rhetoric 1361a8), beauty would entail a good-sized, or appropriate (Marshall 1953) body, and the attributes of beauty would vary over one's life as one aged (Rhetoric 1361b5-15). Since beauty is natural and its attributes are demonstrable or quantifiable, it is of value to woman and man. Not only is beauty synonymous with the good, it also goes together with the "best" (Metaphysics 1072a32-35), it is a constituent of happiness and eudaimonia (the full life of thought and action) (Rhetoric 1360b22), and beauty is a good thing which is pleasant and sometimes desirable in and for itself (Rhetoric 1362b8). For Aristotle, beauty is real, natural, has a measurable content, and is a value to woman and man.

With regard to Aristotle's conception of beauty in aesthetics, one must grasp the concept of teleology and purposiveness in art. Aristotle considered the teleological movement of organic nature, including man and his art, toward the "better" or "best" (Butcher 1896). For man and art, the "best" is identified with one's purpose, end, or design. While "purposiveness" and "best" are fundamental to nature and art, nature can sometimes not fulfill or reach its purpose and its best (due to chance or accident). Thus man and art, by discovering the universals of nature through reason, will assist nature in reaching its end by eliminating the accidentals and imperfections and stressing the essential in order to improve the object in nature (Physics II8). Therefore, art is concerned with coming-to-be and perfecting nature. With regard to beauty, the artist creates beauty by discovering and following the essence of beauty in nature. "Thus, it is possible for the artist to create works of beauty...what must be achieved in art is the production of beauty which is like the beauty of nature; and this is not slavish imitation." (Marshall p. 230).

This view of beauty was very influential during the Renaissance, wherein artists such as Michaelangelo and Da Vinci believed in some form of "objective" criteria for producing beauty in art. However, the "objective" theory of art became more of an "intrinsic" theory of art with the seventeenth century Formalists' dogmatic advocacy of certain rules. Eventually both gave way to Humean empiricism and Kantian subjectivism. With regard to beauty in advertising, it has been held that "aristotelian aesthetic" is fundamental to advertising aesthetic (Vacker 1992). It also seems obvious that the critiques of Lakoff and Scherr and Wolf are not consistent with Aristotle's conception of beauty.

Kant's Theory of Beauty

Kant's (1790) theory of beauty is perhaps the singularly most influential treatise on beauty in history. It has certainly laid the foundation, or posed the problems, for all subsequent aesthetic thought, including that of the twentieth century, which has yet to emerge from the spectre of Kant (Osbourne Ch. 7). Like Aristotle's thoughts on beauty, Kant's are extremely complex and unlike Aristotle's scattered sentences about beauty, Kant's thoughts are contained in a systematic treatise. Kant's theory is a complex modern form of Platonism and he comes to nearly the exact opposite conclusions of Aristotle.

Kant held that our knowledge of the natural world, or reality, is formally structured by our sensory perceptions and categories of comprehension. He theorized that a "transcendental aesthetic" mediated between the sensible world of appearance and the super-sensible world of ultimate reality and comprehension (White 1979). Since our sensory perceptions structured our knowledge of the sensible or natural world, we were aware only of a subjective appearance of the natural world, not the world in any objective sense. The aesthetic evaluation of these mediating perceptions were to be under the auspices of "judgment" (Kant, pp. 1-40). In contrast to Aristotle, Kant held that we do not directly know reality but only the "appearance" of reality and that "taste" was the faculty of estimating the beautiful of "appearance." Thus, Kant's theory is concerned with the subjective forms of beauty.

Kant posited four "moments" of aesthetic judgment of beauty. In the first moment, the moment of "quality," a judgment of beauty refers not to an object in the natural world, but only to imagination, and is non-cognitive, non-logical and, necessarily subjective (pp. 41-50). In the second moment, called "quantity," beauty must be disinterested, subjective, non-conceptual, and "free" from the liking of an object (pp. 50-60). The third moment, the "relation" of ends, "beauty" is a priora and independent of "perfection." (pp. 60-68). Thus, the "average" is the "stature of the beautiful man" (p. 78). However, beauty "involves no thought whatsoever of the object" (p. 70). For beauty to be "free" it must be independent of a purpose or end and cannot be perfection. "Dependent" beauty is ascribed to an object with a purpose or end or utility. Further, since purposes or ends entail a good, to combine good with beauty mars beauty (p. 73). The fourth moment of "modality" involves, somehow, the universally subjective becoming objective. While Kant's four moments are complex (see Johnson 1979, Petock 1973, and Zimmerman 1963), some conclusions can be drawn for the purpose of this paper.

Kant sees beauty as the judgment of subjective feelings of appearances (of reality) formally structured in our sensory perceptions (for an enlightening critique of Kant's theory of perception, see Kelley 1986). Thus beauty is non-objective, non-conceptual, and non-logical wherein such judgments are apart from objects, reason and purpose. In contrast to Aristotle, beauty does not entail the good or perfection. A thing cannot be proved to be beautiful on the ground that it belongs to a certain class or has certain characteristics or has utility because a judgment of beauty is non-cognitive and is the pure feeling of the observer (Osbourne pp. 174-175). Therefore, for Kant, it is "impossible" to identify any universal principles or properties of beauty. Further, for a beauty to be "free" it must not have a concept of object, perfection (the "best"), or a relationship with purpose or utility value (Osbourne p. 177). A free beauty entails no notion of how a thing, or person, "should be;" or, for that matter, what a thing "is." Unlike Aristotle, who held that beauty was a perfection of nature and man or woman, Kant held that beauty involves not the best, but the average in nature and man or woman. Ultimately, as with Plato, beauty is found in "contemplation" apart from reality.

Kant's theory of beauty has influenced all subsequent thought on beauty (for example, see Schiller 1795, Santayana 1896, Gadamer 1986) and was very influential in the decline of beauty in aesthetics (Tatarkiewicz 1972). Kantian thought directly influenced Schiller and Marx (Morawski 1970), and the critique of commodity aesthetics first started by Marx and Engels (1947) and furthered recently by Haug (1986).


Thus far we have been discussing the general categories of theories of beauty and the three preeminent theories of beauty in order to ascertain the fit of the critiques of beauty in advertising. Primarily, the task has been descriptive, not evaluative, of the theories and critiques. This has been to briefly show the philosophical traditions which embody the theories and where beauty in consumer aesthetics may belong. Now the task must move to an evaluative effort so that we can see which theories may best support sound research into the production and consumption of beauty in advertising. The task here will not be to develop a full theory (a task well beyond the scope and length of this paper) but only to critique the theories and to offer a modest speculation on the theory of beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics.

The "Impossible" Theory of Beauty

Earlier in the paper, I loosely categorized the theories of beauty into the "Impossible" and the "Possible" beauty. For the purposes of this paper, I think this categorization accurately describes the essence of the existing theories. The "Impossible" theory of beauty holds that, ultimately, it is impossible to know with certainty the attributes, characteristics, qualities, or definition of beauty which is ascribed to an object in the real world. This theory is best exemplified by Plato and Kant and is commonly held to be a subjectivist theory. This is the view held in the critiques of beauty aesthetics in advertising. However, this subjectivist view which is prevalent today, is highly problematic, especially when applied to criticize other conceptions of beauty.

Aristotle disagreed with the Platonic-Mystical conception of beauty (Metaphysics 1078a31-35) and recently others have seen the difficulty of making Kant's subjectivism intelligible in understanding beauty (Petock 1973, Johnson 1979). At root, the subjectivist theory seems to leave us with no possible conception of beauty, beyond arbitrary assertions. And, especially with beauty in advertising, if representations of beauty are subjective, then there are no valid grounds to criticize any representation, even those in advertisingCbecause, after all, beauty is subjective. Fundamentally, the subjectivist criticism of beauty in advertising denies the premises upon which a criticism should rest. If we are to criticize a representation of beauty in advertising then it seems we should have some form of objective and logical ground to rest such criticisms. Plato's mysticism and Kant's subjectivism, both variants of "impossible" beauty, simply do not leave us with valid grounds for criticisms of beauty.

The critiques of beauty by Lakoff and Scherr and Wolf are of explicit Kantian origin, particularly in Kant's aesthetic "moments." The criticism that beauty in advertising is subjective and falsely attributes beauty to individuals and commodities (Haug 1986) or objects is rooted in Kant's first moment. The idea that beauty is non-logical results in beauty in advertising being criticized as emotional coercion via "images" of beauty. The criticism of representations of beauty in advertising as being false and only in the advertiser's or media's interest is rooted in Kant's second moment where true beauty is found in disinterested contemplation. The criticism that the beauty in advertising is "perfection," impossible to almost all people, is rooted in Kant's third moment where true beauty must be independent of "perfection." The criticism that beauty in advertising is coercion (Wolf) is also founded in the third moment where "free" beauty must be independent of perfection, liking an object (commodity), and purpose or end. For beauty to be "free" it must be independent of objects, individuals, and purposes, all of which are manifest in advertising. Because of Kant's problematic view of the "form" of sensory perception (Kelley 1986), he denies the possible objectivity of aesthetic judgment, purpose, and object and leads him to separate perfection, beauty, and freedom from the natural sensible world. Thus, anything beautiful cannot be beautiful, perfect, or free because it exists and is. Such are the inherent problems of the "impossible" theory of beauty, which is explicit in the critiques of beauty in advertising.

The Possible Theory of Beauty

At first thought, one might assume that if the beautiful is not in some mystical realm or in a subjective consciousness, then it must be in the objects in reality, such as in paintings or buildings or statues or individuals and objects in advertising. However, this is not the case, because if it were, then beauty would be "intrinsic" to the object (Santayana, p.21). The intrinsic theory of beauty is tautologous because in it the object is beautiful because it is; or it is beautiful in and of itself, apart from anything of which it may be beautiful to or for. Therefore, this is just another variation on the subjectivist theory of beauty. The questions then arise: Where and what is "beauty?"

Fundamental to discovering where and what beauty is is understanding Aristotelian teleology and its relationship to beauty. Aristotelian teleology holds that universal values can be derived from facts by understanding natural ends or functions (Gotthelf 1976). "Goodness is neither an intrinsic feature of things or actions, nor is it simply a subjective phenomenon of consciousness. Rather, goodness is an aspect of reality in relation to the needs or ends of living things" (Rasmussen and Den Uyl p. 57). Thus,

"There are no intrinsically beautiful or good or right things, only things that are good, right, or beautiful in relation to living entities for which things can be good, right, or beautiful in terms of purposes or goals" (Tibor Machan quoted in Rasmussen and Den Uyl, p. 57).

This complex theory of where beauty is may be better grasped by understanding what beauty is. Beauty exists as a universal in reality, a universal founded in the relation between things and human purposes. Beauty is a broad universal because it is ideal. Beauty as a universal ideal arises in the complex relation between things and humans purposively living their lives. [In the process of living life, the human being is faced with many choices, some given and some self-created, and must volitionally choose from among them. From this context, the necessity of choosing from many alternatives or possibilities to sustain one's life, one's ideals naturally arise. For the normal adult, ideals arise as the end product of numerous choices made over time in answer to the question of what is best for one's life. Choices are potentialities and they are real. If one seeks to further one's life, one chooses the best among the available potentialities known to one in a given context. From having to choose throughout one's life the best among the potentialities, one develops a conception of the best or the "ideal" potentiality for one's life which serves as a standard for choosing what is best to actualize in living one's life. Thus, the ideal as a cognitive abstraction identifies what is best for one's life and the ideal becomes a normative abstraction when it identifies what ought to be best for one's life. These cognitive and normative abstractions are not physical entities, they are mental existents of mind in reality. Thus, the need to "see" or "show" these ideals in a perceptual form naturally arises. Aesthetic ideals are abstractions which identify what ought to be the best among possibilities in reality, possibilities which can become actualities if one chooses and follows the proper course. Beauty is the actualization of a potential, a potential in the form of an aesthetic ideal.] Thus, beauty requires a metaphysical dimension and an epistemological structure and beauty exists in the relation between the dimension (the thing) and the structure (the universal ideal). Beauty is universal in that its structure can accommodate an open-ended range of particular things on its dimension. Ideals arise from the necessity of choice in human living (see footnote 4), and since choice requires potentials, beauty is the actualization of a potential or a universal ideal. As a potential actualized, beauty is realized when its dimension (a thing) quantifiably satisfies its structure; thus, beauty may be said to be the contextual quantification of an aesthetic ideal according to purpose. This quantification of dimension according to structure is, for beauty, the relation between things and human purposes for which things can be beautiful. For our purposes, this conception of beauty has three important implications. First, since beauty is the actualization of potentiality, beauty exists in the unison of the is and the ought (or should be) and this gives rise to the broad normative implications of beauty. Thus, the beautiful is synonomous with the moral or the good. However, it could be that because beauty is an actualized potential ideal and exists in the unison of is and ought, beauty could be more fundamental than the moral and this may explain why the beautiful or the aesthetic can be more moving than just the moral. Second, since beauty exists as the actualization of a potential, then beauty is clearly possible and real. As a universal ideal, beauty (and perfection) can exist as the best possible for a purpose within a context, a context found in the nature of things and their ends. That real things can be beautiful would seem to indicate an objective status for beauty and that principles of beauty can be derived from the actualized beauty, principles that offer wide latitude due to the variety of things and human purposes. Further, the actualization of potential beauty would also indicate a purposive or functional element in the structure of beauty, an element which provides both structural and dimensional utility and requires interest, not disinterest as most theories hold. Third, this theory of beauty sees beauty not as an "appearance" nor as "skin deep" but as the actualization of potentiality requiring the unity of inner and outer or function and form or the moral and the beautiful. If this theory of beauty is correct, then the beauty in advertising is not an "appearance" or "image" but is the representation of potential actualized and is possible not impossible.

From this Aristotelian context, we can postulate a modest theory of how beauty is produced and consumed in advertising and consumer aesthetics. The production of beauty begins with things or objects in reality (dimension) and is guided by principles or ideals (structure) based on purposes and context. The production of beauty involves the process of aesthetic abstraction, an epistemological process of moving from the particular to the universal. Aesthetic abstraction involves the selection of universals and omission of non-universal of things in reality, and the measurement, quantification and contextualization of such universals according to purpose. For example, the production of a beautiful woman in an ad involves the selection of a model based on her universal features (the dimension) which satisfy the principles or ideals (the structure) derived from the context and purpose of the ad. The measurement, quantification, and contextualization processes involve the selection, photography, lighting, make-up, set design, apparel selection, and airbrushing. Thus, the selected model is a particular thing in reality, chosen among many, through which the universal is conveyed via the process of aesthetic abstraction. A universal "should be" is represented by a particular "is." The dimension and structure of beauty require beauty to exist in the unison of is and ought and this is no less true for beauty portrayed in advertising and consumer aesthetics, be it a woman, man, product, package, location or any conceivable thing of beauty. Aristotelian aesthetics involve the representation of things as they "could be" or "should be" based on the universal of the thing represented and are held to be fundamental to advertising (Vacker 1992). Beauty as a "should be" is conveyed as a universal through its representation as an "is".

The consumer of beauty, in an Aristotelian interpretation, consumes not the particular representation of beauty in the particular ad, but, through the particular representation, consumes the universal of beauty. Thus, what is consumed is not the actual object of beauty, but the universal or essence of beauty. What is consumed is the "should be." The consumer consumes the universal of beauty by applying the universal of beauty to the particulars, context, and purposes of their own life. The universal of beauty is then measured or quantified for utility in one's own life. In this context, every female does not necessarily want to be exactly like (top model) Uma Thurman; they may only want to be the "best" they can be in terms of universal beauty represented by Thurman. It is this production and consumption of beauty according to freely chosen purposes (of course, not all purposes are "objective") that provides beauty with a catallactic function and which may partially explain why "beauty" is demanded and produced in such large quantities in the media and consumer aesthetics.

Beauty is produced and consumed in a complex manner, the full extent of which is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is important to realize in this context that an evaluative standard is operating in both producers and consumers of beauty. For example, if the consumer evaluating the beauty in the ad holds an "impossible" ideal of beauty, then these possibilities may seem impossible. Thus, this consumer may at first be attracted to such beauty, but because of the belief in the impossibility of such beauty the consumer would feel frustration in any attempt to emulate such impossible beauty. This is the philosophical source for consumer alienation with respect to beauty. There is no doubt that such "alienation" exists among some consumers (Richins 1991), for if one accepts the impossible theory then alienation will inevitably result from the sight of beauty. Such alienation results not from beauty or the use of beauty per se but from the philosophy of the consumer. Consumers subscribing to a "possible" theory may be more likely to find inspiration, not alienation, in such beauty and would be more adept in applying the universal to their own lives. Additionally, it is the implicit acceptance of the impossible theory of beauty on the part of advertisers that results in the aesthetic representation of negative stereotypes of female beauty in some advertising. For example, in a beer commercial, the aesthetic representation of a mostly disrobed curvaceous young female as beauty object or sexual ornamentation and the portrayal of appreciative (pseudo-masculine) "average males" clearly reflects the "impossible" theory. The "beauty" represented is a beauty of superficiality, wherein the advertiser portrays the average male as a being to whom the mind of a female would be of no importance because beauty is found only in the immediately (Kantian) sensate world of appearances and physical gratification. The "beauty" of the female portrayal represents the same principle; she is portrayed as approving of being seen as a beauty object whose physical appearance is more important than an intelligent mind. The emphasis of the sensate to the exclusion of the mental can only result in beauty representations designed for the lowest common denominator. No doubt such males exist and though the advertiser may think he/she is representing "reality" as it is, in reality, the advertiser is trying to represent beauty and sexuality without substance or context. For in reality, beauty and sexuality can only exist in a being of integrated mind and body, not in only a purely physical representation. These mindless representations are merely mannequins and not "beautiful" humans. And, it is for these mannequins that advertising deserves the strongest condemnation. Such condemnations are best supported by the "possible" theory of beauty.


This paper has examined the "beauty" in advertising and consumer aesthetics in light of traditional theories of beauty. It seems that not all theories of beauty are compatible with understanding beauty in advertising. This paper has termed the "possible" theory of beauty as offering the best understanding of the production and consumption of beauty, wherein beauty is seen as real and potentially objective. Grasping these fundamental ideas should insure that our thought and research about beauty in advertising and consumer aesthetics is securely grounded.


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Barry Vacker, Southern Methodist University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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