Academic journal article Women and Language

She Designed: Deciphering Messages Targeting Women in Commercials Aired during Ally McBeal

Academic journal article Women and Language

She Designed: Deciphering Messages Targeting Women in Commercials Aired during Ally McBeal

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study examines Ally McBeal episodes and the commercials aired during those episodes using commodity feminism and fantasy theme analysis as critical lenses. With the aim of illuminating rhetorical themes found in both the show and the advertisements, this study concludes that Ally McBeal and its corporate sponsors employ similar tactics, themes, and messages to create a unified persuasive appeal to the postfeminist target audience. First, the analysis delineates the way in which the commercials define the ideal woman as one who is sexy, intelligent, powerful, and like other ideal women. Second, the study documents how recurring fantasy themes found woven in and out of Ally McBeal and its commercials center on the quest for self-actualization through the achievement of childhood dreams and through the pursuit of power in the workplace, over other people, and through physical beauty. Finally, this critique explicates how the episode and commercial similarities reinforce appeals to the postfeminist target audience to the extent that those appeals are spoken in unison.


It's time to fall in love--with me or my Old Navy Capris.

So many colors, so little time. How can I choose?

Some say opposites attract. I think it's these bungees.

Who says you can't buy love?

--Old Navy commercial aired during Ally McBeal

During its five-season run, Ally McBeal captured the attention of television viewers and critics alike. From its Fall 1997 debut to the final episode in Spring 2002, this Twentieth Century Fox production, created by David E. Kelly (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, and Boston Public), garnered nearly 14 million regular female viewers in the United States alone (Nielsen, 2000, 2002). After airing only 13 weeks, the show was dubbed by Newsweek reporter Veronica Chambers as "the 90s answer to Mary Tyler Moore" (1998, p. 58).

Representing what many have called "the average postfeminist," Harvard law graduate Ally, played by actress Calista Flockhart, unsuccessfully seeks personal contentment and true love in the milieu of her upscale workplace, the fictitious Boston law firm Cage & Fish. Each episode features her entangled in a web of hopeless relationships and trying social predicaments. Audiences find her daydreaming on the job and using office hours to plot her next attempt at fulfillment. Chambers notes, "She has all the professional advantages Mary [Tyler Moore] never had, but...she [Ally] doesn't want to make it on her own" (p. 58).

Chambers says that twenty- and thirty-something professional women either love the show or hate it. Even in syndication, some viewers continue to identify with Ally's longing for the "best of both worlds"--the dream job and the husband/family, while others, savvy to the show's postfeminist leanings, decry the manner in which Kelly portrayed Ally as a self-defeatist professional bound to sex role stereotypes. Regardless of the approval or disapproval, the viewership is present and the stage set for advertisers to peddle their wares.

Most television viewers see commercials as innocuous but necessary interruptions that fund their entertainment. But critics and analysts purport that the primary function of television programming is to create a target audience whose captive attention is primed for the display of products and services. Advertising influences and reflects the culture to which it appeals. Though its goal is to sell a specific brand name product, it also peddles an identity. Discriminating consumers should understand how media creators appeal to goals and values.

The goal of this study was to discern how a television show and the commercials aired during that show create a unified rhetorical appeal to a target audience. Specifically, this study analyzes the social reality that is co-constructed by Ally McBeal and its corporate sponsors. …

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