Gender advertisement

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Gender advertisement refers to the images in advertising that depict stereotypical gender roles and displays. Gender displays are used heavily in advertising in order to establish the role of one gender in relation with the other, and some scholars argue that advertisers are obsessed with gender.[1] Advertisers focus on gender relationships, because people define themselves by gender, and gender can be "communicated at a glance", making it easy for advertisers to use this theme in their work.[1] The effects of advertising on body image have been studied by researchers, ranging from psychologists to marketing professionals.[2][3][4] "These days we know that the media and body image are closely related. Particularly, the body image advertising portrays affects our own body image. Of course, there are many other things that influence our body image: parenting, education, intimate relationships, and so on. The popular media does have a big impact, though."[5] This is because thousands of advertisements contain messages about physical attractiveness and beauty, examples which include commercials for clothes, cosmetics, weight reduction, and physical fitness.[6] Researchers have conducted studies in an attempt to see if such advertisements have effects on teenage body image, and what those effects might be.[2] Scholars from the University of Colorado and Millsaps College conducted research that concluded that the images, symbols, and practices of the media are used by the audiences they reach and that media does, in important ways, have the “last word” concerning the way individuals feel about themselves.[7] Women account for 85% of consumer purchases.[8]

Creation and maintenance of gender normality[edit]

Advertising is a significant agent of socialization in modern industrialized societies, and is used as a tool to maintain certain social constructions, such as gender. Men and women are depicted as differing in attitudes, behavior, and social statuses.[9] These differences are what separate the sexes into different genders. Gender advertisements give the viewers a glimpse into a world laden with socially defined and constructed gender relations, displays, and roles.[10] These images are crafted to mimic real life and many mistake the concepts of fantasy and reality in regards to advertising.[11] Erving Goffman would call it "commercial realism", when advertisers try to present the advertising world in ways which it could be real.[12] Goffman argues that advertisements do not look strange to us, when they should. Advertisements take something that exists already in the world and they change it, forming a distorted reflection. "They emphasize some things and de-emphasize others," it is a hyper ritualization of the world, and we recognize, and even relate with some of the images.[1]

Role of gender in advertising[edit]

It is argued that these images could be teaching the viewers a vast array of social cues, and even the most subtle ones make an impact on the viewers.[13] Further it is said that gender relations are learned through advertisements.[1] Among these learned gender roles are those of femininity and masculinity. Men and women are portrayed in advertisements according to the constructed definition of femininity and masculinity. To be a woman is to be feminine and to be a man is to be masculine. There is little room for variation or a reversal of roles, except within the smaller frame of niche marketing.[14]

Masculinity in advertising[edit]

In advertising, men are often portrayed in the following ways:[14]

  • Alert and conscious of surroundings
  • Standing upright
  • Eyes open and looking around
  • Bodies are controlled
  • Mean expression on face
  • Gripping things tightly with hands
  • Hands in pockets
  • Serious
  • Physically active

Bravery, adventurousness, being able to think rationally, being strong and effective, for example, are all "manly" traits that are usually encouraged. So also are the ability to think independently and take the initiative. Media images supporting these behaviors include the strong, silent Marlboro man and military ads telling young men to be 'all you can be'.

— Sam Femiano and Mark Nickerson, How do Media Images of Men Affect Our Lives,

Social pressure on men to endorse traditional masculinity and sexuality in advertising[edit]

Since the 1980s, men's bodies have been used more frequently in advertising, depicting a similarly idealized body image to that portrayed of women.[15] Research suggests that men feel social pressure to endorse traditional masculine male models in advertising. Research by Martin and Gnoth (2009) found that feminine men preferred feminine models in private, but stated a preference for the traditional masculine models when their collective self was salient. In other words, when concerned about being classified by other men as feminine, feminine men endorsed traditional masculine models. The authors suggested this result reflected the social pressure on men to endorse traditional masculine norms.[16] Researchers, such as Mary Martin and James Gentry, have found that teen advertising negatively impacts teenagers' self-esteem by setting unrealistic expectations for them about their physical appearances through the use of idealized models.[2] It has been argued by Dworkin and Wachs (2009) that the widespread image of the 'healthy' and 'fit' bodies used by the media, exemplified by the muscular man and the slim woman promote the idea of an ideal and 'singular' body-type that should be strived after by both genders, but which may not fit with the reality of the disparity of body types.[17] Studies show that these ideals have influences on the expectancies of what a healthy body constitutes in young people and can contribute positive mental health issues in regard to body image.[17] Other researchers, such as Heidi Posavac, acknowledge this, but believe that this only applies to teenagers who already possess low self-esteem or a poor self-images.[3] Further, a growing number of advertisements are showing men as sex objects.[18] A study on male body obsession found that advertisements for everything from cars to underwear depicted bodybuilder images with "washboard abdominal muscles, massive chests, and inflated shoulders, a mixture of muscularity and leanness probably attainable only by drugs".[19] In contrast, researchers, including Terry Bristol, have found teenagers to be generally unaffected by these advertisements due to the idea that repeat exposure can create an immunity to images and messages in advertisements.[4] Moreover, some researchers, such as Paul Humphreys, have concluded that exposure to such advertisements can actually create higher self-esteem in teenagers.[20][21] Though women's equality is advancing in society, men have become more fixated with muscularity because it is still seen as a cultural symbol of masculinity. In addition, it has been suggested that a muscular body has become an aesthetic norm for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.[22]

In a content analysis study of exclusively male images in men's magazines, it was found that most of the bodies in advertising were not 'ordinary', but those of strong and hard 'male figures'. The study showed that males in the advertisements were usually objectified and depersonalized.[23]

The representation of ectomorphs (thin and lightly muscled) was limited predominantly to the advertising of clothing that may look more appealing on slimmer, taller men. Endomorphs (soft and round) were rarely depicted and if they were, tended to be the object of humour. It is important to note that representations of male bodies are often used irrespective of their relevance to the product being promoted.[24]

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in January shows concerns about physique and muscularity in particular, among young males are "relatively common". The researchers said approximately 18 percent of participants in their study (which included 5,527 males) were "extremely concerned for their weight and physique". Furthermore, the researchers found 7.6 percent of young males were "very concerned about muscularity" and were using techniques that could be harmful to obtain an ideal body.[25]

Femininity in advertising[edit]

This ad suggests that using this hormone cream will in fact make you look younger.[26]

Portrayals of women in advertising:[14]

  • Touching self
  • Caressing an object
  • Lying on the floor
  • Sitting on a bed or chair
  • Eyes closed
  • Not alert
  • Confused
  • Vulnerable
  • Body contorted
  • Dressed like a child
  • Holding an object or a man for support
  • Sexy and sexually available
  • Seductive
  • Playful
  • Careless

These are positions of submissiveness and powerlessness. This can be clearly seen when women are shown lying on the floor as men are standing over them, literally depicting women as being beneath men. Women are urged to pursue beauty and sex appeal, and part of the sex appeal is submission.[27] Currently there are campaigns such as the Girl Effect Campaign that have worked to change the way in which women are perceived for the better. These campaigns aim to reclaim the saying "like a girl."[28]

The body – and particularly here the female body – is always inevitably controlled by social norms[29] and the commodification of the body through industries such as fashion and beauty that exhibit femininity.[30]

The discursive constructions of these female bodies are quite plainly 'prepared for consumption' by men. These constructions not only reveal the inevitable gender-power relations about the body but also suggest the cultural ambivalence about sexualized bodily display and image management. This sort of ambivalence both idealizes and denigrates individuals' explicitly performed efforts to produce and portray bodies that conform to societal 'ideals.'[31]


Toys for girls from the 1920s to the 1960s focused heavily on domesticity and nurturing. For example, a 1925 Sears ad for a toy broom-and-mop set proclaimed: "Mothers! Here is a real practical toy for little girls. Every little girl likes to play house, to sweep, and to do mother's work for her." Such toys were clearly designed to prepare young girls to a life of homemaking, and domestic tasks were portrayed as innately enjoyable for women. While girls' toys focused on domesticity, toys for boys from the '20s through the '60s emphasized preparation for working in the industrial economy. For example, a 1925 Sears ad for an Erector Set stated: "Every boy likes to tinker around and try to build things. With an Erector Set he can satisfy this inclination and gain mental development without apparent effort. ... He will learn the fundamentals of engineering." However, late-century marketing relied less on explicit sexism and more on implicit gender cues, such as color, and new fantasy-based gender roles like the beautiful princess or the muscle-bound action hero. These roles were still built upon regressive gender stereotypes – they portrayed a powerful, skill-oriented masculinity and a passive, relational femininity – that were obscured with bright new packaging. In essence, the "little homemaker" of the 1950s had become the "little princess" we see today.

Gender displays in advertising[edit]

In the book gender advertising by Erving Goffman it states: "If gender is defined as the culturally established correlates of sex (whether in consequence of biology or learning) then gender display refers to conventionalized portrayals of those correlates."[12] Gender displays can otherwise be defined as rituals of gender behavior, and they are used to help interpret social reality.[1] This is what advertising mainly borrows from, and for Goffman this is the reason as to why ads do not look strange to the public.[1] Further, Goffman argues that there are codes which can be used to identify gender. These codes of gender can be seen in the portrayals of men and women in advertising. There are four categories under which we can see these codes of gender: the family, the feminine touch, the ritualization of subordination, and licensed withdrawal.[12]

Multiple studies research on how specific genders are portrayed in advertisements. One of such studies, Gender-Role Portrayals in Television Advertising Across the Globe, a 2016 article written by Jörg Matthes, Karoline Adam, and Michael Prieler, underwent a comprehensive study of 13 countries' samples of advertisements and researched various aspects of their construction. The study found that in all sampled advertisements with a "primary character", 50.7% of the roles were held by women, with only 2 of the countries studied, Brazil and South Korea, having percentage pairs of one gender higher than 60% and the other lower than 40%.[32] The study also found that in all sampled advertisements with a "voiceover", 61.8% of them were roles played by exclusively males, with only 2 of the countries studied, France and the United Kingdom, having women with more exclusive voiceovers in the sampled advertisements than men.[33]

A 2010 study on marketing entitled, Is Advertising a barrier to male movement toward gender change?, analyzed commercials during programs targeted to different audiences to examine the portrayal of gender roles to different consumers. The study concluded that in the majority of the different programs and subsequent target audiences researched, men were portrayed with traditionally masculine roles and properties. For example, research found more than 100 advertisements during sports coverage targeted towards men portrayed men as a part of a family, but only 7 of those portrayed said men with emotional aspects and connections with the children in their family.[34] The study also found that in 225 advertisements directed towards children, 7 of them portrayed the role of a father, with 20 of them portraying the role of a mother.[34] Furthermore, the same study found that in 200 commercials during programming directed towards women, only 2 of the advertisements depicted fathers in a supportive role with children.[34]

Role reversal[edit]

Sometimes the traditional gender roles are reversed. When this happens, one can see men behaving in ways that are generally associated with femininity, and women behaving in typically masculine ways. This is often the case in gay[35] and lesbian[36] advertising. Witnessing these ads can be a shock to most, as they are not accustomed to this reversal of roles. This is an indicator that there is in fact a distinction between the genders in advertising.[14]

Effects of advertisements[edit]

Beauty can be defined largely as a perception. It is a group of social norms that interpret a particular form of appearance that is valued. Since almost four decades ago, women have been expected to conform to a particular body image and to behave in a certain manner of which would ultimately decipher and enforce their femininity (Bordo, 1997, p. 94).[37] Both men and women strive to achieve this beauty which influences them to shape themselves and alter their appearance in order to conform to those norms.[38] These norms are largely derived from the media's presentation of models and well known stars through advertisements for products and magazine covers. As our society is now filled with these advertisements in all aspects of life, such as on TV, billboards, in supermarkets displayed with the products (particularly beauty products) and on social media, children are now viewing this material at a younger age and in turn creating the perception that this is the ideal appearance whilst they are still very impressionable. Young children learn by observing and imitating what is presented to them.[39]

In the early twentieth century, society began to pursue material goods with the goal of fulfilling a general desire to own the item rather than for later use.[40] This is largely due to the use of advertising media and the perception, particularly with beauty products, that the models pictured obtain their looks buy using these products.

It is very common for young men and women to compare themselves to models in ads, in terms of their physical attractiveness.[41] The appearance and body size of the models within the advertisements in the final image seen by consumers are, more often than not, altered through editing programs such as Photoshop, in order to achieve the perfect (or impossible) desired look. The use of these images creates a false beauty ideal for both men and women to aspire to, as well as creating the use of extreme dieting and surgical procedures in order to resemble a similar image that is displayed in advertising. This emphasis on an ideal body appearance has been regarded as being psychologically detrimental to the well-being of many young men and women, and on their self-image. The extant research shows that stereotypes can be helpful or detrimental, depending on several factors, such as the gender attitudes of the audience.[42]

Magazine advertisements highlighting a thin, attractive female model yield greater self-objectification and the process of inspecting this type of advertisement can encourage women to think about their physical appearance as if looking on as a critical observer.[43] Images from the media are frequently exposed to Western women, and the usage of skinny idealized women in advertising is prevalent. Data also shows that males who were exposed to advertisements of women being sexually objectified were more likely to believe stereotypes about sex roles as well as rape myth beliefs.[44]

When sexuality is used in advertising, certain values and attitudes towards sex are 'sold' along with a product. The message may be that "innocence is sexy", that women enjoy being dominated, that the use of a certain product is naughty but legal, or that use of a certain product will make the user more attractive to the opposite sex, and many other messages. The way beauty is portrayed in the media causes dissatisfaction and negative thoughts about oneself when those results are not achieved. Sociocultural standards of male images are presented in almost all forms of popular media, barraging men with images that portray what is considered to be the "ideal body". Such standards of beauty are almost completely unattainable for most men; a majority of the models displayed on television and in advertisements are well below what is considered healthy body weight. Mass media's use of such unrealistic models sends an implicit message that in order for a man to be considered beautiful, he must be unhealthy. The mindset that a person can never be "too rich or too thin" is all too prevalent in society, and it makes it difficult for males to achieve any level of contentment with their physical appearance. There has been a plethora of research to indicate that men are negatively affected by constant exposure to models that fulfill the unrealistic media ideal of beauty.[45]

On the other hand, from the minute boys enter the classroom, masculine identity building is taking place in one form or another. At some level, teachers and students, both male and female, often act in accordance with a set of unspoken tenets that are subtly or explicitly reinforced through tacit approval, willing indifference, or a lack of awareness. William Pollack (as cited in Neu & Weinfeld, 2007) calls this set of culturally embedded expectations about masculinity the Boy Code. An examination of this "code" yields new insights about the troublesome behaviors exhibited by many struggling boys in classrooms and reveals why boys with certain styles (SF/Interpersonal and NF/Self-Expressive, specifically) might experience its negative impact more deeply than their peers.[46]

In the book Helping Boys Succeed in School, educators Terry Neu and Rich Weinfeld (2007) capture Pollack's Boy Code in the form of a "dos and don'ts" poster.

  1. Do not cry (no sissy stuff).
  2. Do not cower, tremble, or shrink from danger.
  3. Do not ask for help when you are unsure of yourself (observe the code of silence).
  4. Do not reach for comfort or reassurance.
  5. Do not sing or cry for joy.
  6. Do not hug your dearest friends.
  7. Do not use words to show tenderness and love.

Terry Neu and Rich Weinfield (2007), Helping Boys Succeed in School, p. 24

The research of Neu and Weinfeld shows that the process of developing ideal male images is taking place in classrooms.

Much of the existing literature[who?] on ideal male images has either focused narrowly on the impacts of media on adolescents' views towards ideal male images or parental style on the impacts on this topic. As a result, it often lacks the information necessary to systematically compare different groups' cultural backgrounds.[citation needed]

Body image in advertising[edit]

The impact of media on body image has been closely studied in the past years, today, the prevalence of sexual content in media has become increasingly high. As of 2005, the average teenager in the U.S. consumes 3–4 hours of television a day, 30% of that being advertisements, and many adolescents are consuming 100 or more advertisements a day.[47] With the rise of social media, online advertisements have also become increasingly abundant. Many advertisements depict people with idealized bodies, many of which are photoshopped.[citation needed] The average female model in the U.S. is a size 0 or 00 and is between the age of 14 and 19 years of age while the average woman living in the U.S. wears sizes 12–14.[48] The models shown in many advertisements have bodies that are genetically unattainable.

Studies have shown that consuming advertisements that contain ideal body image leads to an increase in body dissatisfaction, especially in young girls.[49] Regardless of gender, self-objectification when viewing ideal body images in media may lead to negative feelings towards one's body. A 2015 research study revealed that these negative feelings may occur after observing an advertisement for only 3 minutes, specifically advertisements regarding the sexualization of both men and women.[50] Thinking of one's body from an outside viewer's perspective may also lead to body shame, appearance anxiety, and in some cases contributes to certain eating disorders.[49] In the context of women advertisement, the image demonstrates an individual need that can be fulfilled through the women's participation in commodity culture (Nelson, 2013).[51] It must be noted that body-image meaning-transfer can be a lifelong process underlying the perpetual changes in the sociocultural environment, its cultural meaning, body-image trends, and pervasive media beauty ideologies (Yu et al. 2011).[citation needed]

Gender stereotypes and roles[edit]

People organize their knowledge about the world around them by sorting and simplifying received information. Therefore, they create cognitive schemes, which are certain representations of the reality displaying its most typical and fundamental elements and properties. These schemes are responsible for defining the essence of our worldview and have a significant influence on social cognition – understanding, anticipation, situation and emotion control.

Gender roles have also been impacted by the media and advertising. SlutWalk is one phenomenon that emerges through incontemporary "third-wave feminism". The SlutWalk movement helps increase victim visibility and reintroduce sexual violence issues to the public.[52] Gender roles within media and advertising have also been impacted by sex and relationship commitments. Men have positive attitudes toward casual and recreational sex, whereas women value the emotional intimacy and commitment around a sexual relationship.[53] Difficulties in differentiating gender roles in the modern societies can be a perfect example of the negative social effects of using stereotypes. A division of gender roles is deeply rooted in today's society. Through the ages men have been considered to be financial providers, career-focused, assertive and independent, whereas women have been shown as low-position workers, loving wives and mothers, responsible for raising children and doing housework. Nowadays a family model is based rather on a partnership than on patriarchy and women have more rights and possibilities on the labor market. Feminist environment had a significant impact on the change in this situation. Women's liberation movement fought for the rights of women and for redefining traditional gender roles. Although females and males are still not equal, the differences between gender are not so vast anymore. Nevertheless, many social institutions, such as mass media, still use gender stereotypes, based on the assumption that they are well known to everyone and help the receivers to understand the content of the message.[54]

Gender roles in media and advertising is impacted by humor. Advertising frequently uses gender roles to promote products. There are various stereotypes in regards to humorous advertising with both males and females. Stereotypes can product oversimplified conceptions and misapplied knowledge evaluations. Humor is generated on two steps. First, some kind of incongruity that violates a predominating view has to be recognized and, second, if people cognitively resolve this incongruity, they experience humor. Humor occurs when it seems that things are normal, while at the same time something goes wrong that breaks our expectations. Men could be depicted in domestic roles doing chores, whereas women would be presented in independent roles. This would break our expectation and society norms that revolve around the gender roles. Exaggerating these gender norms would have a potential to be humorous.[55]

Gender displays in toys[edit]

Parallels can be seen in historical changes of gender roles in North American society and to the amount of gender-typing in toys. Weisgram & Dinella[56] provide a concise history of gender typing in the toy industry starting with archaeological evidence through artifacts that simulated gender roles that these ancient children would have as adults. Children used these toys to practice skills they would need to survive as adults, in the society and time they lived in. Further along, with advances in automation and plastic production, children had more time outside of household chores to play recreationally and the toy industry boomed.[56] While there was no longer a need to simulate the gender roles for survival, the society the children lived in at the time was still heavily divided by gender. Shifting gender roles in North American society during the second half of the 20th century saw slight decreased emphasis on domesticity in feminine toys. As more women entered the workforce, gender-targeted marketing of toys decreased dramatically, with less the 2% of toys marketed towards boys or girls.[56] However, in the 1980s and continuing into the 21st century, an increase in gender-typed marketing with both explicit and implicit labels are being used to exaggerate the segmented toy markets creating deep stereotypes around gender typed toys. Even among previously gender-neutral toys there is a shift into making different versions of the same toy. Recently though, there has been many movements to remove these explicit and implicit labels from toys and bedding sections of stores.[57]

Advertising strategy[edit]

Media and advertising has also taken a strategic role in today's society. Women's behavioral intention is enhanced more through a transformation message strategy than an information message strategy. However, a man's behavioral intention is an information message strategy as opposed to a behavioral intention.[58] Advertisements rarely portray people that look like "us", or the norm. Women are frail, thin, and often are edited or "touched up" to look thinner and flawless. The people at whom advertisements are aimed rarely look the same as those portrayed in the advertisements themselves.[59] The Females process self-efficacy and behavioral intention emotionally rather than rationally like males do. Another gender difference that has emerged is consumer effectiveness and message strategy significantly predicted self-efficacy. These findings show a gender role within media and advertising.[58]

Research suggests that there are four different and independent components. They are trait descriptors (self-assertion, concern for others), physical characteristics (hair length, body height), role behaviors (leader, taking care of children), and occupational status (truck driver, elementary school teacher, housewife). Each component has a masculine and a feminine version. Stereotyping becomes problematic when stereotypes lead to expectations and judgements that restrict life opportunities for subject of a social category. This is the reason why public policy is concerned about marketing activities that promote stereotypes. Each gender stereotype component can lead to negative consequences that restrict life opportunities, particularly for women. Physical characteristics can lead to reduced self-dignity, role behaviors may lead to restricted opportunities of self-development, and stereotyping of occupational roles may lead to disadvantages in women's careers.[60]

See also[edit]


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Classic advertisements[edit]

Modern advertisements[edit]