Adolescent Evaluation of Gender Role and Sexual Imagery in Television Advertisements

Article excerpt

American television advertising uses sophisticated means to present technically and artistically polished presentations that offer a charmed lifestyle for viewers and consumers of advertised products. In the case of beer commercials, these images encourage the desire for a lifestyle that involves a product that is illegal for the underage audience. They may also support perceptions of gender roles that are limited and potentially destructive for young people.

Gendered and sexual images of ads are well documented (Bretl & Cantor, 1988; Goffman, 1979; Gunter, 1995; Joliffe, 1989; Reichert, Lambiase, Morgan, Carstarphen, & Zavoina, 1999). Males tend to be presented in sports and professional activity contexts, savoring freedom and adventure. Traditionally, females are portrayed either in relation to males, as spouses and homemakers, or in relation to children, as parents and homemakers. While females might be portrayed as manipulable and submissive, males appear powerful and authoritative, frequently in protagonist roles, announcers, or voice-overs. Ads shown during sports programming, some with sports content, illustrate these differences (Courtney & Lockaretz, 1971; Hall & Crum, 1994; Livingstone & Green, 1986; Schwarz, Wagner, Bannert, & Mathes, 1987).

Ads routinely depict females, and more recently males (Reichert et al., 1999), as sexual objects where nudity or lurid angles and scans of body parts are frequently employed (Archer, Iritani, Kimes, & Barrios, 1983; Bem, 1993; Courtney & Whipple, 1983; Hall & Crum, 1994; Kilbourne & Lazarus, 1987; Kilbourne & Wunderlich, 1979; Sullivan & O'Connor, 1988). Implicit sexual ads, such as body shots used to sell undergarments, cologne, clothing, cars, and power tools, are also common on television (Cohen, 1981; Kilbourne & Wunderlich, 1979). Beer ads portray a male universe with traditional gender role images featuring the ultra-masculine male who engages in physical labor, outdoor recreation, and barroom drinking. He remains cool, calm, and detached from females who provide little more than decoration (Postman, Nystrom, Strate, & Weingartner, 1988). These ads may lack references to responsible decision-making behaviors about gender role and sexuality (Cope & Kunkel, 1999; Greenberg & Buselle, 1994).

While underage alcohol consumption is increasing, and with a growing need to educate young people about healthy, responsible drinking behavior, researchers and policymakers are particularly concerned with adolescent exposure to beer advertising (Slater et al., 1997). Public officials and health campaigners are also concerned about sex in the media, particularly ads, pointing to startling increases in chlamydia, human papilloma virus, and herpes simplex among youth, as well as unwanted pregnancies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2000) and evidence of little knowledge and empowerment in sexual health decision making (Rouner & Lindsey, 2001). In addition, content analyses of gender role and sexual imagery are dated, with few studies on youth processing of sexual messages (Brown, 2000).

Given a need to focus on adolescents and sexual imagery on television, particularly beer ads, this study examines the content of beer commercials (with and without sports content) as well as non-beer commercials, presented during primetime sports and entertainment programming, as well as the adolescent audience's response and evaluation of this ad content. Learning more about television ads and about adolescent evaluations of those ads can facilitate a better understanding of how adolescents' thoughts and feelings might mediate persuasive message effects, such as message acceptance and attitude formation (Belch, 1982; Leigh, Rethans, & Whitney, 1987; Perloff, 1993; Rethans, Swasy, & Marks, 1986). Therefore, several exploratory research questions drive the content analysis of the advertisements:

RQ1: What reliable categorical distinctions about gender role and sexual portrayals can be derived from the analysis of prime-time television ads? …