Gender-Differentiated Production Features in Toy Commercials

Article excerpt

Television viewers are not normally conscious of the formal features of television commercials such as camerawork, editing, and sound-tracks (see, for instance, Messaris, 1994, p. 158). Commercials, like the television programs which exist to support them, still tend to follow the classic Hollywood tradition of "invisible editing"--it is the represented action which is meant to be foregrounded rather than the formal conventions involved in the process of representation. Our own current concern is with gender differentiation in the use of formal features in children's commercials. Existing academic research into the production features of television advertisements for children has concentrated on their role in attracting and maintaining attention or on their interpretative importance for children (see, for instance, Bryant & Anderson, 1983; Chandler, 1997; Meyer, 1983; Salomon, 1981). Whilst the content of television ads has been widely studied in relation to gender issues, there is relatively little published research on differences in the "formal features" of children's commercials in relation to the gender of the primary audience targeted. Yet at least to some extent "the medium is the message": even more than in other televisual genres, the form or style of an advertisement is richly meaningful, and ad-makers routinely link this to gender connotations (Messaris, 1997, xv).

The only study we are aware of which has focused on formal features of the medium as gender-differentiated markers in children's commercials was conducted in the late 1970s by a group of researchers affiliated with the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children (CRITC) at the University of Kansas. Welch et al. (1979) undertook content analysis of 20 toy commercials in each of three categories: male, female, and `neutral'. Among other things, they found that markedly different production techniques were employed for the boys' and girls' advertisements studied. The boys' ads, along with those directed at a mixed audience, had higher cutting rates than ads directed at girls. The ads directed at girls used more dissolves. In addition, voices in mixed audience and boys' ads were largely male; female voices were largely limited to female commercials. Verna (1975) had previously reported a similar male dominance in this respect, finding that 100% of both male-oriented and neutral ads had a male audio track and that even in female-oriented ads 55% had male audio. British studies have also reported male dominance of voice-overs in commercials in general (Livingstone & Green, 1986; Manstead & McCulloch, 1981). Whilst the percentage of female voice-overs increased in the 1970s and 1980s, as much as 80% of voice-overs in commercials are male (Fowles, 1996, pp. 208-9, 211; see also Bretl & Cantor, 1988).

We have not been able to find any published replications of the study by Welch et al. (1979), although some of the same research team have explored related developmental issues (Huston et al., 1984; Wright & Huston, 1983). Although the original study was only small-scale, it has subsequently been widely cited. If particular formal features of commercials are gendered in the ways which the authors suggest then such findings are important. Related studies by the CRITC research group have shown that at the same time as children are learning to read the semiotic codes of television they are learning that such codes are gender-differentiated. Young viewers use the formal features of the medium (as well as content cues) to determine whether they are designed for them or not (Wright & Huston, 1983). Children as young as 6-years-old can distinguish ads targeted at males from those aimed at females by their distinctive formats and visual styles (Huston et al., 1984). The gender-differentiated use of formal features is often associated with stereotypically gendered content in commercials--and this is likely to be how children initially learn the gender connotations of such features. …