Olympic Athletes and Heroism in Advertising: Gendered Concepts of Valor?

By Goodman, J. Robyn; Duke, Lisa L. et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Olympic Athletes and Heroism in Advertising: Gendered Concepts of Valor?


Goodman, J. Robyn, Duke, Lisa L., Sutherland, John, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This analysis of television advertisements aired during NBC's telecast of the 2000 NBC Summer Olympics examined advertisers' use of Jungian-based concepts of heroism and gendered concepts of heroism. Using traditional archetypes of heroes-the Innocent, Orphan, Martyr, Wanderer, Warrior, and Magician-the study analyzed commercials featuring Olympic athletes. Findings were that male and female athletes were equally portrayed as Warriors. However, male athletes were more likely to be portrayed as preparing for and doing battle successfully while female athletes were more likely to be celebrated for their athletic skills and achievements.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the classic study of how historic hero-tales share similar plotlines across cultures and time, Campbell1 documents an archetypal hero who may have varying visages, but typically is male. Descriptions of male heroism are frequently found in Warrior tales of old and more recently, in media coverage of major sporting events. In particular, Farrell found the media celebrated "the American dream" through the hero/anti-hero personas of male Olympic athletes.2 This raises certain questions: How is the heroism of female Olympic athletes constructed by advertisers? Is the way female athletes are considered heroic different from their male counterparts?

Creedon argues, "Contemporary mass media, like the plays, epic poems, fairy tales, fables, parables and myths before them, preserve, transmit and create important cultural information...[influencing] our language, clothing styles and concepts of heroes and heroines."3 Advertising, as a mass media subset, is a powerful transmitter/reflector of cultural values. Through its use of popular sports figures, advertising creates a kind of "consumer's heroism,"4 whereby heroic qualities are commodified through their association with products and services.

We investigated advertising's use of Olympic athletes/heroes because these individuals represent the nexus of two important mediated constructions. First, traditional gender roles have been perpetuated through heavily promoted sporting events such as the Olympics. Scholars have shown that media reinforce the view that certain sports are appropriate for one sex and not the other; media have failed to give equitable coverage to female athletes and women's sports; and media prefer hetero-sexually attractive women athletes.5 The literature indicates that mediated sporting events reinforce an ideology of male superiority and solidify masculine sports hegemony through narrative conventions, commentator rhetoric, inequitable gender-specific sports coverage, and sexualized presentation of female athletes.6

Second, Olympic athletes, particularly winning ones, are de facto "hero/heroines."7 Oriard argues that contests like the Olympics are particularly well suited to the manufacture of heroes because they are created in an "apolitical, asocial, amoral, even timeless, placeless quality of the athletic contest itself. The athlete-hero in America is...the supreme role model."8

This paper explores heroism as an evolving yet highly gendered mediated construct that derives its power as a marketing tool from deeply rooted, psychic schema, i.e., Jungian archetypes that underlie all social meta-narratives, such as Campbell's heroic "monomyth."9 In particular, we examine how modern heroism, as embodied by Olympic athletes, is constructed by advertisers to appeal to ever-changing consumer audiences. Our qualitative analysis of advertising illustrates Jungian-based concepts of heroism and shows how advertisers deploy gendered concepts of heroism.

Dating back to ancient Greece, the term "hero" was defined as "a superior man, embodiment of composite ideals."10 The gods imbued the hero with exceptional human characteristics such as strength, power, and courage.11 However, as a historically and culturally delineated construct, "heroism" has evolved across time and national boundaries.

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