Gender Issues in Advertising Language

Article excerpt

The portrayal of gender in advertising has received considerable attention over the last several decades, both by practitioners and academics. Research has primarily focused on the visual portrayal of women in advertising (see Ferguson, Kreshel, & Tinkham 1990, Bellizzi & Milner 1991). Although far from conclusive, evidence suggests that vestiges of sexism remain (c.f., Ford & LaTour 1993), with improvements noted in the direction of more respectful portrayal of women in U.S. advertising (Pieraccini & Schell 1995). Counterexamples to these improvements abound. In a review of the 1999 Superbowl ads, Garfield (1999) unequivocally stated:

"After three decades of gradually weaning itself from naked objectification, advertising has apparently decided that the benefit of crudely impressing men trumps the disadvantages of dishonoring women. It's as if Madison Avenue sneaked into the nation's psyche and absconded with 30 years of feminist awareness." (p. 1)

So much for progress.

Sexism In Advertising

Sexism in the portrayal of women in advertising has been studied in a variety of different cultures including the United States, Australia, Britain, Italy, India, Japan and Kenya. A number of broad patterns in the portrayal of women can be discerned from this body of evidence. Women are more often portrayed as young and concerned with physical attractiveness than their male counterparts (Ford, Vooli, Honneycutt, & Casey 1998, Gilly 1988, Lysonski 1985, Mazzella, Durkin, Cerini, & Buralli 1992). Women are less likely than men are to be portrayed as authority figures and more likely to be shown as product users (Bretl & Cantor 1988, Furnham & Voli 1989, Gilly 1988, Livingstone & Green 1986, Mazzella, Durkin, Cerini, & Buralli 1992, Mwangi 1996). Furthermore, there is a tendency for women to be shown as subordinate to men, as decorative objects, or as alluring sex objects (Ferguson, Kreshel, & Tinkham 1990, Griffin, Viswanath & Schwartz 1994, Kilbourne 1987, Lysonski 1985, Sengupta 1995, Wyckham 1987, Wyckham 1 993). Particularly disturbing is the contention that "Western advertising conventions are being transferred cross-culturally in conjunction with the transfer of institutions and technology" (Griffin, Viswanath & Schwartz 1994, p. 503). With the transfer of those conventions, it seems, comes sexism.

Studies indicate this occurs even among young audiences. Furnham, Abramsky and Gunter (1997), for example, found that male children were more likely to appear in television advertisements, even when the product was targeting girls. Browne (1998) found that U.S. and Australian ads contained more male figures than female figures, substantiating some degree of gender stereotyping. These results highlight another concern, the cultivation of sex stereotyping among children (Furnham & Bitar 1993), which perpetuates problems associated with gender-bias.

In contrast, sex bias, as evidenced in advertising language, has received less attention. Most of the reported findings relate to the use of male or female voice-overs. Typical of the findings is that men have been found to be overwhelmingly present as voice-overs in U.S. television advertisements even when the central figure is a woman (Courtney & Whipple 1974, Furnham & Bitar 1993). Pieraccini and Schell (1995), however, found evidence to the contrary, that female voice-overs are increasing, there is very little sexist language, and women are equally present on camera and in speaking roles. Studies of U.S., British and Australian children's advertising found that male voice-overs were more prevalent than female voiceovers (Browne 1998), even when boys and girls were equally represented in the advertisements themselves (Furnham, Abramsky & Gunter 1997). Sengupta (1995) found that female voice-overs were used more frequently in Japanese as in U.S. commercials, attributing it to recent changes in marketing st rategy which targeted young, Japanese "office ladies" with greater levels of disposable income. …