Young Women's Perceptions of Print Cigarette Advertising

By Hawkins, Katherine; Hane, Audrey Curtis | Women's Studies in Communication, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Young Women's Perceptions of Print Cigarette Advertising


Hawkins, Katherine, Hane, Audrey Curtis, Women's Studies in Communication


Twenty-eight middle-school-aged girls participated in focus group interviews designed to elicit their perceptions of images and messages embedded in print cigarette advertising directed at women. Five themes emerged from the transcribed group discussions: attraction of romantic partners, escape from stress, attraction of peers as friends, accumulation of material wealth, and health and vitality. We applied a critical feminist perspective to analyze the use of these five themes to appeal to an adolescent female audience.

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The recent $206 billion settlement between the major tobacco companies and a coalition of 40 states' attorneys general has focused attention on a health crisis of alarming proportions; smoking cigarettes in general and, specifically, youth smoking. Smoking among high-school seniors today has reached a 19-year high; more than one in three seniors smokes. Every day, 6,000 teenagers pick up a cigarette for the first time, and 3,000 of them become regular, daily smokers (Sosa, 1998). Smoking is increasingly a habit of the young, in general and young women, specifically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of all gifts smoke either cigarettes or cigars or chew tobacco (Neergaard, 1998). A recent University of Michigan study revealed that from 1991 to 1994, there was a 36% increase in the number of 13 to 14 year old girls who reported smoking sometime in the last 30 days (1995). During the same time period, the rate of increase for tenth grade gifts was 15%, while the rate for twelfth grade gifts was 6%. Smoking is also on the rise for black female teens, increasing by 54% among black female teens to 17.4% (Neergaard). According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (1996), nearly half of women (including young women) smoking today will die of tobacco-related causes. It's difficult to imagine a more compelling focus for research than the identification of strategies to convince young women not to start smoking.

This report describes one phase of a research program undertaken to identify such strategies. Specifically, we asked young women to describe images and messages they could identify in popular print cigarette advertising. We reasoned that once these images and messages were ascertained, it would be possible to develop persuasive strategies to counter arguments embedded in print cigarette ads that encourage young women to smoke. It is our belief that print cigarette ad content, like that of all media forms, reflects the dominant patriarchal structure of society. Young women perceive the ads as persuasive precisely because they activate a belief structure already cemented in place by

a lifetime of bombardment by media messages supportive of the dominant cultural ideology. For this reason, our essay begins with reference to the power of the dominant ideology as articulated by media in general, and more specifically, in advertising.

The Power of Media

More than a half century ago, Harold Lasswell (1948) identified three functions of media: surveillance, correlation and transmission. The latter function, transmission, refers to the power of media to educate and socialize their viewers. Media shape our view of the world and of ourselves. Critical scholars argue that media messages are hegemonic in that rather than communicating diverse views, they transmit a dominant ideology (Littlejohn, 1999). Lont (1993) frames the dominant ideology as sexist and as serving to justify a patriarchal society. That is, the dominant media ideology works to maintain women's status as inferior to men. Specifically, media's idealized woman is beautiful, passive, dependent, relationship-oriented and loves to shop.

This practice has serious negative consequences for women. Wood (2001) argues that there are three gender-relevant media themes that oppress women. The first is that media underrepresent women, leading to the false perception that men represent the cultural norm and that women are either invisible or, where they differ from men, deviant. …

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