An Analysis of the Portrayal of Female Models in Television Commericals by Degree of Slenderness

By Peterson, Robin T.; Byus, Kent | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

An Analysis of the Portrayal of Female Models in Television Commericals by Degree of Slenderness


Peterson, Robin T., Byus, Kent, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


ABSTRACT

This manuscript reports on the results of an examination of the portrayal of the degree of slenderness of women models in television commercials. A visual content analysis was employed to gather the data. The analysis revealed that the commercials used large numbers of models who were inordinately slender. This finding has implications for business managers, public policy formulators, family professionals, educators, and others who are concerned with the incidence of eating disorders, including bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

The last three decades have witnessed appreciable interest in the popular literature about the posturing of women in advertisements. Journalists have raised the charge that advertisements use models that are so slim that they depict unhealthy physical conditions to present their products and that these presentations contribute to what amounts to an excessive depiction of slender women as body appearance role models (Heller, 1998). It is charged that inordinately slim women are used more frequently than are those who would be interpreted as having a healthy weight in advertised products ranging from fragrances to dishwasher detergents.

A social problem, possibly related to the slim role depiction, is the high incidence of eating disorders among women, especially young ones. Social science and medical researchers have discovered that this is a major social problem because some women emulate others who have eating disorders, in an attempt to control their weight (LeGrange, Stone, Brownell, & Kelly, 1998). Many individuals, especially girls and young women, have become bulimia and anorexia nervosa victims because of emulating others. In turn, these disorders are linked to a variety of physical and emotional maladies, some of which can even result in death (Addolorato, Taranto, Capristo, & Gasbarrini, 1998). While most informed persons would probably not assert that advertising causes eating disorders, there is evidence that it may be a contributing force (Leon, Carroll, Chernyk, &Finn, 1984).

This study focused on three categories of female models. These were the overly slender, standard weight, and heavy. These categories have been employed in other studies relating advertising exposure to eating disorders (Peterson, 1987). Overly slender are those whose poundage is less than is needed for a healthy existence. Because of their reduced mass, such persons may not function physically or mentally as well and may not enjoy the degree of longevity that persons of a healthy weight experience. For the purpose of this paper, heavy persons are defined as those whose poundage is larger than that required for a healthy existence. Standard persons are defined as those who are neither overly slender nor heavy.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

The subject of advertising's role in influencing unhealthy behavioral practices by individuals continues to be a major source of ethical debate and discussion among advertising practitioners and academics alike (Pollary, 1986; Soley & Reid, 1983). Close to-if not at the center of-the discussion lies the basic ethics of advertisements (Hyman & Tansey 1990). Since the primary focus of this research is the potential link between advertising and the compulsive eating disorders anorexia and bulimia nervosa, a review of the literature concerning the nature of this potentially unhealthy "psychoactive" advertising concerning thinness is in order. Hyman and Tansey (1990) define a "psychoactive" ad as "any emotion-arousing ad that can cause a meaningful well-defined group of viewers to feel extremely anxious, to feel hostile towards others, or to feel a loss of self-esteem." Since an advertisement's success is dependent on the acceptance of the audience, research into the "psychoactivity" of advertising requires understanding how people decode the advertising stimuli, in this case the notion of thinness or beauty (McDonald, 1993; Koschat & Sabavala, 1995). …

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