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The Influence of TV Advertising on Gender Identity

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Television is the industry which most commonly guilty of perpetrating gender roles and stereotypes. Very sharp contrasting stereotyping of gender roles on television can be noticed in commercials and advertisements. Gender stereotypes can also be found in children’s TV programs. Television fails to represent the world realistically to its viewers.

Daytime advertisements on television tend to portray men in stereotypical roles of authority and patriarchal dominance, while women are associated with traditional roles of the housewife. Females are shown maintaining the perfect household, with their primary goal being to take care of their husband and or family. Housewives are seen as happy to serve others and to relinquish their spare time and personal needs; all in an effort to insure that their families feel loved and cared for. (Niemi 1997).

Throughout out day time commercials there are never any connotations of single families (Niemi 1997), which in reality being a single parent is a common occurrence. Some advertisements may even play on a women’s guilt and insecurities, showing them that by using their product it will help them maintain the perfect household (Niemi 1997). These advertisements tend to be conservative, showing a females existence completely dependent on her family (Niemi 1997). During the day women are completely defined by the services they provide; a clean home, prompt meals and a caretaker (Niemi 1997). Females are never defined by their intellectual skills outside the home (Taflinger 1996). These commercials generally show women in a position of cooking, cleaning, child care and maintaining an attractive appearance (Craig 1992, 209).

Men are portrayed as the primary charter in less than half of these commercials. When they do appear they are shown as a celebrity spokesperson, husband or professional (Craig 1992, 209). These images may be unconscious internalized by women, giving them the mental image of the ideal housewife they should strive to be, often making them feel they are not living up to the standard of a wife and mother (Stephens, Hill, Hanson 1994, 137).

Evening commercials tend to be more heterogeneous, portraying the needs of the working mother struggling to balance her career and family (Craig 1992, 210). Men were more likely to be portrayed as a parent or spouse in settings at home (Craig 1992, 208). These advertisements tend to be cosmetic and household commercials showing women that product X can help them better manage their time at work and home as to never neglect her family (Ruth 1995, 388). Cosmetic commercials show that a working woman can beautify herself in a matter of minutes (Stephens et.all 1994, 137). This also sets forth the negative stereotype that women are not beautiful unless they were makeup (Stephens et.all 1994, 137).

The use of skinny young models in these advertisements also sets forth a view of what the ideal woman should be, a standard most women can not live up to ( Stephens et.all 1994, 137). During prime time men are usually the primary speaking character. This gives rise to the notion that is unconsciously internalized while viewing these commercials, males hold dominant authority(Welch, Huston-Stien, Wright and Plehal 1979, 202). Commercials aired at this time tend to be less offensive because they are dealing with a broader audience that ends to represent both sexes equally( Craig 1992, 210). The goal of advertising at this time is not to offend either sex, henceforth there are less negative stereotypical roles during these advertisement than during the weekend( Craig 1992, 210).

Weekend commercials are typically when women are portrayed as sex objects. Most viewers of weekend television tend to be males, therefore these advertisements are aimed at men. They usually do not show families during the weekend, but when they do it is typically away from home (Craig 1992, 210). Women portrayed in theses commercials are always with men, and seldom as the primary charter. they are generally seen in subservient roles to men… as sex objects or models which their only function [seems] to be to lend an aspect of eroticism to the ad (Craig 1992, 210). It is here where the most negative images of women are shown.

These types of commercials are only shown for there sex appeal in an effort to catch the males eye (Taflinger 1996). Sex is used in advertising because it has shown to work. Sex also happens to be the second strongest of the physiological appeals, falling after self preservation (Taflinger 1996). This can be directed at both men and women. In advertisements that are aimed at men, the goal is to portray a subtle image of sex with out any complications, which plays into the male ego (Taflinger 1996). When directed at males it is easy to get a man’s attention by using women’s bodied and associate getting the woman if he buys the product (Taflinger 1996). In these commercials there are not any indications as to the power, status or money that a woman has, just that the woman is simply beautiful. When advertisements are aimed at women the goal is to show a product that men like, and will help women keep there figure and beauty (Taflinger 1996). Indicating that the woman’s concern is attracting the attention of men from which to choose, and that using the product will aid her in her quest (Taflinger 1996).

The difference between the two types of advertisements is that a women’s goal is to obtain a man, whereas man’s goal is to achieve some type of sexual activity. This type of advertising leaves women with the indication that men only see them as sex objects, and men find women only seeing them as insensitive and sex crazed animals (Taflinger 1996).

Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods; in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves (Coltrane, Adams 1997, 325).

In general advertisements send out a negative stereotype of women. They set the standard for what a women and men would be and look like. These images can have a negative effect, such as women having an eating disorder in an effort to become as thin as models on television (Stephens, Hill, Hanson, 1994,p.137), or mothers feeling they are inadequate because they can not live up to the perfect housewife (Niemi 1997).

Media Imagery has changed only slightly, with men predominantly portrayed as workers and women as sex objects (Coltrane, Adams 1997, 323). These stereotypes are instilled beginning with childhood, and they instill the notion of traditional gender roles (Welch et.al 1979,202). Commercials do not reflect the modern woman, even in an age when equality is suppose to prevail.

As a rule, women see female roles on television which expect them to submit themselves to men or show that women are not so intelligent as men are. Women today on television, sometimes, are not portrayed as independent as they actually are in the “real” world. Women sometimes plays roles of being very dependent of men, which is not the case now as it was 50 years ago. For example, on many television programs women silently appear in backgrounds to cater to the needs of dominant males. Often times, women are typically shown as family caretakers. Women on television usually always have some type of involvement with a family of some kind. Lately I have began to see more “liberated” images of women on television, but ones that still carry stereotypical gender assumptions. For example, women may be shown as working, but they are still all beautiful, young, rich, and thin. It is also common for women to be shown or portrayed as sex objects. This is done mainly to attract an audience, whether it is men or women.

In some shows, such as Baywatch, men and women both were exposed to the audience as sex objects and that is part of the reason that the show was such a success because both men and women wanted to watch to see the perfectly fit actors on the show. Television programs also influence children’s gender stereotypes. Sex-biased images are also common in children’s television programs. For instance, men are often portrayed as being more powerful and competent than women. Men are also shown in more stereotypical male occupations, such as construction workers, doctors, and athletes. Women are shown more often than men in family roles: whereas men usually are shown in higher-status jobs and they make all of the money in the family. Male characters are portrayed as knowledgeable, independent and aggressive; female characters are shown as romantic, submissive, emotional, and timid. In addition, women are largely portrayed on 3 children’s television as sex objects, a lot more indirectly than on most of the adult and prime time shows, but they are still in some senses portrayed this way.

There are also more male than female characters in both weekday and weekend children’s television. Gender stereotypes on television may also influence children’s behavior. For example, children have been found to imitate more of the activities of a same-sex character than those of an opposite-sex character. This influence of gender stereotyping on television can be seen on the fact that children who spend the most time watching television are also those who demonstrate the most stereotypical sex-role values. Cartoon characters are also predominantly male. The male cartoon character’s also present, to the audience, a personality that is just like the male actors on prime time television, with the exception that sometimes the male cartoon characters become somewhat superheroes.

Often time’s women are portrayed on television to advertise for products just because of their looks, and for their sex appeal to attract men and women alike. Additionally, advertisers see women as parts. Advertisers represent women as lips, legs, breasts, and butts; and usually target one or all of these areas depending on the message that they are trying to get across to the audience. Another common advertisement that involves women is weight-loss commercials, and the women is typically portrayed as a housewife, which, as a result, shows that women are not in control.

A great amount of women are portrayed as unemployed and whose lives are dominated by family. Nearly 75% of men on television are portrayed as employed versus less than 50% of women. These figures do not present a positive and gender stereotyping free image of the advertising industry. Women are placed in situation where they are seen as less important than men, as belonging in the home and as being overly preoccupied with their appearances. The second side of the issue to be investigated is the portrayal of men in the advertising industry. Boys are encouraged to be aggressive, become leaders, engage in sports, and grow into ‘macho’ men.

Research by Sobieraj (1998) found in advertising for toys that these showed boys as “strong, independent, athletic, in control of their environments, adventurous, and aggressive. Girls are [shown as] giggling, gentle, affectionate, fixated on their physical appearance, and extremely well behaved.” Also in this study, it was found that action figure advertising “showed boys manipulating action figures to shoot guns at one another, fight with knives, punch and kick, and inflict harm in various other ways.”

The percentage of men featured in advertising for domestic products is low and when these ads do feature men, the men are often seen as unknowledgeable and unnatural. Another stereotype present in advertising is the “wimp” but this stereotype only serves to further impress the desire to be masculine and aggressive upon males. “Wimps” in advertising are seen as scrawny and possessing female traits such as emotional sensitivity and are dominated and laughed at by other characters present in the ad. The stereotype of “wimp” can be seen in a Sony PlayStation ad to illustrate the point that sensitive men in advertising are poked fun at. The ad features a man and woman watching an emotional movie and the male is made fun of and called various names such as “whipped” by a game character Crash Bandicoot. The character continues to taunt the male until the male starts to play a video game when the female vacates the room. Boys are taught through such blatant stereotypes advertising to be aggressive, unemotional, and to participate in activities that are deemed masculine.

Such behaviour can be explained by the Social Learning Theory, which was developed partly out of the school of behaviorism. Behaviorists claim a less humanistic approach than the Social Learning Theory due to the belief that learning is merely responses to certain stimuli within an environment and these stimuli are usually of a materialistic sort such as food and these learned responses are prone to extinction and change when the reinforcers (stimuli) are altered. The Social Learning Theory also states that learning is a result of the environment and certain stimuli and reinforcers but includes that the stimuli and/or reinforcers may be in the form of non-materialistic items such as praise and approval. The praise and approval may not only be applied to the subject to be effective but the subject may observe the praise being applied to another individual and incorporate this into her/his learning.

For example, little children may observe that feminine behavior is rewarded in an advertisement and conclude that for a reward, it is beneficial for her to behave in the same manner as illustrated in the advertisement. Imitation is an important aspect to the Social Learning Theory and is similar to the example listed above. Another example of imitation would be a son emulating his father in shaving or other activities. Subtle signals, such as frowning when a boy plays with a doll, are all part of the learning process of children. So, the question now is how are Sally and Billy affected by the advertisement in the first paragraph of this paper?

According to the Social Learning Theory, they are learning gender typed behavior through several ways. First, no male presence is in the advertisement for the domestic cleaning product. Second, the woman is placed within the domestic setting of the home. Third, the woman is smiling through this chore indicating that cleaning is an intrinsic reward for the woman. And finally, the product is easy to use and therefore frees up more of the woman’s time for other domestic activities. The children observe all of these factors and learn and imitate these stereotypes in other areas such as play.

By sticking to gender stereotypes, advertising is limiting the experience of children and programming them into traditional behaviors and all for the ‘almighty dollar’. Advertising is an important socializing agent for children that continues into adult life. The views that children have about gender roles is clearly influenced by the amount of time a child spends glued to the television and therefore the amount of gender stereotypical advertisements.

Consider a study result obtained by Margaret Anderson (2000) in which 6th and 8th graders’ views on gender were compared to the amount of time spent watching television . Also another study within the Anderson text performed by Signorielli, 1989, 1991 is summed in the following: “…children who watch the most television are those who also hold the most stereotypic, gender-typed values; furthermore, this seems to hold for adults, as well.” (Anderson 2000, 58). Advertising is unlikely to change these gender-typed images unless the public makes it known that these stereotyped roles will no longer suffice. Parents can hake a difference by limiting the amount of television their children watch and lobbying to the advertising industry for advertisements that are neutral and provide a variety of gender roles for children.

In conclusion I would like to say that we can see how common gender stereotypes are in the television industry. Women, in particular, are exposed to gender stereotypes on television causing negative understanding of gender roles. Although many people do not agree with this portrayal of women on television, I do not see it stopping anytime soon. Sex appeal through men and, especially, women is what is popular in today’s society and as long as it stays popular and helps products sell, it will not be stopped. TV commercials have a negative influence not only on grown-ups, but also on children, who are particularly vulnerable to stereotyping. Such influence plays a significant role in the formation of gender identity, and this role is certainly not a positive one.


1. Sobieraj, S. “Images of Men and Boys in Advertising”, Children Now, Spring, 2000.

2. Anderson, Margaret L. Thinking About Women (5th edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. 2000.

3. Babbie, Earl, The practice of social research, ed. Eve Howard, Jennifer Burke and Barbara Yien, 8th ed. California, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1988.

4. Coltrane, Scott & Adams, Michelle, “Work-Family Imagery and Gender Stereotypes: Television and the reproduction of difference”. Journal of Vocational behaviour, 50, 1997: 323,325.

5. Craig, Stephen, “The Effect of Television Sex Roles”, A journal of research, 26, 1992:208-210.

6. Niemi, Paula, “Stereotypical images of Mothers in Nappy Advertising”. 1997 [online]Available from http://www.uta.fi/ote/media/muut/pindex.html

7. Ruth, Sheila, Issues in Feminism. California, Mayfield Publishing Company. 1995.

8. Stephens, Debra Lynn, Hill, Ronald Paul, & Hanson, Cynthia. “The Beauty myth and female consumers: the controversial role of advertising”. Journal of Consumer affairs, 28, 1994.

9. Taflinger, Richard, Taking advantage, You and me Babe: Sex and Advertisin. 1996 [book online]. Available from http://www.wsa.edu:8080/~taflinger/advant.html

10. Welch, Renate L., Huston, Aletha, Wright, John C., & Plethal, Robert, “Subtle sex-role Cues in Childrens Commercials”, Journal of communication, 29, 1979.

11. Wood, Julia T., Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender and Culture, Wadsworth Publishing, 2001:279-299.

12. Freeman, Jo, ed., Women: A Feminist Perspective, Mayfield Publishing, 1995:316-330.

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