The primary function of advertising to convey messages about products to consumers. However, the advertising industry also plays a vital role in changing individual perceptions and existing social norms. After their primary function is accomplished, advertisements can ultimately construct an image of how the world should look like, how the people within it should behave and how they should be treated. This paper seeks to explore the gender differences in advertising media by relying on existing literature to determine what these differences are, why they exist and the impact they have on individuals as well as the broader society.
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The advertising industry has been long been dominated by age-old stereotypes since the age of Madison Avenue and the “ad-man”. Popular culture representations of this period in this age portray the 1960s workplace as an environment characterized by male dominance and the assumption of supporting and subordinate roles by women. This image has been reinforced by the kind of advertisements that came out of Madison Avenue during this era. With this kind of foundation, it is not in the least surprising to witness the striking gender asymmetry in advertisements made in the 21st century. Although the typical outrageous misogyny of a 1960s advertisement is absent in the modern ad, its subtle connotations are still there, still reinforcing those age-old messages, still portraying men and women in unrealistic and disproportionate ways and still portraying women in outdated and often unacceptable ways. From a simple application of language to more discernible images applying the strategy of gender-targeted advertisements that relies on outdated stereotypical definitions of masculinity and femininity. The advertising industry has forcefully created an image of individuals and of society that should not exist even in this in the pseudo-reality of an advertisement.
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According to a study conducted by Unilever, 30% of advertisements show women as they are perceived by men, only 3% of women have been portrayed in advertisements as individuals with aspirations or in leadership positions, only 0.03% of women were portrayed as being humorous and only 1% of women were portrayed as being heroes or having problem-solving capabilities. Given the significant proportion of women typically observed in advertising billboards, on television advertisements and even on the internet, these statistics are really shocking. On the other hand, men were 62% more likely to be depicted as smart individuals, inherently intelligent characters or in roles that are often associated with intelligent individuals such as a doctor, scientist, astronaut etc. For instance, in a toothpaste commercial, the doctor will, in most instances be a man. Women are also more likely to be shown in sexually revealing clothing compared to men and be represented by women with perfect proportions, who apparently, 40% of women do not relate to. Advertisements have created such sharp differences between the sexes that 52% of UK men cannot relate to the overly aggressive rough, rugged, highly heterosexual and homophobic men they see in advertisements.
Research conducted across the world reveals a high degree of sexism within the advertising industry and even without this research any layman who picks up two magazines, one aimed towards a male audience and the other towards a female audience can bear witness to these striking gender differences from the language, the illustrations, the color choices and even the kind of fonts used. Texts in female magazines tend to be longer than those in male magazines. Moreover, there is a clear asymmetry in the kind of products that the male magazine will advertise and those that the female magazine will advertise. Products like watches and cars dominate the pages of a male magazine while female magazines often contain advertisements for cosmetic products, home décor, and jewelry. Advertisers tend to provide more details for female cosmetic products than they do for male cosmetic products. Advertisements for clothes on Esquire will typically have no words attached to them, and advertisement for deodorant for men might just contain the word “cool” and left at that. However, when the cosmetic product is directed towards a female consumer, there will be a detailed explanation of ingredients, effects, and sometimes even directions for usage. However, when the product is impersonal as in the case of a car, there will be a more detailed explanation of the product in a male magazine while that kind of a product is less likely to feature in a female magazine. Moreover, this detailed example will typically contain less modifiers, will contain tougher language, bolder color, bolder fonts and will offer details that are more straightforward whereas the description in the female magazine will offer more description of the qualities of the object, will contain softer fonts, softer colors, the language will be more poetic than straightforward.
Words used to describe the color of an object, emotion, relationships, senses and art occur more frequently in female magazines than they do in male magazines. On the other hand, words used to describe superiority, adventure, strength, achievement, and quantity occur more frequently in male magazines. Advertising in male magazines does not even contain the prerequisite that a sentence is constructed or that the words used together make sense. They just have to be bold, incredibly powerful words associated with the man’s mental strength, superior intellect and product superiority that the advertising industry believes its male clientele desires in all their products (Smith, 1985). Moreover, advertising for male products will contain abundant of number and figures to describe quantity while the quantity descriptions provided in female targeted advertisements are often vague with minimal reference to numbers and figures. This kind of language draws sharp a gender dividd within the society and serves to perpetuate gender-based stereotypes that shape individual perceptions of others and of themselves (Cameron, 1992). The proof of the effects of these stereotypes is that research data will forever label men as abstract thinkers who do not attach emotion into consumer decisions and women as emotionally charged individuals who attach personal feelings to every decision they make. Research has claimed that women enjoy the emotional and psychological aspect of shopping and spend more time shopping more than men (Wood, 1998). Perhaps this is why advertisements targeting a female clientele are so detailed and poetic while those targeted towards men offer no such poetic details and those that do offer details are mostly instrumental leisure items related to the expression of independence, an active lifestyle and often related to male impulse buying (Ditmar et al, 1995).
An advertisement of a watch in the Car driver magazine (July 2010: 7) perfectly illustrates the kind of detail involved in ads aimed at eliciting male impulse buying. Instead of describing the watch, this advertisement goes on and on about an athlete describes him as an “extreme record breaker” a “peerless man of steel”, a role model for all other men with this watch as his sole companion. The word “companion” is not even used in reference to relationships with other people. On the other hand, an advertisement for a similar product in a women’s magazine might relate to impressing other people, contain numerous emotional connotations.
Women are also frequently encountered in advertisements that promote food products, laundry detergents, cleaning supplies, child care products, and household decorations and if men are present in such commercials, they often appear as bystanders or casual onlookers. Advertising for cosmetics is often directed towards women, giving tips on how to use the product to seduce and attract men while advertising for home care products advises them on how to take better care of their home, of their children and impress their husbands. This kind of advertisement reinforces stereotypes about child care, marriage and family life and represents a division of labor that has long been outdated. In a male commercial, female characters serve to sort of embellish the scene, create an often erotic atmosphere for the testosterone-charged male consumer. For instance, it is not unusual to witness an incredibly attractive female character with perfect body proportions, dressed in outrageously revealing clothing and in a discernibly erotic position starring in a car commercial. This kind of targeted advertising, while incredibly good for business, both for the magazine and for the car manufacturer also sends messages. These messages may not be intercepted by adults who can choose between which signals to respond to and which ones to ignore, it can also be intercepted by young adults or even children. These messages can also go as far as to have a global reach. Can impact subsequent strategies to advertise in developing countries and even third world countries. This can clearly be observed from existing advertising strategies around the world. Advertising has become somewhat similar all over the world, become a universal language aimed at exploiting the gender segments in the market. Unfortunately, it has been exported with its archaic prerequisite for a foul depiction of gender. In Japan, women are portrayed in degrading and demeaning ways and often seen in commercials engaging in the performance stereotypical roles (Arima, 2003). Research all over the world shows that the advertising industry employs an incredibly high degree of sexism in the roles it assigns to women characters within commercials.
The kind of impact the gender differences have on society can be elucidated from the following scenarios. When a boy in a discussion group was asked about why boys do not talk about sex and relationships he responded by saying that talking about relationships was not the kind of thing “boys do” (Willemsen, 1998: 860). A study involving 400 children from a variety of backgrounds in science magazine concluded that girls often start believing that they are less intellectually brilliant than boys at the age of six which is the age that children begin recognizing scenes from advertisements and can generally understand television (Oates et al, 2006). When groups of children between the ages of five and seven years old were told two stories about a really smart person and a really nice person, all the boys and girls answered that the smart person was most likely one of their respective genders. However, the answers began to change when the researchers posed the same question to the older children. The girls had changed their minds and were less likely to say that the really smart person was female.
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The advertising industry has defined masculinity and femininity in a narrow heterosexual way, leaving out a significant portion of the male population that does not conform to their requirement for a rough, “uncompromising” aggressive man or a “soft” emotional and sensual woman. Thus, the industry has created an image of the society that is unrealistic, unprogressive and unforgivably discriminatory. It could be that men are emotional human beings and that there is an emotional aspect to their consumer decisions. It could also be possible that the market could be segmented in other more accessible ways rather than through the overreliance on gender differences, that, from all indications, the industry itself has created. There could be a positive financial result if businesses prevent the backlash in female clientele that often occurs after sexist advertisements considering that two third of consumer spending is controlled by women and that women are the primary shoppers in many households.
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Although gender segments are large, profitable, easily identifiable, accessible and responsive to the elements of the marketing mix (Wolin, 2003), the consequential creation of unrealistic standards for beauty and attractiveness, propagation of stereotypes and the ultimate legitimization of gender inequality and discrimination is the ultimate price the society will have to pay for the kind of sexist advertising witnessed in this age. There is a clear need for the advertising industry to change its position regarding gender in advertising and take up a leading role in ensuring that advertising has a positive rather than negative impact on the society with regard to its representation and promotion of gender and gender roles in the society. It is time for the anachronistic perceptions of gender to take their rightful place in history and pave way for a more tolerant society that recognizes every individual based on their own merit and unique attributes and does not seek to lump people together on the mere basis of anatomical differences. It is irresponsible to include in the messages that we deliver to future generations, an affirmation that a certain segment of the population occupies a position of privilege right from birth, are more superior and reserve the right to look down upon others.
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