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Gender advertisement

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Title: Gender advertisement  
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Subject: Advertising, Gender studies, Exploitation of women in mass media, Gender role
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Gender advertisement

Gender advertisement refers to the images in advertising that depict stereotypical gender roles and displays. Gender displays are used heavily in advertising in order to establish the role of one gender in relation with the other, and some scholars argue that advertisers are obsessed with gender.[1] However, unlike sex which is the product of biologically based male-female difference; gender is developed within humans as a result of socialization, and normally correlates very highly with biological sex. Gender refers to the juxtaposition between men and women or femininity and masculinity. It is this relationship that advertisers focus on, because people define themselves by gender, and gender can be “communicated at a glance,” making it easy for advertisers to use this theme in their work.[1]

Gender display: masculinity and femininity juxtaposition

Creation and maintenance of gender normality

Advertising is a significant agent of socialization in modern industrialized societies, and is used as a tool to maintain certain social constructions, such as gender. Men and women are depicted as differing in attitudes, behavior, and social statuses.[2] These differences are what separate the sexes into different genders. Gender advertisements give the viewers a glimpse into a world laden with socially defined and constructed gender relations, displays, and roles. These images are crafted to mimic real life and many mistake the concepts of fantasy and reality in regards to advertising. Erving Goffman would call it “Commercial Realism,when advertisers try to present the advertising world in ways which it could be real.[3] Goffman argues that advertisements do not look strange to us, when they should. Advertisements take something that exists already in the world and they change it, forming a distorted reflection. “They emphasize some things and de-emphasize others,” it is a hyper ritualization of the world, and we recognize, and even relate with some of the images.[1]

Role of gender in advertising

It is argued that these images could be teaching the viewers a vast array of social cues, and even the most subtle ones make an impact on the viewers.[4] Further it is said that gender relations are learned through advertisements.[1] Among these learned gender roles are those of femininity and masculinity. Men and women are portrayed in advertisements according to the constructed definition of femininity and masculinity. To be a woman is to be feminine and to be a man is to be masculine. There is little room for variation or a reversal of roles, except within the smaller frame of: niche marketing.[5]

Man as alert, hand in pocket, standing upright, eyes open: Masculine

Masculinity in advertising

In advertising, men are often portrayed in the following ways:[5]

  • Alert and conscious of surroundings
  • Standing upright
  • Eyes open and looking around
  • Bodies are controlled
  • Mean expression on face
  • Gripping things tightly with hands
  • Hands in pockets
  • Serious
  • Physically active

"Bravery, adventurousness, being able to think rationally, being strong and effective, for example, are all "manly" traits that are usually encouraged. So also are the ability to think independently and take the initiative. Media images supporting these behaviors include the strong, silent Marlboro man and military ads telling young men to be 'all you can be'."[6]

Social pressure on men to endorse traditional masculinity and sexuality in advertising

Since the 1980s, men’s bodies have been used more for advertising, depicting a similarly idealized body image to that portrayed of women.[7] Research suggests that men feel social pressure to endorse traditional masculine male models in advertising. Research by Martin and Gnoth (2009) found that feminine men preferred feminine models in private, but stated a preference for the traditional masculine models when their collective self was salient. In other words, when concerned about being classified by other men as feminine, feminine men endorsed traditional masculine models. The authors suggested this result reflected the social pressure on men to endorse traditional masculine norms.[8]

Further, a growing number of advertisements are showing men as sex objects.[9] A study on male body obsession found that advertisements for everything from cars to underwear depicted body-builder images with “washboard abdominal muscles, massive chests, and inflated shoulders, a mixture of muscularity and leanness probably attainable only by drugs.”[10]

Though women's equality is advancing in society, men have become more fixated with muscularity because it is still seen as a cultural symbol of masculinity. In addition, it has been suggested that a muscular body has become an aesthetic norm for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.[11]

In a content analysis study of exclusively male images in men’s magazines, it was found that most of the bodies in advertising were not ‘ordinary’, but those of strong and hard ‘male figures’. The study showed that males in the advertisements were usually objectified and depersonalized.[12]

The representation of ectomorphs (thin and lightly muscled) was limited predominantly to the advertising of clothing that may look more appealing on slimmer, taller men. Endomorphs (soft and round) were rarely depicted and if they were, tended to be the object of humour. It is important to note that representations of male bodies are often used irrespective of their relevance to the product being promoted.[13]

Femininity in advertising

Woman as delicate, not alert, and self-touching: Feminine
this ad suggests that women who do not use youth hormones will be sad because men will not love them

Portrayals of women in advertising:[5]

  • Touching self
  • Caressing an object
  • Lying on the floor
  • Sitting on a bed or chair
  • Eyes closed
  • Not alert
  • Confused
  • Vulnerable
  • Body contorted
  • Dressed like a child
  • Holding an object or a man for support
  • Sexy and sexually available
  • Seductive
  • Playful
  • Careless

These are positions of submissiveness and powerlessness. This can be clearly seen when women are shown lying on the floor as men are standing over them, literally depicting women as being beneath men. Women are urged to pursue beauty and sex appeal, and part of the sex appeal is submission.[6]

The body – and particularly here the female body – is always inevitably controlled by social norms[14] and the commodification of the body through industries such as fashion and beauty that exhibit femininity.[15]

The discursive constructions of these female bodies are quite plainly ‘prepared for consumption’ by men. These constructions not only reveal the inevitable gender-power relations about the body but also suggest the cultural ambivalence about sexualized bodily display and image management. This sort of ambivalence both idealizes and denigrates individuals' explicitly performed efforts to produce and portray bodies that conform to societal ‘ideals'.[16]

Gender displays in advertising

Side-by-side comparison of the differences in gender as portrayed by advertising

"If gender is defined as the culturally established correlates of sex (whether in consequence of biology or learning) then gender display refers to conventionalized portrayals of those correlates."[3] Gender displays can otherwise be defined as rituals of gender behavior, and they are used to help interpret social reality.[1] This is what advertising mainly borrows from, and for Goffman this is the reason as to why ads do not look strange to the public.[1] Further, Goffman argues that there are codes which can be used to identify gender. These codes of gender can be seen in the portrayals of men and women in advertising. There are four categories under which we can see these codes of gender: the family, the feminine touch, the ritualization of subordination, and licensed withdrawal.[3]


It is said that grown women are depicted as young children, or infantilized in advertising. They are shown with fingers in their mouths and dressed like children or dolls. When a family is shown in advertising, often the mother resembles the daughter, whereas that is not the case for boys and their fathers.[5] “Boys have to push their way into manhood…girls merely have to unfold.”[3]

Feminine touch

It is argued that in ads women are often seen touching themselves, which is a sign that their body is delicate.[3] Women are also depicted as barely touching an object or caressing it, whereas men firmly grasp an object, as if to say that they control over their life, while women are merely there.[5]

Licensed withdrawal

The idea that women in ads are often depicted as confused, un-alert, and mentally drifting for the scene unaware of her surroundings, while men are shown as alert, and prepared to fend off any potential threats.[3]

Ritualization of subordination

Women are presented as submissive or subordinate to men. This submission can clearly be seen as the women are literally placed below men, and can often be found lying on the floor or on a bed, while men are standing upright, or sitting in a chair.[3] Other subordinate gender displays include, head tilt, body tilt, “bashful knee bend,” other canting positions,[17] lip biting, holding self, etc. All of these keep a person off-balance and at the mercy of their surroundings, all of these body postures signify submission.

The twist: role reversal

Sometimes the traditional gender roles are reversed. When this happens, one can see men behaving in ways that are generally associated with femininity, and women behaving in typically masculine ways. This is often the case in gay and lesbian advertising. Witnessing these ads can be a shock to most, as they are not accustomed to this reversal of roles. This is an indicator that there is in fact a distinction between the genders in advertising.[5]

The body in consumer culture

Within consumer culture, the body is celebrated as a site of pleasure. It is desirable and desiring and the closer the body is to the idealized images of youth, health, fitness, and beauty, the higher its exchange value. Consumer culture allows for the unabashed display of the human body.[18]

In modern times, clothing is designed to glorify the ’natural’ human physique, a stark contrast to the 19th century in which clothes were created to conceal the body. Victorian male garments (see Victorian fashion), loose fitting and conservative in subdued colours, reflected the emphasis for respectability of the male body. Victorian women had to be squeezed into corsets to accentuate the hourglass figure despite the vigorous propaganda against tight-lacing. In the bedroom, the naked body was not considered a source of beauty and joy—sex should take place in the dark.[19]

Conversely, with the rise of consumer culture in America after World War II,[20] the body was no longer an embodiment of sin but secularized and found increasingly in contexts for display both inside and outside the bedroom. Furthermore, the cultural popularity of the outdoor Californian lifestyle and warm climate destinations has made leisure clothing and thus, the exposure of the human body, more acceptable.[19]

The effects of advertisements

Beauty can be defined largely as a perception. It is a group of social norms that interpret a particular form of appearance that is valued. Both men and women strive to achieve this beauty which influences them to shape themselves and alter their appearance in order to conform to those norms.[21] These norms are largely derived from the medias presentation of models and well known stars through advertisements for products and magazine covers. As our society is now filled with these advertisements in all aspects of life, such as on TV, billboards, in supermarkets displayed with the products (particularly beauty products) and on social media, children are now viewing this material at a younger age and in turn creating the perception that this is the ideal appearance whilst they are still very impressionable.

In the early twentieth century, society began to pursue material goods with the goal of fulfilling a general desire to own the item rather than for later use.[22] This is largely due to the use of advertising media and the perception, particularly with beauty products, that the models pictured obtain their looks buy using these products.

It is very common for young men and women to compare themselves to models in ads, in terms of their physical attractiveness.[23] The appearance and body size of the models within the advertisements in the final image seen buy consumers are more often than not altered through editing programs such as Photoshop, in order to achieve the perfect (or impossible) desired look. The use of these images creates a false beauty ideal for both men and women to aspire to, as well as creating the use of extreme dieting and surgical procedures in order to resemble a similar image that is displayed in advertising. This emphasis on an ideal body appearance has been regarded as being psychologically detrimental to the well-being of many young men and women, and on their self-image.

When sexuality is used in advertising, certain values and attitudes towards sex are 'sold' along with a product. The message may be that "innocence is sexy", that women enjoy being dominated, that the use of a certain product is naughty but legal, or that use of a certain product will make the user more attractive to the opposite sex, and many other messages.

See also

External links to YouTube

Classic advertisements

  • Lee Marvin - Pall Mall commercial
  • 1960s Xerox commercial
  • 1960s Folgers coffee commercial

Modern advertisements

  • AXE body-spray commercial
  • Aqua di Gioia commercial
  • Old Spice commercial


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  2. ^ Belknap, Penny; William Leonard II. "A Conceptual Replication and Extension of Erving Goffman' s Study of Gender Advertisements". Retrieved 4 December 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Goffman, Erving. "ERVING GOFFMAN & GENDER ADVERTISEMENTS". Retrieved 14 October 2011. 
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  19. ^ a b Featherstone, Mike (1982). "The Body in Consumer Culture.". p. 22. 
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