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A Problem Of Gender Roles And Stereotypes Within Advertising

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Gender Roles in Advertising

Little Sally, 6, and Billy, 8, are sitting down in front of the family television for an afternoon of enjoyable programming. Suddenly an advertisement interrupts their favorite show. The advertisement features a young woman cleaning a kitchen with a product that seems to be easy and enjoyable to use. The woman is smiling through this chore as she turns to the camera and comments on how fast the product helped her to clean her kitchen. Sally and Billy patiently wait for their show to reappear and pay little attention to the advertisement. This is an average scene in any given home in America and yet this seemingly small fragment of time does have a sociological impact. Many women and men live their lives without the awareness that advertising has had a socializing impact on them. Children and adolescents spend an average of 22 to 28 hours per week viewing television (APA statistics). Advertising pops up approximately 3 to 5 times an hour or more (this was just my observation). So, within these 22 to 28 hours per week, children see a conservative average of 60 to 140 advertisements. Advertising places genders into given roles and help to perpetuate gender stereotypes. A social theory that would explain the socializing effect of advertising upon children, and therefore men and women, is the Social Learning Theory. This paper will explore the gender roles within advertising and use the Social Learning Theory to evaluate the effects of advertising.

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The first aspect that will be explored is the socializing effect of advertising upon girls, or, future women. How are women represented in advertising? An article by Children Now titled Advertising Images of Girls and Women brings to light the issue by including several studies in the article. A study by Dr. Lois Smith (professor of Marketing, University of Wisconsin) used a comparison of findings from studies performed in the 70s and 80s on gender images in the media and found that gender roles have changed very little. To clarify, the studies performed in the 70s and 80s found that advertising showed the following trends: a boy was the main choice when one gender only was present, women were mainly featured in beauty and appearance products, most advertising has a majority of male narrators and advertising occurring during children television is largely directed towards the male gender. The study conducted by Dr. Smith found that over 70% of advertising featuring girls were occurred in home settings while the boy advertisements were more likely to be in a variety of settings. Teen magazines are a medium for advertising that has become increasingly popular amongst teenagers. A study on the advertising within teen magazines by Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 81% of the advertisements in these magazines were for products related to beauty and appearance. This study also covered television advertising and reported that the percentage of men in comparison to women is disproportionate, 58% men to 42% women. Within these advertisements, the weight of the featured men and women was also disproportionate, 6% of men and 32% of women were thin. An article written by Helen Ingham titled The Portrayal of Women on Television points to the amount of women that are portrayed as unemployed and whose lives are dominated by family with the fact that in a study by Gunter, Television and Sex Role Stereotyping, 1986, found that 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 (Children Now, Images of Men and Boys in Advertising, Spring, 2000), 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. In the above-mentioned article, a study by Goffman, 1979, concluded that men in domestic situations were often presented as ludicrous and childlike… 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 Children Now article addresses the stereotype of wimp and presents 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.

The Social Learning Theory 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 reiforcers 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 Sally 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 womans 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 printed in the text Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender 5th Edition by Margaret Anderson in which 6th and 8th graders views on gender were compared to the amount of time spent watching television (Morgan, 1987). 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.(Page 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.

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