Images of women in general interest and fashion magazine advertisements from 1955 to 2002
Every day people are bombarded by visual advertisements that encourage them to buy particular products or services. However, these images also act as socializing agents that influence our attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors (Kang, 1997). Advertisements contain messages about gender roles in terms of appropriate behavior and appearance for both men and women. They shape our ideas of what it means to be male or female in this society. One of the most influential and most often cited scholars on the media, especially print advertising and its impact on gender relations in society, is Erving Goffman (1979). He emphasized that advertisements often contain very subtle clues about gender roles and may operate as socializing agents on several levels. Because advertisements are publicly broadcast, the men and women portrayed are often perceived to represent the whole population, and men and women in the advertisements seem to accept these portrayed behaviors, thereby validating the stereotyped roles.
Research suggests that exposure to gender role stereotypes in advertising often influences gender-stereotyped attitudes (Signorielli, 1989). Results of a study by Kilbourne (1990) revealed that people, after being exposed to advertisements that depict women in stereotypical roles, showed significantly more negative attitudes toward women, especially concerning their managerial skills, than after being exposed to advertisements that depict women in professional roles that require such skills. These results suggest that there is indeed a relationship between the way women are portrayed in advertising and people's ideas about how women are supposed to behave and the roles they are supposed to occupy within society.
Lanis and Covell (1995) conducted a study on images of women in advertising and their effects on beliefs about sexual aggression. Analysis of the data revealed that sexually explicit images of women, as opposed to "non-traditional role-reversed portrayals of women performing a variety of competent social functions" (p. 643), resulted in increased gender role stereotyping and acceptance of interpersonal aggression and violence against women among the male participants. These results were replicated in a study by McKay and Covell (1997), which showed that after being exposed to sexually explicit advertisements, both men and women showed greater gender role stereotyping, rape myth acceptance, and acceptance of sexual aggression against women. Results also showed that both men and women were less supportive of feminism and the Women's Movement after being exposed to sexually explicit advertisements.
Evidence suggests that gender stereotypes in advertisements also have an effect on people's psychological well-being (Jones, 1991). For example, according to a study (Posavac, Posavac, & Posavac, 1998) on the effects of exposure to pictures of fashion models from popular women's magazines on young women's concerns with body weight, even passive exposure to such images resulted in negative body image and increased weight concern. Negative body image is often the result of a social comparison process, in which discrepancies are perceived between the cultural ideal of attractiveness, usually characterized in the media by a particular emphasis on thinness, and women's views of their own bodies. Negative body image is particularly problematic because it is positively correlated with eating disorders.
Given these associations between the portrayal of women in advertisements and gender-stereotyped beliefs about women as well as women's psychological well-being, longitudinal studies have been conducted to examine exactly how women have been depicted in print advertisements. What roles do they occupy? What activities do they engage in and what kinds of behavior do they display? In what environments are they shown? How are they depicted in relation to men? And how have these images changed over time?
The earliest studies were inspired by the Women's Movement in the early 1970s; this research consistently showed that advertisements confined women primarily to traditional mother-, home-, or beauty/sex-oriented roles, which were not representative of women's diverse roles in society. In a comparative study of the roles portrayed by women in print advertisements in 1958, 1970, and 1972, Belkaoui and Belkaoui (1976) analyzed the contents of eight general interest magazines (i.e., Life, Look, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Time, Saturday Review, U.S. News and World Report, and Reader's Digest). They found that advertisements in 1958 showed women mostly as housewives in decorative roles and idle situations or as low-income earners with limited purchasing power.
That study, in addition to two others of the portrayal of women in the same general interest magazines in 1970 (Courtney & Lockeretz, 1971) and in 1972 (Wagner & Banos, 1973), showed that despite the influence of the Women's Movement, women continued to be portrayed in stereotypical roles. Courtney and Lockeretz (1971) and Wagner and Banos (1973) found that women were hardly ever shown in out-of-home working roles, especially as professionals, and they were never depicted as venturing far away from home by themselves or with other women. Rather, they were represented as dependent on men's protection. Men were often shown as regarding women as sex objects or as domestic adjuncts. In addition, women were primarily found in advertisements for cleaning products, drugs, clothing, and home appliances, whereas men were shown in advertisements for cars. travel, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, and banks.
A follow-up of these studies was conducted by Sullivan and O'Connor (1988), who compared print advertisements of 1983 to advertisements of the 1950s and 1970s. Their sample of advertisements was drawn from People, Saturday Evening Post, Life, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Reader's Digest, Time, and U.S. News and World Report. These magazines were chosen because of their broad appeal and their likelihood of depicting women in a wide variety of roles. They found that the 1983 advertisements more accurately reflected the true diversity of women's social and occupational roles than did those of the earlier decades. There was an increase in women shown as employed and a higher percentage of women in positions that require meaningful decision making (in the workplace as well as in everyday situations). Women were more often shown as independent of men and as occupying equal social roles. However, the trend toward gender equality (i.e., men and women engaging in more similar activities and behaviors) was counteracted by an increase in women portrayed in purely decorative and sexualized roles. In other words, progress in one area seemed to be counterbalanced by setbacks in another (Faludi, 1991). A backlash seemed to have occurred in response to women gaining power and being portrayed in more influential positions, which was perceived as a threat to male dominance in society. An increase in sexualized, as well as degrading, submissive, and objectified, images of women reestablished the power imbalance between the sexes.
The previously mentioned studies focused primarily on the manifest content of the advertisements. Goffman (1979) developed a technique, referred to as frame analysis, which focuses on the more subtle clues that provide important messages about gender relations. His coding system concentrates on hands, eyes, knees, facial expressions, head posture, relative sizes, positioning and placing, head-eye aversion, and finger biting and sucking. Goffman found that gender stereotyping in advertisements occurred primarily in ways that can be captured by the following categories: relative size, function ranking, feminine touch, ritualization of subordination, and licensed withdrawal. He argued that these categories are indicative of gender differences in "social weight," that is social power, influence, and authority.