Race and beauty: a comparison of Asian and Western models in women's magazine advertisements

Race and beauty: a comparison of Asian and Western models in women's magazine advertisementsAn extensive literature has evolved over the past 30 years that describes how gender portrayals in advertisements mirror gender roles in society. Researchers in communication, marketing, psychology, and gender studies have addressed this topic and produced a body of work in this area. Nonetheless, much of this research has been conducted in the United States and Europe and thus may not fully describe the way in which female models are used in advertisements across cultures.

The majority of research in the area of gender portrayals in international advertising builds on the three theoretical frameworks: feminist theory, globalization theory, and marketing theory. Feminist scholarship has been at the forefront of studying how women are portrayed in advertising in the US, yet there has been very little research on how Western women are portrayed in advertising in other cultures. In addition, the assumptions that have guided Western feminist scholarship are based on Western liberalism and Western concepts of human rights. For example, in Western cultures women have acquired certain rights in relation to their bodies. Among these are the right to display their bodies in public without fear of retribution or punishment and the right to take pleasure in their bodies. These are not universal rights for women in all countries: how women can display themselves differs from culture to culture. In the Middle East and in many parts of Asia women traditionally have been expected to dress modestly and demurely (Cheng, 1997). Thus, one of the aims of this research is to examine how Western women are displayed in Asian advertising as well as to see how Asian women are displayed in Asia and in the West.

Globalization theory holds that increased trade and improved communication technologies are bringing about increasing levels of global integration between cultures (Giddens, 1990; Tomlinson, 1997). As a sociological institution, the global media play an important role in socializing audiences. The media act as agents of socialization, perpetuating certain global beauty standards such as thinness and institutionalizing such conventions as photographic poses. With the rise of international media corporations and the spread of international editions of women's magazines, these conventions are being spread quite rapidly around the globe (Shaw, 1999).

Advertisers and marketers have long been enamored with globalization. Current advertising theories hold that to be resonant with a target audience, message designers must match the models, the clothing, the accessories, as well as headlines and body copy with the values and needs of the target audience (Belch & Belch, 2003). Cultural values are the core of advertising messages, and Holbrook (1987) has suggested that in order to convince potential customers to purchase a client's product or service, the advertiser must comply with a public's value system rather than run against it. Empirical research has supported that advertisements that reflect local cultural values are indeed more persuasive than those that ignore them (Gregory & Munch, 1997; Han & Shavitt, 1994; Taylor, Miracle, & Wilson, 1997). Yet, there is a paucity of literature on how advertisers portray women globally and, in particular, how women of different races and ethnicity are displayed in women's magazines across cultures.

Given the increased interest in Asia and the current global expansion of the beauty industries across borders, it is surprising that there has not been more research on how women are depicted in fashion and beauty advertising across different regions. The purpose of this research was to analyze advertisements collected from women's fashion and beauty magazines in Singapore, Taiwan, and the United States to see if there are differences in the ways in which Western and Asian models are used in advertising.


Much of the past research on the representation of women in advertising has analyzed the roles in which advertisers have shown women. In one of the earliest studies, Courtney and Lockeretz (1971) noted that advertisers tended to show women as mothers and housewives. Dominick and Rauch (1972) examined the settings in which women were placed in television commercials and noted that women were most often presented in at-home settings and for household products.

Sociologist Erving Goffman (1976) described how the positioning of female models in advertisements mirrored women's roles in society. He was the first researcher to identify gaze as being important. He suggested that women were often presented as a "sight" to be gazed upon, and he identified certain stereotypical poses such as "licensed withdrawal" where the model appears to be drifting off (gazing away from the camera). He also described "the engaging gaze" where the model makes eye contact with the camera, engaging the viewer with seductive eye contact or a sexually seductive look. Later, researchers who compared advertisements in six US magazines (Newsweek, Time, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Playboy, and Esquire) between 1964 and 1984 found that female models were more likely than male models to be the object of another person's gaze (Soley & Kurzbad, 1986).

Shields (1990) noted that the predominant "gaze" in Western art and advertising has historically been the male gaze. She argued that when women pose for the camera, they often assume or are asked to assume a submissive or passive stance with "lowered eyes, head down." Both Shields and Goffman used U.S. advertisements as their data sources, and the use of an engaging gaze may not hold true across cultures: intercultural communication researchers have noted that in many Asian cultures direct eye contact is considered aggressive and unfeminine (Samovar, Porter, & Jain, 2001). In addition, communication researchers studying images of women in Indian advertising have noted that the gaze differs across culture and gender (Griffin, Viswanath, & Schwartz, 1994).


Research focused on advertising and women's beauty includes studies related to two main areas: overall beauty and body image. Lakoff and Scherr (1984) noted that advertisers were able to create a "cult of unrealizable beauty" (p. 290) by using techniques such as retouching to enhance women's beauty. To understand the beauty types used in US advertising, Solomon, Ashmore, and Longo (1992) conducted an experiment. They assembled a set of photographs of models employed by major U.S. fashion agencies and presented them to a sample of U.S. fashion magazine editors who were then instructed to sort the models into piles based on similarity of looks. The results yielded relatively distinct beauty types: Classic, Feminine, Sensual, Exotic, Cute, Girl-Next-Door, Sex Kitten, and Trendy. Englis, Solomon, and Ashmore (1994) condensed these eight beauty types and examined advertisements collected from major U.S. magazines. They found that the Classic/Feminine, Exotic/Sensual, and Trendy types were the three most prevalent.

Other studies have focused primarily on the use of women's bodies in advertising. Walsh-Childers (1996) noted that regardless of the product category, advertising photographers often focused the reader's eye on certain body parts, such as a women's breasts. Other researchers have examined the sexual representations of women in advertising. Soley and Kurzbad (1986) compared "sex appeals" in magazine advertisements in the United States between 1964 and 1984. They found that over time, sexual elements became more visual and more overt. They concluded that female nudity and erotic content had become quite commonplace in contemporary U.S. advertising by the mid-1980s. During the next decade, Reichert and her collaborators (1999) found that:

An analysis of Clio award-winning TV spots revealed that 29 percent
contained a seductively dressed model, and 27 percent contained at
least a hint of sexual suggestion. (p. 7)


O'Donnell and O'Donnell (1978) were among the first researchers in the United States to show that there were gender differences in relation to product type; women were most commonly found in advertisements for domestic products and most often shown in at-home settings. The most recent and comprehensive review of existing research on women in advertisements was by Furnham and Mak (1999), in which they addressed the major variables of gender portrayal research and provided a useful summary of findings over time. They confirmed that available evidence shows that women are usually depicted at home, and they most commonly appeared in commercials for domestic products.