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Culture and Gender Stereotyping in Advertisements

You’ve seen advertisements. Don’t even try to trick me—I know you’ve seen them. A lot of research over the years has taken a keen eye to those advertisements to see how they reinforce cultural stereotypes.

learnsocialpsychGender stereotyping has been at the center of much of this research. Despite the many people’s desire to strive toward greater gender equality and smash antiquated conceptions that “men” and “women” are to serve distinct roles in society, popular media seem insistent on portraying gender in very “traditional” ways.

As I’ve written about on this blog, gender stereotypes can be so powerful that they bias people’s memories of their own past performance.

Here I’ll give you a little background on the presence of gender stereotypes’ prominence in the advertising world and then share some new research on the role that culture plays in the process.

Traditional Gender Stereotypes in Advertising

If you’re interested in seeing how gender roles are often portrayed in advertising, check out genderads.com. There you’ll find tons of examples from print media in which men and women are portrayed in stereotype-reinforcing ways.

That website, of course, is just a collection of examples. Are there data that speak to this issue of stereotype presentation in advertising? There sure are![1]I’d be writing a different article if there weren’t…

In one combined analysis of more than 60 studies, researchers looked for reliable patterns of gender portrayals over many, many advertisements. Overall, they found reliable evidence the women are portrayed differently than men in ways that conform to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Here’s just a sampling of what they found:

  • Women were 4 times more likely than men to not have a speaking role
  • Women were 3 times more likely than men to be presented as a product user rather than an authority
  • Women were 3.5 times more likely than men to be presented at home or in a domestic environment (vs. at work)
  • Women were 2 times more likely than men to be associated with domestic products like body care and home goods.

Overall, it seems like there’s clear evidence that portrayals of men and women in advertising are not equal but instead conform to common beliefs about appropriate gender roles and gender stereotypes.

What’s Culture Got To Do With It?

tumblr_npu7nfWcaL1sfie3io1_1280You might expect that the presentation and reinforcement of “traditional” gender stereotypes would vary from culture to culture. In cultural psychology, though, it’s important understand the broader cultural difference that would create specific cultural differences. It’s not enough to just say, “In Germany, things are this way! In Thailand, things are this way!” Instead, psychologists must ask: what makes Germany and Thailand different, in a general sense, that would make them different in this specific way?

When it comes to gender stereotypes in popular media, psychologists have looked at the “masculinity” or “femininity” of the cultures themselves. According classic measurements, “masculine” cultures are those that emphasize achievement, assertiveness, and material rewards; “feminine” cultures are instead those that emphasize cooperation, modesty, and caring for the weak.

Within Europe, one of the most feminine cultures is the Netherlands whereas one of the most masculine cultures in Italy. In a recently published study, psychologists tested whether these two countries would differ in their reinforcement of traditional gender roles in advertising.[2]Indeed, previous research has shown that Dutch advertising is relatively gender-neutral. For example, one study showed that ads in the Netherlands portrayed women in less sexist ways than in the UK. That is, women were less likely to be portrayed as sex objects and more likely to be portrayed in a working role.

The researchers collected more than a thousand advertisements in total, some from the Netherlands and some from Italy, and they looked to see how men and women were depicted.

In general, women were more likely to be sexualized than men; they were more likely to wear seductive clothing, they were often more attractive than the men in the ads, and they were more likely to be objectified. As the researchers expected, though, these gender differences were significantly larger in Italian ads.

When it came to the roles that men and women played in these ads, though, the story is slightly different. Although it was true that women were less likely to be presented in working roles and more likely to be presented in “recreational” roles, this gender difference was the same in Italy and the Netherlands.

Do Advertisements Mirror Culture or Mold It?

 17340-an-african-american-woman-working-at-her-desk-pv-WEBThroughout the scholarly history of examining stereotypes portrayed in popular media, scientists have wondered what the relationship is between media and society.

On the one hand, some people think that the media mirrors culture. In 1987, Morris Holbrook wrote about the “mirror that advertising holds up to social mores, norms, and values.” Using this metaphor, scholars have reflected[3]You caught the pun, right? on the ways roles are portrayed in advertisement, seeing it as a mere representation of what’s already standard in society.

By contrast, there are other scholars who maintain that media has the power to mold culture. That is, people learn appropriate roles and beliefs by observing how people are portrayed in advertisements. Indeed, some studies have shown that stereotypes presented in advertising has the power to cause negative outcomes.

Interestingly, some researchers have examined trends over time. One study analyzed thousands of ads over a 50-year span and found that over time, role portrayals of men and women became more equal. Another study, though, reports that “female stereotyping [in advertisements] is alive and well” despite societal changes over the years.

Wrapping Up

Whether these trends in advertising simply reflect the values of the time or actively shape them, it’s clear that there is bias in how men and women are presented in media. It’s worth questioning why this is the case and consider what can be done about it (and if it would even help).

It’s also interesting that the cultural differences emerged in sexualization and not in role presentation. Could these be separate issues altogether? Further research is needed to better understand the role culture plays in these advertising trends.


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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I’d be writing a different article if there weren’t…
2. Indeed, previous research has shown that Dutch advertising is relatively gender-neutral. For example, one study showed that ads in the Netherlands portrayed women in less sexist ways than in the UK. That is, women were less likely to be portrayed as sex objects and more likely to be portrayed in a working role.
3. You caught the pun, right?

21 thoughts on “Culture and Gender Stereotyping in Advertisements

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWpJUORxhPI

    I pick this youtube video to show how gender roles are stereotyped in advertisements. This is a pine-sol commercial from 1993 that shows a mother cleaning her home after her kids come running from outside. This commercial like most cleaning product commercials, always depict women as domestic. They assume that women do not work and that our role is to clean the home. Also this commercial gives the impression that women stay home and take care of the children. Home cleaning products commercial always target women and never target men in their commercials. This also is a stereotype that men are not clean and do not care about house chores. Commercials that involve men advertise cars, fitness, beers, and sports. For some reason men are advertise for fun items and women are just meant to live their lives to take care of home. This is how things were in the older days when women were not allowed to work. Times have changed and women work, workout, hang out, watch sports and take care of home. When will these companies quit with the stereotypic accusations as to what gender roles are? In my eyes there are not gender roles. Women and men are equal.

  2. You would be hard pressed to make this argument today. I find that almost every commercial I see on television as of right now has some sort of underlying progressive social message, such as inclusion of homosexuals or female empowerment. I have also noticed a shift in advertising for children, I would say that the majority of advertisements I see depicting children focus on young girls in active roles. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a single commercial featuring a young boy – and only a young boy – in several years. Seems like any commercial that features a young boy either has a girl outwitting him or accompanying him. However, I have seen multiple commercials featuring only a young girl – and no young boy. What does this mean? Obviously this indicates a movement to empower young girls, but perhaps at the cost of marginalizing young boys.

    • It would be interesting to see some data on whether these trends have truly been changing. The research that this article is based on is from 2010 and 2015, which isn’t that long ago. Nevertheless, I think they focus more on portrayals of adult men and women. Your comment suggests that there might be a difference between how gender is treated for children portrayed in advertisements vs. adults.

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