The Changing Portrayal of Women in Advertisement over the last Sixty Years. “Show her it’s a man’s world”

Term Paper, 2014

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Part: The Portrayal of Women in Print Advertisement over the last 60 years

2.1. Courtney and Lockeretz’ Pioneer Study and Follow-Up Studies

2.2. Goffman’s “Gender Advertisements” and Follow-Up Studies

3. Practical Part: Analysis of the Changes of Stereotypical Portrayals of Women in Example Advertisements

3.1. Van Heusen Advertisements from 1951 to 2012

3.2. Coca-Cola Advertisements from 1954 to 2002

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

6. Appendix

1. Introduction

The purpose of this term paper is to analyze the portrayal of women in print advertisement over the last sixty years to represent changes in the depiction of females over this period. This topic is of interest since mass media plays an important role in our society today and it can be considered as one of the major agents of socialization. Consequently, gender stereotypes presented in advertisement influence the way we think men and women shall be (cf. Gornick In: Goffman, 1979: vii). However, since the role of women has changed dramatically over the last decades due to feminist movements, it will be of interest if these social changes have been depicted in advertisement as well. In particular, it is assumed that the portrayal of women in advertisement has been shifting from an overt, traditional stereotypical portrayal of women as housewives or highly dependent on men to a slightly more subtle stereotypical portrayal of women as decorative, sexy, and using facial expressions and body positions to demonstrate subordination and weakness. To prove this hypothesis this term paper will first compare past studies focusing on the stereotypical depiction of females in advertisement. For this purpose two studies were considered most important: These were Courtney and Lockeretz quantitative print magazine analysis covering the year 1970, and Erving Goffman’s selective print magazine analysis published in 1979. Furthermore, there are many relating and follow-up studies that are based on the coding schemes used in these two analyses which provide the possibility to show changes over time. Afterwards, the second part will be more practical, examining portrayals of women in example print advertisements. To be able to provide a consecutive and meaningful depiction of the changes, advertisements of two companies from different years were chose to be analyzed.

2. Theoretical Part: The Portrayal of Women in Print Advertisement over the past 60 Years

Over the past years societies have been developing quickly. One of the major fields of change includes the rights and status of women. Initiated by the first wave of feminism, women all over the world gained the right to vote in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This period was followed by a second wave of feminism, starting approximately in the 1960s, which did not focus on legal rights anymore but on equality between the sexes in everyday life, including “the lack of power, independence, and sexual freedom associated with femininity” (Mager and Helgeson 2011: 139). Although major social changes have taken place in the last few decades, stereotypes still reflect some of the old values and restrictions for both genders. Moreover, advertisements still tend to represent some of these stereotypes, while not reflecting “the range of roles that men and women undertake in the world today” (Sheehan, 2014: 104). Due to the role of media as an agent of socialization and its omnipresence, this might lead to a reinforcement of these stereotypes and ultimately, influences the views of its audience and “contribute and perpetuate male dominance” (Belknap and Leonard II 1991: 103).

2.1. Courtney and Lockeretz’ Pioneer Study and Follow-Up Studies

One of the first studies on gender portrayals in print advertisement was conducted by Courtney and Lockeretz. In their study they investigated advertisements in eight general interest magazines from the year 1970 (cf. Courtney and Lockeretz 1971: 93). In particular, they drew four major conclusions which shall be presented in the following in comparison with the findings of other studies on these points to present changes over time.

First, Courtney and Lockeretz found that “[a] woman’s place is in the home” (1971: 94), meaning that many women were depicted in non-working roles in their 1970s sample. Moreover, Lucy Komisar even intensifies this by adding “[a] woman’s place is not only in the home [...] it is in the kitchen or the laundry room” (In: Kang 1997: 982), which reinforces the stereotype of females kept in the domestic sphere as wives, mothers and housekeepers. Additionally, if women were shown in the working place, they were performing low-income jobs in which they had no authority and were dependent on supervisors—thus men (Busby and Leichty 1993: 249). In general, researchers found a decrease of images of women at home and in a family setting, while at the same time the number of women depicted at the work place has been increasing. To be more precise, in the year 1958 13% of women were shown in working roles (cf. Belkaoui and Belkaoui 1976: 170) compared to 21% in 1972 (cf. Wagner and Banos 1973: 214) and 23% in 1983 (cf. Sullivan and O’Connor 1988: 186). Yet, 23% of working women in advertisement in 1983 does not reflect the true numbers of working women in that time which was estimated at 52% (cf. Sullivan and O’Connor 1988: 187). Interestingly, not only the number of working women has increased over time, but additionally the number of women shown in family settings has decreased from 24% in 1958 (cf. Belkaoui and Belkaoui 1976: 171) to 9% in 1983 (cf. Sullivan and O’Connor 1988: 184). Therefore, even though women are still portrayed in non-working roles, the trend is going towards an increased depiction of women in working roles and correspondingly, a decrease in home settings, but has by far not yet met the reality.

However, the above mentioned decrease of women portrayed in family settings seem to be related to the increase of women in decorative and/or alluring poses in print advertisements. Focusing on the decorative portrayals first, women are considered as decorative when they are not actively interacting with the product or other people in the advertisement, but merely playing a passive role while additionally their depiction is not substantially related to the product. Importantly, this might lead to a reinforcement of the stereotype of women’s passive role in society, representing them as having less power and authority than men (cf. Sheehan 2014: 98) which, in consequence, might lead to an acceptance of this stereotype by women. Interestingly, research showed that there has been a strong increase in the portrayal of women in decorative roles from the 1950s onwards, rejecting women’s more active roles in reality. In fact, in 1958 Belkaoui and Belkaoui discovered 47.5% of women in decorative roles (cf. 1976: 171), which increased to 56% in 1972 (cf. Wagner and Banos 1973: 214) and to 60% in 1983 (cf. Sullivan and O’Connor 1988: 184) and finally, rose up to 73% in 1989 (cf. Busby and Leichty 1993: 254). In fact, when shown in decorative poses, women are most often cast in sexually alluring roles. Generally, researchers observe that “the level of sex has grown more prevalent, more explicit, and more diverse over time” (Carpenter and Edison 2005: 3). In particular, the depiction of sexual content in media today ranges from suggestively dressed or partially-clad models to depictions of nudity and intercourse (cf. Reichert and Carpenter 2004: 824). There are two explanations for the general trends. First of all, advertisers rely on the strategy of sex sells which helps to capture the attention of the audience (cf. Sheehan 2014: 104). Additionally, the more overt portrayal of women as sexy in advertisement might also be related to the newly gained sexual freedom of women (cf. Mager and Helgeson 1991: 238). However, today these images dominate the media and women often feel reduced on merely superficial and sexual attributes. In general, the latter leads to a feeling of objectification and reinforces women’s status as sex objects. This was also supported in Courtney and Lockeretz study who concluded that “[m]en regard women primarily as sexual objects; they are not interested in women as people” (Courtney and Lockeretz 1971: 95). In fact, this is supported by other researchers as well, who found a decrease of demurely dressed women from 72% in 1983 to 60% in 1993 and down to 51% in 2003 (cf. Reichert and Carpenter 2004: 828). Additionally, the depiction of demurely dressed men also decreased from 89% in 1983 to 79% in 2003 (Reichert and Carpenter 2004: 828). Therefore, advertisers in general have been relying more on the effects of sex in advertisement, but even though this is true for both sexes, women are still depicted as sex objects predominantly.

Besides this, Courtney and Lockeretz found evidence that “[w]omen do not make important decisions or do important things” in advertisements (Courtney and Lockeretz 1971: 94). In addition, women are often represented as dependent on men and in need of men’s help and protection (cf. Courtney and Lockeretz 1971: 94). In particular, researchers argue that women are depicted as having limited purchasing power since they were only shown involved in the purchasing processes of cheap household items like food, beauty aids and cleaning products, whereas men were shown in advertisements for more expensive items and more important businesses like cars, banks and insurances (cf. Courtney and Lockeretz: 94). Furthermore, women were rarely shown outside the home or as professionals in working situations and consequently, their role as decision-makers is limited to simple decisions (cf. Courtney and Lockeretz: 94). On the contrary, Sullivan and O’Connor in their 1983 study argue that their data does not support Courtney and Lockeretz original conclusion anymore since there has not only been an increase in working women in advertisements, but also an improvement of their working roles which now allow them to participate in more important decision (cf. Sullivan and O’Connor 1988: 187-188).

2.2. Goffman’s “Gender Advertisements” and Follow-Up Studies

With the release of Erving Goffman’s book “Gender Advertisement” in 1979, he introduced a coding scheme of five different categories which rely on the subtle body postures and facial expressions to reveal important information about gender stereotyping. His technique, referred to as Frame Analysis, was widely appreciated even though his selective research method was criticized as it does not reveal clues about the quantitative occurrence of these categories. Nevertheless, some follow-up studies provided this missing quantitative numbers for the examples in Goffman’s analysis.

The first category, Relative Size, focuses on height differences between the models in an advertisement because “social weight—power, authority, rank, office, renown—is echoed expressively in social situations through relative size” (Goffman 1979: 28). Goffman claims that men are not only often pictured taller than women, but they also take up more space which might suggest “men’s superiority over women” (Lindner 2004: 411). Quantitative analysis supported this claim by concluding that men, in a relatively stable numbers over time, were depicted as taller, even though the height difference was not very large (cf. Kang 1997: 984).

Secondly, Function Ranking examines the roles of instructor and instructed. In particular, Goffman states that the instructor tends to be male more often (cf. 1979: 34) which is supported by the data as well (cf. Lindner 2004: 413). This category is of interest because the relation of instructor and instructed reveals their social status since the instructor is in a position of power and authority, whereas the instructed is in a position of subordination (cf. Goffman 1979: 34). Considering the changes over time, it can be said that instances of Function Ranking in advertisements are decreasing in general, but if the category is applicable the male is depicted in the executive role more often with a slight decrease compared to former years (cf. Kang 1997: 993).

Another important category is Feminine Touch. In particular, Goffman introduces two main statements: On the one hand, women are depicted as using a different kind of touch than men, and on the other hand, they are shown as touching objects or themselves more often in advertisements (cf. Goffman 1979: 29). In fact, Goffman’s differentiation contrasts the ritualistic touch of females which includes caressing, cradling and soft touching, with the utilitarian touch of males which includes grasping and manipulating (cf. Goffman 1979: 29). Above all, this is supported by the data since Belknap and Leonard find that between 83% and 54% of females use the ritualistic touch in six different magazines in 1985 (cf. 1991: 116). Moreover, although researchers discover that Feminine Touch is present in advertisement, they do not find an increasing trend over time but rather stable numbers (cf. Kang 1997: 993).

Beyond this, Goffman creates the category of Ritualization of Subordination which functions as an indicator for subordinate positions and consequently, as women are more often depicted in these postures, imply women’s subordination under men. In particular, these subordinate poses are positions in which a person “lower[s] oneself physically” (Goffman 1979: 40), e.g. sitting or lying down and canting postures, and they stand in contrast to positions of superiority like “holding the body erect and the head high” (Goffman 1979:40). Due to these lower positions, women are considered defenseless and therefore dependent on the protection or the benevolence of the superior, thus men (cf. Goffman 1979:41). In contrast, the erect and high postures seem to symbolize high social place, superiority, dominance, authority and power. In fact, instances of subordination of females were found frequently by quantitative analyses, e.g. between 44% and 87% in Belknap and Leonard’s analysis in 1985 (1991: 116).

Additionally, a moderate increase in this subtle form of stereotyping has been noticed as well (cf. Mager and Helgeson 1991: 249).

In addition, the category of Licensed Withdrawal includes females depicted as psychologically removed from the scene, expressed by expansive smiles or gaze aversion (cf. Kang 1997: 990). These poses leave the persons disoriented and therefore again defenseless and dependent on others (cf. Goffman 1979:57). In general, researchers supported Goffman’s observations and concluded that women are more often depicted in these postures (cf. mager and Helgeson 1991: 248). In contrast, men are usually shown as alert, ready to act and react and to control the situation (cf. Lindner 2004: 411). Importantly, researchers also found an increase in the depiction of women as psychologically removed from the scene over time, implying that women are still dependent on men as they are relying on their protection and/or benevolence (cf. Kang 1997: 993).

3. Practical Part: Analysis of the Changes of Stereotypical Portrayals of Women in Example Advertisements

The theoretical review has only partially proved the hypothesis: While overt forms of stereotyping seem to have decreased, only some forms of subtle stereotyping, e.g. the depiction of women as decorative, sexy or subordinated, have increased. These findings will be further compared with two sets of example advertisements by the companies Van Heusen and Coca-Cola. In particular, the following advertisements will only be analyzed in relation to their stereotypical portrayal of women, while other aspects of the advertisements will be left out due to space restrictions.

3.1. Van Heusen Advertisements from 1951 to 2012

The company Van Heusen was found in 1881 (cf. “Est.1881”). Their major products have been shirts and ties and they mainly rely on adult male customers, female product lines were only added in the 2000s. Interestingly, especially their early advertisements contain many controversial depictions of women or Native Americans and African Americans.


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The Changing Portrayal of Women in Advertisement over the last Sixty Years. “Show her it’s a man’s world”
University of Trier
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
advertisement, gender studies, portrayal of women
Quote paper
Stephanie Desoye (Author), 2014, The Changing Portrayal of Women in Advertisement over the last Sixty Years. “Show her it’s a man’s world”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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