Gender and Advertising

A content and semiotic analysis of Women’s Health and Men’s Health Advertisements

Seminar Paper, 2012

26 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Definitions

3 Gender and Advertising

4 Theoretical Framework
4.1 Content analysis
4.2 Semiotics

5 Methodology

6 Results
6.1 Results of content analysis
6.2 Results of semiotic analysis

7 Conclusion

Works cited

1 Introduction

Advertising is a modern medium, and its influence pervades modern life. There is practically no area free from its effects, from mass media to consumer products and even to nature itself – billboards obscure our views from highways, and planes drag advertising banners at our beaches. (Carroll 612)

In this term paper, in order to analyze how gender roles and stereotypes are built in magazine advertisements, overall 280 advertisements of men's magazine Men’s Health and women's magazine Women’s Health, published in 2012 in the USA, were surveyed. Three issues for each magazine were selected to collect enough data for a content analysis. For the semiotic analysis ten advertisement were chosen as representative of gender advertising that appears in our society.

This term paper starts by giving useful and important definitions of gender, sex and stereotypes. Many people use the terms gender and sex equivalent in common language. Even at university, students will mix-up characteristics of sex with qualities of gender or stereotypes. In many cases of everyday life this might be acceptable, but in order to work scientifically, clear definitions are needed.

As mentioned in the above quote, advertising is all around us. Therefore, it can have a huge influence on how we interpret the world around us and how we make sense of ourselves. Advertisements do not simply mirror the values and attitudes of the surrounding culture but it also shapes the reality that it tries to reflect. This applies for every kind of advertising, including print advertisements. How advertising constructs gender has been a broad field for researchers in the past 30 years. Goffman (1979) analyzed how the communication of gender takes place in advertisements and invented six categories of how gender can be displayed. All of which will explored in the third chapter of this paper. A more recent research by Cortese (2008) also examined the relationship between gender and advertising. He focuses on the portrayal of women as sex objects or mindless domestics. Some of the result will also be discussed. I have chosen those two researches because they can be considered as representative for the time in which they took place. Both used the very common method of semiology to analyze advertisements. Besides semiology there are multiple other approaches to analyze the relationship between advertising and gender e.g. content analysis, ideological (discourse) analysis. In this term paper the methods of content analysis and semiotics were used. Building the theoretical framework, content analysis and semiotic analysis need to further described. The most basic way to illustrate percentages and frequencies of previous made assumptions is by using content analysis. But as basic as the results may seem, the developing and realization of a survey needs accurate preparations. Therefore the scope, variables and values have to be unmistakably defined. Since content analysis covers only part of the information and is not concerned with 'reading' or interpreting each advertisement individually, another approach will be used. Or as Gill (2007) describes it: “While content analysis looks at the frequency of particular images or stereotypes, and compares them with some notion of an undistorted reality, semiotic analysis is concerned with how adverts mean.” (49). Hence, to investigate what underlying meanings the collected advertisements convey and how these meanings are created the method of semiology will also be used.

2 Definitions

This chapter will give some necessary definitions which are important for the understanding of the following study. Even though the terms sex and gender are used frequently and interchangeable in common speech, there is a need to distinguish them because they differ in important ways i.e. biological aspects vs. social aspects (Basow 2).

We can “differentiate between an individual’s biological sex and the culturally-taught manifestation of that sex, one’s gender.” (Rundstrom Williams 28). According to sex differentiation, people are labeled male or female depending on their genes and sex organs. Gender, in contrast, refers to “one’s subjective feelings of maleness or femaleness” (Basow 2), creating gender identity and “may also refer to society’s evaluation of behavior as masculine or feminine (gender role)” (ibid. 2).

Some people believe, that personality and behavioral differences are based on biological differences and therefore determine the gender of a person. But gender is “a socially constructed definition created through the various networks of forces that intersect around us” (Campbell, Kean 217). This may include “socialization practices, social rewards, status variables and observer expectations” (Basow 2). They highly depend and differ according to cultural or social surroundings e.g. social institutions, establishing a “gender belief system” (ibid. 3) in which different characteristics, traits, habits of and beliefs about females or males are attached to femininity and masculinity. “Two fundamental aspects of a gender belief system are the culture’s of women and men and the roles assigned to women and men.” (ibid. 3). Thus leading to gender stereotypes, i.e. “strongly held overgeneralization about people in some designated category.” (ibid. 3) that may include oversimplification and are (not always) true for every single member of a group. Some common gender stereotypes are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Examples of gender stereotypes

illustration not visible in this excerpt

This table not only shows different stereotypes but also a binary system of relation. That is, masculinity and femininity can be defined by their opposites. Furthermore, a distinction like this, leaves no space for other gender types e.g. trans-gender, and ignoring ways in which females are different from other females and males are different from other males. At this point it is important to note that stereotypes are not necessarily stable and also depend on the cultural environment. The stereotypes in Table 1 are common in Western industrialized culture. As part of sex role expectations, people will learn them, during the socialization process, and try to fulfill them in order to behave as ‘proper’ men and women who are socially acceptable. Therefore gender is something that we do or perform. “Doing gender involves a complex of social guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine ‘natures’.” (Fenstermaker, Zimmerman 4). The next chapter will explore, focusing on advertising, how the interactions, that take place in the performance of gender, can be exhibited, portrayed and examined.

3 Gender and Advertising

Advertisements, as part of popular culture, use visual images of men and women “to get your attention, to get you physiologically excited, and to associate that excitement with the product being advertised.” (Carroll 613). Sociologist Erving Goffman analyzed, in his ‘groundbreaking’ book Gender Advertisements (1978), how the communication of gender takes place in advertisements. He proposed the term “gender display” which he defined as follows: “If gender be defined as the culturally established correlates of sex (whether in consequence of biology or learning), then gender display refers to conventionalized portrayals of these correlates.” (Goffman 1). In other words: gender display is a process whereby we perform the roles that are expected of us by society respectively social convention. Goffman suggested, that advertisements do not display actual portrayals of men and women but represent the way we think they behave (Carroll 613). Goffman (1979) developed six categories of gender display: the Feminine Touch, the Ritualization of Subordination, Licensed Withdrawal, Relative Size, Functional Ranking and the Family. These categories shall now be summarized.

Female hands are weak, superficial and cradling and trace the outlines of objects, e.g. products that are being advertised, themselves or other people. Whereas male hands are grasping and controlling objects as well as shaping and manipulating their environment. This different relationship to reality is what Goffman calls the Feminine Touch (Goffman 29). The Ritualization of Subordination points to the question of who is in control of a situation (men) and who is not (women). The female, as depicted in advertising, links with gender stereotypes of femininity as submissive, powerless and passive. This is done by showing women often lying down, ungrounded (e.g. lifting one leg or holding a foot) or having their head tilted. Reinforcing cultural definitions of dependence and subordination of femininity. Again, men are shown in oppositional positions (ibid. 40). The Licensed Withdrawal category includes depictions in which women are shown not mentally or psychologically present. While men are portrayed as ready, aware, protective and focused, women are shown nervous, unaware or unconsciousness. This contrast is most obvious when men and women are presented together. In Goffman’s words,

Women are shown mentally drifting from the physical scene around them, while in close physical touch with a male, as though his aliveness to the surround and his readiness to cope with anything that might present itself were enough for the both of them. (ibid. 65)

One way to show social weight, especially height, is done by Relative Size. Women are mainly shown smaller than men to emphasize the gender stereotype of the subordinated feminine (ibid. 28). Functional Ranking refers to the fact that men are shown in more controlling, executive, authoritarian or leading roles, such as businessmen or teachers. Women, in contrast, are shown more passive and subordinate. For example, as secretaries or students (ibid. 32). “The nuclear family as a basic unit of social organization is well adapted to the requirements of pictorial representation.” (ibid. 37). In the context of family bounding, women are often shown “more akin to their daughters … than is the case with men” (ibid. 38). Therefore a closer connection to childhood and femininity is signified and can lead to the assumption that women share more traits, e.g. weakness, anxiety, with girls, than men do.

Even though Goffman findings still exist in contemporary media, advertising companies respond to social developments and are trying to show women in positions of authority or dominance as well as men in traditionally female roles e.g. cooking, cleaning (Carroll 613).

A more recent book by Anthony J. Cortese also examines gender and advertising relationships. Cortese (2008), in his book Provocateur, focuses on the portrayal of women as sex objects or mindless domestics who are obsessed with cleanliness (58). According to advertisers, Cortese explains, the perfect female has to be good looking, youthful and seductive. Advertisers use images of desirable beauties to create anxiety among women not fitting beauty ideals of society, especially men. The solution is of course the product that needs to be purchased. “Generally, for a woman, physical appearance is much more important than her status or achievements.” (ibid. 70). Even though body image is also important for men, they are more concerned about personal hygiene, e.g. sweat, body odor (ibid. 70). But since the rise of muscular men, who now can be found in advertisements for almost every product group, men are more concerned about their physical appearance than in previous generations.

Muscularity as masculinity is a motif in ads that target upper-income men as well as those on the lower range of social stratification. Advertisers often use representations of physically rugged or muscular male bodies to masculinize goods and services aimed at elite male consumers (ibid. 72)

Cortese concludes, that advertising reflects traditional beliefs and “articulates and channels cultural acts, but it does not create artificial desires nor mandate behavioral patterns” (ibid. 89)

This chapter only covered a very small amount of the research that has been done on advertising and gender. The next chapter will give an insight into different approaches and concepts that researchers use to examine relations between gender and advertisements.


Excerpt out of 26 pages


Gender and Advertising
A content and semiotic analysis of Women’s Health and Men’s Health Advertisements
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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1551 KB
gender, advertising, women’s, health, men’s, advertisements
Quote paper
Marco Adorno (Author), 2012, Gender and Advertising, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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