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Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Advertisements

William M. O'Barr

[Editor's Note:This article is a part of ADText.]

Image from Children's Nursery Rhymes
Fig. 7.1 A Classic Nursery Rhyme Explains Gender Differences [Source]

1. Introduction

Representations of gender in advertisements provide powerful models of behavior to emulate or react against. Masculine images typically convey power, strength, virility, athleticism, and competitiveness whereas feminine images show beauty, submissiveness, nurturance, and cooperation. Such themes appear repeatedly in popular culture (including advertisements) and are often accepted by those who see them as natural aspects of the human condition.

The scientific understanding of gender, however, is at variance with such representations of human nature. Ever since the anthropologist Margaret Mead first reported her findings among South Pacific cultures in the 1930s that masculine and feminine attributes are not always the same as those assigned by Western cultures, social and natural scientists have been investigating which aspects of gender are biological and which are cultural. As this research continues, one thing is for sure—cross-cultural evidence continues to demonstrate the enormous variability in what are deemed masculine or feminine behaviors in particular cultures. Current evidence is sufficient to conclude that many aspects of gender are learned, not inborn, and are therefore cultural in nature.

Book Cover, Mead's Sex and Temperament
Fig. 7.2 Mead Reported Empirical Evidence
about the Variability of Gender Roles (1935)

Who teaches the behavioral expectations of gender roles? Certainly parents and other early caretakers instill these cultural norms, but there are many other influences as well—peers, other adults, schools, and the mass media. The end result is that individuals are shaped, patterned, and encouraged to take on their culture's appropriate roles as males or females.

What they learn—the internalized attitudes and behavioral expectations about maleness and femaleness—is gender. Most social scientists use gender to refer to these learned attributes of masculinity and femininity in a culture. By contrast, they use sex to refer to the biological differences between males and females. Distinguishing between these two ideas—that is, between what is innate and what is learned—is helpful in studying masculinity and femininity.

Nowadays the term gender often replaces sex in common usage, making the distinction noted in the previous paragraph difficult to keep in mind. Such less precise usage is demonstrated by the application for admission to Harvard University, which asks the applicant to indicate "gender" among the requested particulars. By contrast, a U.S. Passport indicates a person's "sex." Both of these usages refer to the same thing.

The subject of this unit is the representation of gender in contemporary American advertising. The focus will be on the story that advertising tells about masculinity and femininity through the life cycle and thus how it models and idealizes certain roles and behaviors while ignoring others. Although advertising is but one of many teachers about gender, the omnipresence of advertisements in daily life speaks to its importance in instilling the cultural expectations of gender.

2. Gender Representations through the Life Cycle

Examining the life cycle exposes the dynamic nature of gender. Gender is neither fixed nor static—as with the unfolding of an individual's life cycle, the development of a household through the years and the process of maturation through learning. Rather, it is constantly reshaped by social environment, cultural changes, individual decisions, and a host of other factors.

This unit brings together the bits and pieces of idealized life stories of men and women as they are represented in the world of advertisements. Seldom do ads depict more than one or two snapshot views of life (as in print ads) or vignettes of particular moments or "slices of life" (as in TV commercials). Here those various images and narratives are collected and assembled according to phases of the life cycle—from infancy through old age. What emerges from this exercise is an understanding of how gender is represented through advertisements.

Included here are eighty-seven ads collected in various magazines available on newsstands in the months of May and June 2006.1 The total number of advertisements featuring images of people in these magazines exceeded 1000, including duplications across magazines. The ads in this chapter were selected in such a way as to represent the broadest set of issues about gender. As such, these particular ads are intended to draw attention to the range of ideas in contemporary advertising. They should be used cautiously to draw conclusions about frequency or typicality of particular representations.2

3. The Life Cycle

One of the first questions about a new baby is: Boy or girl? Asking about the baby's sex so quickly underscores the importance of maleness or femaleness in ideas about personhood. From the outset, the fact of being male or female is typically known, and personal identity forms around that essential fact. Advertising portrayals of babies are quick to provide this information too, often by using the familiar symbols of blue or pink.

It is sometimes possible to find images of babies before this distinction appears. For example, the ad in Figure 3 depicts an infant without any references to gender. This PSA promotes a father's responsibility to his child, a message that applies across gender. The ivory-colored blanket signifies neutrality. Similarly, the slightly older baby being bathed in Figure 4 is also presented without reference to gender. There are no words or colors in either ad that give any indication of the babies' genders.

Ad for National Fatherhood Initiative
Fig. 7.3 A Gender-Neutral Infant [Source]

Ad for Johnson's Baby Wash
Fig. 7.4 Is This Baby Male or Female? [Source]

Figure 5 indicates how soon gender is made apparent. The copy in the ad speaks of this baby as male although the advertised product is presumably used by girls as well as boys. The blue colors reinforce the message that this baby is a boy, but none of the major attributes later associated with maleness (e.g., strength, power, etc.) are yet assigned to him.

Ad for Playtex Baby Bottles
Fig. 7.5 Maleness Indicated in Words and Colors [Source]

Similarly, blue colors are absent in Figure 6, and the baby is spoken of as "she." Although colors here are less clearly signify gender than those in Figure 5 did, words nonetheless make it clear that the baby is a girl. Gender theorists might compare these two ads with regard to further, more subtle messages about gender. The boy in Figure 5 is thinking while the girl in Figure 6 is being protected. The issue of gender runs much deeper than just he/she and blue/pink.

Ad for Vista Window Film
Fig. 7.6 This Child Is a "She" [Source]

Such observations are most apparent when comparing ads with one another. However, most people who create ads do not think along these lines in their daily work. Rather, they concern themselves with executing campaign strategies and creative briefs. They would likely insist in cases like these that their primary focus is on the best ways of communicating product benefits to parents. Since people in real life usually speak of babies as boys or girls, the ads merely reflect this fact. On the other hand, scholars who study the inculcation of gender argue that repeating such practices serves to reinforce them. The issue in the end becomes: which came first—the culture or the ad?

The somewhat older children in Figure 7 are clearly identifiable as boys or girls by the gendered nature of their clothing and its colors. At this age, gender differences in dress and behavior are so pronounced that it would be difficult to disguise it. Advertising in the past has sometimes characterized boys as getting their clothes dirtier than girls. Thus, it could be argued that a laundry product which cleans boys' dirty clothing would clearly work for girls as well. However, this ad for Downey makes no distinction of this sort about gender. The girls are engaged in the same playful activity that the boy is.

Ad for Downy Plus Whitening
Fig. 7.7 These Children Are Clearly Identifiable as Male or Female [Source]

Children of a similar age appear in Figure 8 but in a less gender-neutral context. Blue and pink colors as well as highly decorated versus plainer shoes signify styles appropriate for each gender. In the ad, many things are shared across gender—the joy of life, the fun of playing, smiling, being outdoors, etc. However, it is the product itself that is gender distinct—shoes are not just shoes, but girls' shoes or boys' shoes for children of this age. The ad depicts appropriate styling for boys and for girls.

Ad for Primigi shoes
Fig. 7.8 This Product Itself Is Gender Specific [Source]

In Figure 9 the boy is playing with airplanes, soldiers, and wild animals—culturally appropriate toys for males. The message in the ad is actually directed to his parent, presumably his mother since it talks about cleanliness in the kitchen and women have been traditionally been assigned that responsibility. In this day and age, it could be speaking to his father instead—a possibility the ad leaves open. The product itself is to some degree gender-neutral. However, ads in the past have often used boys to show just how messy and dirty things can get.

Ad for Clorox Anywhere Spray
Fig. 7.9 This Boy Is Surrounded by Gender-Specific Toys [Source]

In Figures 10 and 11, gender roles are even more clearly displayed. The boys run barefoot and play outside while the girl dresses up inside. The boys have sand in their pockets as a result of their play. The girl is told, "It's never too soon to learn how to accessorize." By school age, children are clearly shown in male and female roles. Even though many parents argue that male and female behaviors simply emerge as their children grow up, influences such as the ideas depicted in the ads are also present. In these instances, the ideas are communicated to parents, not to the children themselves. Reinforcement like this reminds parents of gender-appropriate behavior for their children. What would happen to little boys who wanted "to accessorize"? Would they be allowed to do it? Alternatively, might more freedom be allowed to girls who wanted to romp in the sand?

Ad for South Carolina Tourism
Fig. 7.10 Boys Running and Playing Outdoors [Source]

Ad for Britax Car Seats
Fig. 7.11 This Girl Plays "Dress Up" [Source]

The girl in Figure 12 is referred to as "an angel" who wears soft, white clothes and sleeps as if on a cloud. Feelings are referred to as "beautiful." Similarly, the girl in Figure 13 appears in a tutu—one of the most feminine of all items of clothing. Both girls assume feminine postures that would be less appropriate for boys. By contrast, the Ms. Foundation for Women public service advertisement in Figure 14 counters these stereotypes for women by putting these words in the mouth of the girl appearing in the ad: "Being a fire fighter is just part of my life. I'm a photographer, dancer and a troop leader." Were it not for the typical depiction of girls and women in conventional gender roles, this imagery in this ad would be meaningless.

Ad for Downy Plus Whitening
Fig. 7.12 Words and Gestures Support Gender Distinctions [Source]

Ad for Kraft Singles
Fig. 7.13 Clothing and Posture Indicate Femininity [Source]

Ad for Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work
Fig. 7.14 This PSA Counters Gender Stereotypes [Source]

Advertising imagery of the teenage years continues and extends the differences between males and females. Boys remain hyper-active and live in a world of sports (Figures 15, 16, and 17). The pose of the young man in Figure 16 suggests that he is being celebrated by his buddies—perhaps because he has just excelled in athletics or achieved something that has gained him their approval. Being tossed in the air and carried on the shoulders of others is an ancient way of celebrating the victor in a contest. In Figure 17, male athleticism is the focus. A note scribbled by "Kevin" talks about flying through the air and defying the laws of gravity in the context of sports.

Ad for Lacoste
Fig. 7.15 This Boy Is Not Just Running
but Literally Jumping through the Air

Ad for American Eagle
Fig. 7.16 Tossing the Victor in the Air [Source]

Ad for AT&T
Fig. 7.17 Promoting Athleticism for Males [Source]

By contrast, girls are typically pictured as less active and more concerned with their physical appearance and beauty. The ads in Figures 18 and 19 focus on hair styles and clear complexions.

Ad for Kanekalon Fibers
Fig. 7.18 This Girl Uses a Hairpiece to Enhance Her Appearance [Source]

Ad for Aveeno Active Naturals
Fig. 7.19 A Clear Complexion as a Mark of Feminine Beauty [Source]

In adulthood, the sexuality of mature women is a central focus. Ads like the one in Figure 20 exaggerate sexuality by the wide-spread posture that the woman assumes. She sits, of course, in a model's pose to display the clothing, shoes, and bag in an eye-catching and provocative manner. Ads must break through the clutter of the competition and draw the reader's attention. The somewhat unusual pose here may serve that purpose, but it also serves to reinforce the idea that women are and must be sexual creatures in order to attract attention—whether it is that of other women or of men.

Ad for Michael Kors
Fig. 7.20 An Unusually Provocative Pose [Source]

The products in Figure 21 are named "Bed Head" and "Hard to Get." These names reflect her highly-charged sexuality, as do her clothing, her posture, and her direct gaze into the lens. If the woman in Figure 20 suggests a pre-encounter, "come on" moment, this woman is further along in a sexual encounter with the viewer.

Ad for Bed Head
Fig. 7.21 Also a Provocative Feminine Pose [Source]

Another common pose for women is smiling at the camera as shown in Figures 22, 23, and 24. These smiles are exaggerated and much wider than is common for men, suggesting that different emotional states are appropriate as feminine or masculine expressions. The ad in Figure 24 is a part of Dove's "Real Women" campaign which explains why the woman in the ad is heavier than most other women in advertisements. Like the ad in Figure 14 which seeks to expand notions about appropriate careers for women, the effort here is to expand notions about what a woman's body should look like.

Ad for LensCrafters
Fig. 7.22 A Wide Smile Is More Typical for Women than Men [Source]

Ad for Almay
Fig. 7.23 Another Wide Smile [Source]

Ad for Dove Energy Glow
Fig. 7.24 Dove's "Real Women" Campaign
Shows More Possibilities for Women's Bodies

Compare the poses and facial expressions of the men in the following three ads with those of women just discussed. None of the men are smiling, and each is intensely serious in his demeanor. Stoicism and carefully considered emotional reactions are hallmarks of adult masculinity in the world of advertising.

Ad for Champion Spark Plugs
Fig. 7.25 Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Is Intensely Involved with His Car [Source]

Ad for LRG Clothing
Fig. 7.26 This Man's Look Is Foreboding [Source]

Ad for Jack Victor
Fig. 7.27 Stoicism as a Masculine Posture [Source]

Male physicality as the source of male power during adolescence and early manhood is illustrated in Figures 28 and 29. These men have excelled in their physical development and power to the point that their semi-nude bodies stand as models of emulation for others. The Bowflex ad offers the training equipment that can help others achieve physical excellence and prowess. The surfer in Figure 29 has already achieved this. The ad speaks of him as powerful and cool. Men's power at this stage of their lives is derived from their physical nature. Well developed musculature and "killer" bodies signify the height of masculinity for young adult men.

Ad for Bowflex
Fig. 7.28 This Ad Promotes Equipment That Will Help Achieve a Perfect Body [Source]

Ad for Cool Water Fragrance
Fig. 7.29 This Man Is in His Prime Physically [Source]

The physicality of ideal masculinity is reinforced in ad after ad. Men are active, muscular, and athletic.

Ad for Marriott Hotels
Fig. 7.30 Being in Shape Is the Primary Source of Power for Younger Men [Source]

Ad for Zegna Clothing
Fig. 7.31 A Well-Developed Body Is Covered by Trendy Clothes [Source]

Pictures of women are common in magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, and Sports Illustrated that are directed primarily to male readers. Women in such contexts are invariably depicted as sexual objects for men. Their bodies are scantily clothed, breasts are well-developed, and the women are young and sexually attractive. Theorists distinguish between visual representations in terms of the ideal spectator for them. This terminology does not refer to who actually sees them in real life, but rather to the type of spectator the image seems to have been created for. In the following three advertisements, women's bodies are on display and the models (including the non-real one) effect poses that are sexually appealing to heterosexual men. The term male gaze refers to an image that has in mind an idealized heterosexual male spectator. Actual viewers may include women and gay men as a part of the audience, but such viewers recognize the point of view of the ideal spectator for the image.

Ad for Wolverine Boots
Fig. 7.32 The Words in this Ad Reinforce the Idea of the Male Gaze [Source]

Fig. 7.33 This Pose Assumes an Idealized Male Spectator [Source]

Ad for Kool Cigarettes
Fig. 7.34 This Model Assumes a Submissive and Sexually Receptive Posture
in Relation to the Ideal Spectator

The ad in Figure 35 is even more complex with regard to the male gaze. The viewer (presumably female since the advertised product is cosmetics and the ad appeared in Elle) sees the actress, Carmen Electra, in a sexually suggestive pose. She is asked to "feast [her] eyes on the new MAXeye collection." But Electra's pose is not intended to attract the woman. Rather it is for the idealized female spectator to look at and use as a model for herself on so that she can be the object of male gaze herself. This roundabout way of understanding communications in ads is common for women and others who fall outside the idealized spectatorship assumed by an ad. Especially in the past, women of color have had to make these psychological adjustments when viewing white models. Women in general have had to make them as well, when viewing ads that show male models in the place of generic people. Similarly, men of color and homosexual men have also had to make them when viewing white, heterosexual males as generic models.

Ad for Max Factor
Fig. 7.35 Who Is the Ideal Spectator for this Ad? [Source]

While young adult women are assuming these provocative postures in ads that emphasize their sexuality, young men continue to express their masculinity in physical ways. The cyclist in Figure 36 demonstrates his strength, energy, and fortitude. The outdoorsman, Ross Coleman, in Figure 37 is tough enough to ride bulls professionally and handle fast all-terrain vehicles. Miami Dolphins running back, Ronnie Brown, is compared in Figure 38 to a wrecking ball breaking through a brick and mortar wall with his "punishing power."

Ad for Snickers Energy Bar
Fig. 7.36 Strength, Energy, and Fortitude as Attributes of Masculinity [Source]

Ad for Yamaha ATVs
Fig. 7.37 Defining What It Means to Be Tough [Source]

Fig. 7.38 Make Your Own Daylight [Source]

When young men and young women appear in the same advertisements, the relationship almost always focuses on masculine dominance and female submissiveness. In addition, most images of this phase in the life of both men and women focus on sexual relationships. Women are portrayed as following, submissive, available, and desirable while the men pursue them in various ways, sometimes to the point of an overt sexual encounter.

Just as art historians often encourage museum goers to think about the point in a longer narrative that a painting represents, the same exercise is usefully applied to advertisements. Each of these male-female encounters in ads represents a point in a longer story of an encounter or possibly a relationship. But what point does it represent? Is it the initial encounter, a point along the development of the relationship, or its culminating moments?

The image in Figure 39 shows a young man leading a young woman. They are outdoors and having fun. It seems to be a casual morning or afternoon. The woman wears white pants, perhaps signifying her purity. Viewers must complete this narrative. Where do they go? What do they do next? Will this end in a sexual encounter, or not? In answering these questions, viewers collaborate in the meaning of the ad. However, the basic script for male-female relationships is a cultural one that specifies males pursuing females for sexual encounters. Viewers must work with this knowledge in developing whatever fuller narrative they may imagine for an image like this one.

Ad for Dockers
Fig. 7.39 The Male Is Dominant in this Relationship [Source]

Relationships are depicted at many stages of development. When many ads are placed side-by-side, the unfolding nature of the male-female relationship becomes very clear. If the man and woman display so much affection in public in Figure 40, what will they do in private?

Ad for Alabama Tourism
Fig. 7.40 Displaying Affection in a Public Space [Source]

The relationship is further along in Figure 41. The man holds the woman close to him. Her skirt is lifted, and he is about to kiss her. She holds the classical symbol of female temptation—an apple. She stares vacantly at the camera while he is focused on her. The relationship seems moments away from its sexual culmination.

Ad for DKNY Fragrance
Fig. 7.41 The Woman as Temptress [Source]

The narrative of the sexual encounter as the object of male-female relationships continues in Figure 42. Although obscured by flowers, the man and woman lie in each other's embrace with the women in the submissive pose. Depicting the relationship any further along in its development would result in what would likely be called pornography.

Ad for Chanel Fragrance
Fig. 7.42 A Man and Woman Embracing One Another [Source]

The following four ads (Figures 43 through 46) continue to depict aspects of sexual encounters.

Ad for Gillette Daisy Razor
Fig. 7.43 This Ad Focuses on Women's Legs [Source]

Ad for Bebe Clothing
Fig. 7.44 A Man in a Leopard-print Bikini Approaches this Supine Woman [Source]

Ad for TBP4Men Grooming Products
Fig. 7.45 The Eyes Tell the Story Here [Source]

Ad for Eternity Fragrance
Fig. 7.46 Another Depiction of the Man
as the Dominant Partner in the Relationship

A complexity of depictions of male-female relationships in ads is the single man/multiple woman situation (Figure 47). This corresponds to a fantasy that many heterosexual men have about relationships with women—of being "man enough" to have several women at once. In these depictions, the women do not exhibit sexual jealously but rather seem cooperatively engaged in pleasuring the man. It is impossible to find ads in which a single woman is being given pleasure by several men—perhaps because the men would be jealous of the shared affection or because of homophobic fears that prohibit men getting too close to other men.

Ad for Valentino Clothing
Fig. 7.47 A Single Man with Multiple Women [Source]

Another aspect of male-female relationships that is much less frequently depicted is that of a man and woman as partners who are settling down into a domestic environment. This comes later in the imagined narrative about relationships, but is part of the story—sometimes. In Figure 48, the man and woman who may be husband and wife (although signifying wedding rings are not apparent) examine the plans of a house under construction. Presumably they share a dream of living in the finished house and continuing their life together through its further developmental stages.

Ad for DIY Network
Fig. 7.48 Sharing a Dream [Source]

Women do sometimes appear in athletic poses but these poses often carry a fashion statement along with the movement they depict. The woman in Figure 49 is flying through the air, but she is also wearing make-up, earrings, and is twirled in ribbons. The woman in Figure 50 also appears in a moving pose, but fashion appears more important than athleticism—she doesn't even take her hand from her pocket. Athlete Maria Sharapova in Figure 51 is poised for a power shot, but the game she plays is a gentler one than the masculine games of football and other contact sports. Only the Asics ad in Figure 52 shows a woman neither obsessed with fashion nor avoiding the issues of strength and fortitude more often attributed to men. In a twist on voyeurism (usually men are voyeurs), this woman proclaims that she looks in her neighbor's window at night.

Fig. 7.49 Hurdling through the Air But Wrapped in Ribbons [Source]

Ad for Lacoste
Fig. 7.50 Fashion over Athleticism [Source]

Ad for Canon Cameras
Fig. 7.51 Maria Sharapova Poised for a Power Shot [Source]

Ad for Asics Sneakers
Fig. 7.52 Assuming Attributes Normally Associated with Men [Source]

Women's usual place in sports is reinforced by the irony in Figure 53. The lone woman appears with three male hockey players. Stereotypically, she is missing a tooth. The ad asks, "Have you been taking someone else's vitamins?" The ad might also be read as about the place of African-American women in particular as the product is specifically geared to this group of women. The question "Have you been taking someone else's vitamins?" might also refer to taking vitamins intended for other racial groups.

Ad for GenSpec Vitamins
Fig. 7.53 Have You Been Taking Someone Else's Vitamins? [Source]

Much more common than these depictions of women in sporting contexts is the depiction of women in maternal roles. In Figure 54, a woman—it is almost impossible not to consider her the child's mother—reassuringly hugs the child. The ad suggests an analogy: as a mother holds, reassures, and cares for a child, Lufthansa does these things for its passengers. Whether or not this is successful as a communication to airline passengers about the way the airline treats its passengers, the maternal role of women is nonetheless on display.

Ad for Lufthansa
Fig. 7.54 As a Mother Is to Her Child, Lufthansa Is to Its Passengers [Source]

Throughout the centuries, religious art has pictured the Madonna embracing her infant son. Ads often adopt this pose as well (Figures 54 and 55) to signify a mother's warmth, care, love, devotion, and protection. The contrast between this idealization of a woman's role and that presented in some previous ads (see Figures 20 and 21) reflects the conflicting expectations placed on women.

Ad for Oxi Clean
Fig. 7.55 This Woman Assumes a Madonna-like Pose [Source]

Gender theorists have noted that culture defines contradictory roles for women—asking them on the one hand to be sexually attractive and yet maternal. The following ads depict women in their maternal roles as nurturers and housekeepers.

Ad for Johnson's Soothing Naturals
Fig. 7.56 Mom as Nurturer [Source]

Ad for Graco Highchairs
Fig. 7.57 Mom as Housekeeper [Source]

When men are depicted in paternal roles, they often appear as adult playmates, usually in sports or other outdoor contexts. The father in Figure 58—he must be read as a father; other readings would be threatening ones—carries his daughter on his shoulders while strolling on the beach. The father in Figure 59—again he must be read as father—is taking his son fishing. The ad talks about it in terms of male bonding done away from mothers, girls, and other women.

Ad for Texas Tourism
Fig. 7.58 Dad and Daughter Strolling on the Beach [Source]

Ad for Boating and Fishing Foundation
Fig. 7.59 Take Me Fishing [Source]

Outside these roles as adult playmates, coaches, and buddies, men do not stand up well to the successes of women as mothers. For example, the father in Figure 60 appears to be helping his son with homework, but neither is smiling or giving any signs of successful mentoring. Increasingly, there are a few examples of fathers in nurturing roles that parallel the maternal roles of women. The closeness of the father and child in Figure 61 is more often a characteristic of mother-child relations.

Ad for Patek Philippe Watches
Fig. 7.60 Both Father and Son Seem Bored with the Homework [Source]

Ad for Tide Detergent
Fig. 7.61 An Unusual Example of Father-Son Closeness [Source]

Also infrequent are ads depicting nuclear families. Perhaps this is a result of the criticism that has been given to treating the "intact nuclear family" as normative when a great many American families are in fact not like this. This white father-mother-child imagery is not very common in contemporary advertisements. A few years ago, this was the way families tended to be depicted. As multiculturalism and diversity have moved into center stage of social life in America, advertisements have accordingly taken note. The family in Figure 63 could have been white, Latino, Asian, or African-American. Lowe's presumably wants to appeal to all of them. In this particular instance, the family is African-American.

Ad for Realities Fragrances
Fig. 7.62 Depictions of the Intact Nuclear Family Are Rare in Contemporary Ads [Source]

Ad for Lowes Home Improvement
Fig. 7.63 Depicting the American Dream [Source]

Depictions of men in middle age focus much less on their physicality and more on their success in life. Often this success is depicted as financial. Ads show them well-dressed with the accoutrements of success—drinking expensive liquor, visiting foreign locations, and making financial plans. Maleness and power continue to be strongly associated. It is the source and demonstration of this power that shift from physical to financial in mid-life.

Ad for Hennessy Cognac
Fig. 7.64 This Man Drinks Expensive Liquor [Source]

Ad for Tasso Elba Clothing
Fig. 7.65 This Man Travels Abroad [Source]

Ad for TD Waterhouse Stock Brokerage
Fig. 7.66 This Man Is an Expert in Finance [Source]

Ads depicting the workplace that include several people also tend to lay out the social order of the work environment. In Figure 67, four men appear in various capacities as indicated by their dress: hard hats, shirts carrying the title of their job, or business suits. By contrast to the men, the single woman in the ad wears a headset—suggesting that she works inside, perhaps only answering the telephone. Not every ad is like this. A smaller number depict women in successful business contexts as in Figure 68.

Ad for Emcor Consulting Services
Fig. 7.67 This Ad Lays Out the Social Order of the Workplace [Source]

Ad for Transamerica Financial Services
Fig. 7.68 I Want to Own My Own Business [Source]

In addition to financial concerns that emerge in middle life, issues of health begin to appear as well. In Figure 69, a woman is shown as able to accompany "her outdoorsman" when she takes Zyrtec for her allergies. Once again, the man is shown as being in charge. In this case, the woman accompanies him. By contrast, the quoted statement in Figure 70 could be that of the man or the woman. Either one could have herpes, and the Valtrex can be prescribed for either. However, it is the man who carries the more delicate woman through the stream.

Ad for Zyrtec
Fig. 7.69 Accompanying Her Outdoorsman [Source]

Ad for Valtrex
Fig. 7.70 The Male as More Powerful [Source]

Another ad offers relief for migraine headaches, which are in fact more frequently reported by women than men. Still another recommends milk as offering "essential nutrients" for an "irresistible body." Another shows a middle-aged woman with diabetes while another warns about osteoporosis.

Ad for Relpax
Fig. 7.71 Migraine Headaches Are More Common Among Women than Men [Source]

Ad for Milk
Fig. 7.72 Actress Elizabeth Hurley with a Milk Moustache [Source]

Ad for Glucerna
Fig. 7.73 Diabetes Frequently Appears in Mid-Life [Source]

Ad for Actonel
Fig. 7.74 Osteoporosis Affects Women More than Men [Source]

Images of healthy women in their middle years are not common in the world of advertising where part of the definition of femininity itself is being young. Only a few ads contain discernibly middle-aged or older women as models for clothing or cosmetics. Figure 75 is an exception. It is more common to find them ailing with one of the many kinds of diseases seen above or depicted in some silly or outrageous pose as in Figure 76.

Ad for Sigrid Olsen Clothing
Fig. 7.75 "Mature" Women as Fashion Models [Source]

Ad for Kohler Sinks
Fig. 7.76 This Older Woman Is a Comic Figure [Source]

The occasional exception to this might be a well-known and successful older woman, as in the tribute to Coretta Scott King in Figure 77.

Ad for Coca-Cola
Fig. 7.77 A Tribute to Coretta Scott King [Source]

Older men are also infrequent in ads. The particular male medical problem is erectile dysfunction—which threatens male physicality even more than aging itself. There are several drugs on the market nowadays to treat this. The corresponding ads show men regaining the confidence of masculine power. Figure 78 for Viagra suggests that a man can get back to his usual "mischief" by treating erectile dysfunction problems. By contrast, the ad for another erectile dysfunction in Figure 79 shows a more tempered male-female relationship.

Ad for Viagra
Fig. 7.78 This 2004 Ad Tells a Man He Can Get Back to Mischief with Viagra3 [Source]

Fig. 7.79 Erectile Dysfunction Threatens Male Power [Source]

Also uncommon are those who are referred to as "senior citizens." They seldom appear in general audience magazines but are relegated to magazines such as MotorHome Magazine, and Where to Retire. Absent from general thought as they often tend to be in society, they are depicted here as sharing time together by traveling in a RV, raking leaves, and playing with a grandchild. These activities emphasize a male-female relationship based on companionship rather than sexual aggression. Important though this relationship may be in later years, it is not something that is modeled except in these audience-specific magazines.

Ad for Dometic RV Products
Fig. 7.80 Senior Citizens in Retirement [Source]

Ad for Mississippi Tourism
Fig. 7.81 A Playful Relationship among Older People [Source]

Ad for Old Orchard Juice
Fig. 7.82 A Grandmother and Granddaughter
Spending Time Together

5. The Gender Borderlands

Until the last decade or so, depictions of gays and lesbians in advertising were almost unknown. Today, there are readily available media (magazines like Out and Genre, cable channels like Gay TV, and many Internet sites) directed to gays and/or lesbians. Marketers have recognized the fact that gay people represent a significant segment of the population—sometimes estimated to be as much as ten percent. Whatever the actual numbers, gays and lesbians are frequently high-income earners, have fewer dependents, and have significant disposable income.

Print ads directed to gay men and women convey many of the same themes as those intended for a general audience—desire to be successful, interest in staying healthy and fit, buying cars and home furnishings, and so on. However, there are some exceptional aspects to this body of ads. First, gay people are never depicted as children. They appear in ads as young- (and, less frequently, middle-) age adults. They also are never depicted as old (which seldom occurs in general audience ads either). Secondly, there are many HIV-related ads, especially those dealing with medicines and ways of staying healthy. Third, some companies which are generally associated with mainstream lifestyles (e.g., Budweiser) also have gay personas exhibited in ads specially produced for this market.

The ads in Figures 83, 84, and 85 show gay couples buying cars, taking vacations, and spending time together. It would be easy to substitute heterosexual couples in each of these ads. That is essentially the representational tactic here. What has happened is that perfectly ordinary situations have had homosexual as opposed to heterosexual couples placed in them.

Ad for Mercedes Benz
Fig. 7.83 Same-Sex Couples in an Ad for a Car [Source]

Fig. 7.84 These Two Men Are a Couple [Source]

Ad for Key West Tourism
Fig. 7.85 Two Women Sharing a Vacation [Source]

The ad in Figure 86 deals with HIV-related medication. It pictures a man who can be presumed to be gay. He appears alone in this ad along with a lengthy discussion of medical issues. Absent are family, friends, or a partner to stand beside him in this difficult time of his life.

Ad for Levixa
Fig. 7.86 Facing the Challenges of HIV Therapy [Source]

Budweiser presents an alternative image of itself in Figure 87. In this ad, Bud Light is promoted to young gay men who are encouraged to be themselves. In this situation, Budweiser has moved from mainstream center of cultural values to temporarily ally itself with a minority lifestyle. From a marketing perspective, the ability to be all things to all people is a successful tactic.

Ad for Bud Light
Fig. 7.87 Bud Light's Gay Persona [Source]

6. Further Directions

Such an analysis as this raises significant questions for further research and discussion. They include: (1) How have representations of masculinity and femininity in advertisements changed over time?; (2) How would the life cycle of a man and a woman look in other national advertising traditions where the cultural expression of masculinity and femininity differs in important ways from the United States; and (3) How are (and how have been) masculinity and femininity for different U.S. minorities been portrayed in advertising? In addition, brand- and product-specific representations, if examined, will also show differences in the conceptualization of gender.

Scholars in many academic disciplines have studied advertising and gender—from Erving Goffman's groundbreaking analysis in Gender Advertisements in 1979 to Linda Scott's critique in Fresh Lipstick: Redressing fashion and feminism in 2005. The approach taken in this unit is only one of many possible ways to investigate the topic. An Internet search using terms like sex, sexism, gender, masculinity and femininity will lead to other sources.


1 The names and dates of each of the magazines are included in the media credits following the text.

2 The discussion is limited to print advertisements in this unit, a strictly pragmatic decision necessitated by the large number of ads examined. Readers are encouraged to pursue these issues in TV commercials.

3 This imagery was used in print and TV commercials through 2004 to advertise Viagra. The Food and Drug Administration felt the commercials were misleading, failed to specify the medical reasons for taking the drug, and did not warn against some potential side effects. Advertising Age reported on May 8, 2006 that a new Viagra campaign will include more imagery of doctors and have less focus on sexual themes.

Media Credits

Fig. 7.1 Source unknown, page from a book sold as ephemera.

Fig. 7.2 Mead, Margaret. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Dell's Laurel Edition of 1968.

Fig. 7.3 Essence, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.4 Child, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.5 Child, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.6 Child, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.7 Latina, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.8 Child, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.9 Ebony, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.10 Condé Nast Traveler, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.11 Child, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.12 Essence, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.13 People en Espanol, Mayo, 2006.

Fig. 7.14 Fortune, April 3, 2006.

Fig. 7.15 Details, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.16 Maxim, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.17 Sports Illustrated, April 10, 2006.

Fig. 7.18 Today's Black Woman, Feb./March, 2006.

Fig. 7.19 People en Espanol, Mayo, 2006.

Fig. 7.20 Elle, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.21 Latina, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.22 Cosmopolitan, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.23 Bon Appétit, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.24 Glamour, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.25 Field & Stream, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.26 The Source, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.27 GQ, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.28 Men's Health, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.29 Maxim, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.30 Condé Nast Traveler, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.31 Details, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.32 Sports Illustrated, Swimsuit Issue, 2006.

Fig. 7.33 Maxim, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.34 Sports Illustrated, Swimsuit Issue, 2006.

Fig. 7.35 Elle, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.36 Men's Health, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.37 Outdoor Life, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.38 Men's Health, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.39 Men's Health, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.40 Ebony, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.41 Glamour, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.42 Cosmopolitan, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.43 People, April 17, 2006.

Fig. 7.44 Cosmopolitan, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.45 Esquire, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.46 Cosmopolitan, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.47 Elle, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.48 Bon Appétit, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.49 Ebony, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.50 Elle, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.51 Sports Illustrated, Swimsuit Issue, 2006.

Fig. 7.52 O, the Oprah Magazine, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.53 Ebony, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.54 Fortune, April 3, 2006.

Fig. 7.55 Better Homes & Gardens, June 2006.

Fig. 7.56 Essence, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.57 Child, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.58 Condé Nast Traveler, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.59 Child, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.60 Esquire, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.61 Ebony, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.62 Glamour, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.63 Essence, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.64 The Source, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.65 Esquire, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.66 Forbes, April 10, 2006.

Fig. 7.67 Fortune, April 3, 2006.

Fig. 7.68 Time, April 17, 2006.

Fig. 7.69 O, the Oprah Magazine, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.70 Maxim, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.71 Essence, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.72 Sports Illustrated, Swimsuit Issue, 2006.

Fig. 7.73 Ebony, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.74 Bon Appétit, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.75 O, the Oprah Magazine, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.76 House & Garden, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.77 Essence, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.78 Sports Illustrated, 2004.

Fig. 7.79 Field & Stream, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.80 MotorHome, June, 2006.

Fig. 7.81 Where to Retire, June, 2006.

Fig. 7.82 O, the Oprah Magazine, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.83 Curve, March, 2006.

Fig. 7.84 Out, April, 2006.

Fig. 7.85 Curve, May, 2006.

Fig. 7.86 MetroSource, June/July, 2006.

Fig. 7.87 MetroSource, June/July, 2006.


William M. O'Barr

William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke's most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O'Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society — An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to AS&R.