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  • Gender Role Stereotyping in Television Commercials: The Case of Singapore.
  • Chun Wah Lee (bio)

The stereotyping of females and their use as sex objects in advertisements has been a hot topic of research. Advertisers tend to use women as “decoratives” in various promotional strategies. This study focuses on the nature of female stereotyping in Singapore’s television industry. A content analysis of one working week of television commercials was conducted on Singapore’s English-language channel. The coding technique was derived from works such as Craig (1992) and Furnham and Bitar (1993), while an array of variables were employed to examine how and in what situations women were portrayed in these commercials. The study revealed that women were depicted in more diversified roles—ranging from homemaking and childcare, to endorsing beauty products and working in offices. However, some degree of patriarchy is still prevalent. The study argues that advertisers should portray men and women in more equal partnerships since they now have to manage the increasing demands imposed by work and family.

The stereotyping of females and their use as sex objects in advertisements have been a topic of debate among media scholars and feminist groups for a long time (e.g., Allan & Coltrane, 1996; Bretl & Cantor, 1988; Courtney & Whipple, 1974; O’Barr, 1994). Advertisers have been using and are continuing to use women as “decoratives” or sex objects in various promotional strategies. For instance, many beer and car ads still show scantily clad women in suggestive poses. Such ads, mainly aimed at men, suggest that consuming the beer or driving the car is a sign of masculinity, a status symbol that will attract women from whom they can derive sexual pleasure. Women are commodified and become the objects themselves in ads (Smith, 1988; Wolf, 1991). Moreover, when advertisers target women as potential consumers, youth and beauty are often overemphasized in their ads. Advertisers give the word “consumption” more positive connotations and consumerism becomes a “social act” that makes women feel normal and cheerful (Probyn, 1993; Tomlinson, 1990). They are confronted with ads that show women with “perfect figures.” These ads portray an unbalanced view of the real world and create a false impression of what constitutes a good life.

The problem of stereotyping becomes more serious when we realize that it affects the way people think of the roles of the genders in society. The influences of the American media on sex role portrayals are well-documented (Lin, 1998; Lowery & DeFleur, 1995; Shields, 1990; Signoreilli, 1993). The cultivation theory on violence and media by Gerbner, et al (1986) explains that heavy exposure to violence in the media influences an audience’s perception of the world as a more violent place. A parallel can be drawn to advertisements where heavy exposure to gender-biased advertisements would also influence the way people think of society and the way it functions. In Singapore, if an individual watches at least one hour of television programming every day, he or she would have seen approximately 11,206 commercials in a year! (Choong, 1989). Thus, advertisers, society, and the government cannot underestimate the power of advertising.

The stereotyping of females in ads and its social effects have sparked widespread protests from feminist groups and have been intensely researched by scholars. The main argument appears to be that the continued stereotyping of women in ads would only reinforce the ideas of a patriarchal society where the role of a female is predominantly that of a bearer of children and a homemaker. The ideology of patriarchy portrays males as being the ruling class and the dominant figures of society, while the myth that women’s proper role is that of a subservient wife and mother is naturalized and glorified so that the subordinate class accepts it as normal (Shields, 1990; Stern, 1992; Weedon, 1997).

The purpose of this study is to examine the nature of female stereotyping in Singapore’s advertising media. While studies have been conducted on print ads, my focus here is on television commercials, specifically those shown on the dominant English-language channel. In addition to looking at the portrayals of women, I also include the portrayal of men and children in my...