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  • Overexposed: Issues of Public Gender Imaging
  • Pamela Morris (bio)

Make no mistake—it is popularity that makes pop culture important. And it is the powerful visual imagery of advertisements that helps define the largely artificial construction we call gender. Sex-role stereotyping and gender representations are typically studied in content analyses of television and magazine advertisements. Less common are investigations into outdoor advertising, a medium that is ubiquitous and the most democratic—everyone has equal access to visuals. This essay calls attention to and offers insights on advertisements in our outdoor visual space, focusing on gender representations. Capturing and analyzing these ephemeral images can show how they influence how we feel, think, look, and act like a man or a woman through commercialization.

Outdoor advertisement is our national landscape—there is no better time capsule, no better record of everyday objects, ideas, actions, and social interest. Bright by day, illuminated at night, brand messages blink, throb, and scream at every opportunity. A concentrated image comes to mind: Times Square, where the ‘bling’ of pretty men and women, words, images, and products for sale never stops and constantly changes. Below, the consuming masses, their senses stimulated, are entertained and informed, but most importantly—they are socialized into a uniform consumer.

We all know that images are powerful. But just what does that mean? Consumer images in public spaces are even more powerful than those found elsewhere. How so? Why? A review of advertisement visuals in a major U.S. metropolis, New York City in this study, at a particular moment offers a peek into the vast reservoir of social values, morals, fashions, and culture of our national civilization. The following visual walk-through tells only a bit of the elaborate story. Important also is talking to the people who created these types of images.

Throughout the world, public space is increasingly commercialized. Any surface that can act as a vehicle for communicating a message is—sides of buildings, water towers, gas pump handles, parking meters, sidewalks, and billboards, to name a few. Outdoor visuals don’t discriminate. They are the most democratic of all advertising vehicles. Images of all kinds are available for all to see—young, old, rich, poor, male, and female. At anytime, day and night, you may see them with your grandparents, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, boyfriend, and girlfriend.

By stimulating materialistic drive, they create demand and influence values. Advertisements guide thinking, action, and behavior as people come to accept mainstream ideas through visuals. The most crucial of these is what it means to be a man or a woman. Ideas about how to feel, dress, look, and behave, and how to interact with other men and women is the bedrock of the culture in which we live. Many of these codes of conduct come straight from advertisements. Why not? Our knowledge comes from somewhere. Images help shape our expectations and interpretations for what is masculinity and femininity. Through mimicking ideals—like fashions, hairstyles, poses, and attitudes—concepts are codified as culture. The consumed dress, action, and behavior are used as inspiration for future advertisements, reinforcing and creating a circle of culture. Simultaneously, advertisements are both cultural indicators and cultural artifacts, acting as echoes, mirrors, and historic notes.

My adventure began by exploring the outdoor segment of the advertising industry and literature of gender. In order to investigate the creative process first-hand, I met and interviewed several professionals who were responsible for commercial outdoor messages. Meanwhile, armed with my mechanical Pentax Camera, I systematically walked the streets of Manhattan to collect images. The analysis centers on the representation of the human figure in outdoor advertisements.

While this essay is based on an exploratory study, my goals are to understand the importance and current state of outdoor promotional visuals and to focus on images of people. Recording the messages in our common everyday public space can shed light on images that are, at the same time, both ephemeral and important in socialization. The scope is on visuals of people in outdoor advertisements in New York City, a cultural epicenter. Manhattan was chosen because, if not officially, it is perceived to be the leader in business...