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Media Portrayal Of Women In Advertising: Empowerment Or Subjugation?

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Abstract

Advertising is a prime target of attack and scrutiny. It has been accused of misrepresenting women in the media. This misrepresentation is not concerned with the quantity of women appearing in advertisements but the qualitative representation which is considered far more alarming and pejorative. This paper examines the current state of women portrayal in advertising by reviewing the anatomy of relevant existing literatures/studies. It further dissects the commoditization, marketization and glamourizing of women image in advertising. The paper concludes based on existing empirical evidence that advertising have a trend of portraying women in exploitative and subjugative ways, though women are culpable in the sexualization and objectification that sustains the male-supremacist order.

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Introduction

Advertising has been a prime target of attack and scrutiny. It has been variously accused of misrepresenting women in the media. This alleged misrepresentation could take the form of their pictorial depiction or linguistic usage. The common view is that advertising tend to present women as sex symbol, a caregiver or a cook in comparison to male, who does not have such a portrayal. In this context, it appears that the woman only exists to merely cater for the basic needs of the male. She is thus presented as the male’s beast of burden and source of sexual titillation.

The basic explanation for the critical focus on sex role portrayal in advertising lies in the close relationship which exists between advertising, the consumer goods industry, and the crucial economic role of women as consumers. As a result, a large proportion of advertising messages envisage women as their primary target audience. The effectiveness of advertising largely depends on the manipulation of the consumer’s self-image. Thus, since women are perceived as the major consumers, advertising manipulates the female image in order to persuade women to buy.

Critics of female image in advertising are not concerned with the quantity of women appearing in advertisements. Research indicates that women are visible in advertising at least on an equal basis with men, as opposed to the severe underrepresentation of females in other types of media content. The qualitative representation of this highly visible female is considered far more alarming. Thus, this paper will examine the current state of women portrayal in advertising by reviewing the anatomy of relevant existing studies. However, one simple fact that has usually been overlooked in all this is that women may have a role to play in the way they are been portrayed. This study will also attempt to critically examine if women contribute in any way to the way they are been portrayed in advertising.

The State of Women Portrayal in Advertising: A Review

Plethora of studies have examined the portrayal of women in advertising and it has been studied within and across a variety of cultures including the United States, Australia, Britain, Italy, India, and Japan; with a majority in developed economies of the west and to a lesser extent emerging ones of Asi. Few have been conducted in Africa.

However, a literature review of media image of both sexes (men and women) demonstrate that since the early 1970s when Maccoby published a study on the impact of television on children, there have been an escalation of interest in media portrayal of women. One of the earliest of such studies was conducted in 1970 when the researchers examined print advertisements to determine whether the women’s liberation members are justified in criticizing, the very limited and negative stereotypes of women in advertisements. The researchers concluded after analyzing the content of 726 advertisements in eight general interest magazines that women as depicted in the media first, should be confined and relegated to the home; second, that women do not make important decision or do important things; third, that women are dependent and need men’s protection; fourth, men regard women primarily as sexual objects. Although, a follow up attempt that replicated this study using content analysis in 1972 unearthed a marked improvement in the number of working women portrayed, but no significant changes in the frequency with which women were shown operating independently of men when purchasing big items such as cars, major appliances or participating in institutional transactions with banks, industries, or mass media. In fact, the anatomy of longitudinal studies conducted consequently further showed the hegemony of men in virtually all areas.

Basically, early recurrent sexist charges focus on three aspects of the female image in advertising: as employed woman, as housewife, as sex object. However, recent studies on women portrayal in advertising as documented by Holtzhauzen (2010) have identified particular roles and majority of these studies used content analysis as research method. Also, these researches focused on magazines, while some studies analyzed the content of television commercials. These specific roles portrayed by women in magazine and television advertising include working/career woman, sex object, physically attractive/decorative, housewife/homemaker, mother, dependent, product user, mannequin, social role, Romantic role and non-traditional activities. From these roles identified, eight were identified in more than one research study-working/career woman, sex object, physically decorative, home maker, mother, product user, mannequin and social being.

Furthermore, much of the literatures reviewed also included other elements such as but not limited to product categories that were advertised using specific role portrayals such as working/career woman with financial services and e-commerce; dependent with cosmetics and foods and beverage products; housewife/housemaker with household/domestic items; mannequin with clothes and cosmetics ; mother with baby and food products; non-traditional with durable products; decorative with jewellery and personal care products, romantic role with alcoholic beverages and furniture liners, sex object with fashion and e-commerce; social being with cigarettes and food products; and product user with technical product.

It is instructive to note that the various research studies have indicated that the sex object is the most frequently depicted female role. According to Plakoyiannaki & Zotos (2009), the sex object depiction is the second most prevalent portrayal in UK advertising. Bolliger (2008) also points out sexualized gender typecasting of women as prevalent in educational technology advertisements. Similarly, women are often portrayed in mother/nurturer, housewife, mannequin and physically attractive/decorative roles. In contrast, the working/career woman is less portrayed in a diverse range of studies worldwide. Social reality today indicates that women worldwide are active in the workplace. This is not reflected in advertising practice as only 12 percent of female advertising images depict career women globally.

Therefore, the portrayal of women in advertising, it seems, lags behind the reality of women in contemporary society. However, most of the studies described above are content analysis and hence suffer from problems of objectivity. The value laden decisions of what to count, how to classify, and how to interpret the results make firm conclusion difficult.

Review Submission

From the foregoing review, it is safe to allude that most advertisements have a trend of portraying women using exploitative and subjugate approaches. Therefore, one would not be unfair to posit that advertising denigrates women and contribute to what Faruk (2002) calls “the commercialization of the female body”. Thus, if the assumption that advertising is an insidious propaganda machine for a male-supremacist society is taken as valid, it is logical to frankly conclude that advertisers are orientating the society to be pernicious to women.

Commoditization, Marketization and Glamourizing of Women Image in Advertising

The media and the pattern of advertisements has entirely changed in the post globalized era and it has become a vibrant mode and tool to shape, mold and change public opinion and create markets and demand for different products by projecting slim, trim, sculpted woman bodies like a commodity. From home care products, beauty products to IT products/computers, the woman body has been used unsparingly to advertise and market merchandise. In order to sell products, images of women are reconstructed with modified sculpted looks presented before target audiences to influence their perception of an ideal woman rendering the woman as a commodity in the process. Print and visual media by projecting, commoditizing, commercializing and reconstructing women image deceives the woman as to what is her real image: one projected in the media or one she herself carries or the one prescribed by normative societal structure. Promoting not only commercialized but glamourized image of women is a major contribution of advertising in the post globalized era. New faces of young and sensuous models selling soft drinks, perfumes, laptops or expensive cars in a sizzling manner promote glamour than the products. Advertising has completely ignored the image of increasing working women population and emerging partners in financial decision in an era of post-liberalized market economy. Rather, the images of women have been more overtly impregnated with glamour quotient by advertising again and again. Wykes and Gunter cited in Sarkar (2014) argued that “at best, media images of the body of women in advertising are politically oppressive and commercially exploitative. At worst, they may justify a young woman’s effort at self-annihilation”. Thin, fair, and beautiful underline threat as it may lead to health problems related to skin diseases, skin cancer affecting reproductive health and many other diseases. Advertising therefore celebrates body images of women through making models walk in fashion shows and promoting blatant display of painted and well massaged bodies in commercialization and exposition of glamourized body being subject of discussion in kitty-parties and high society rich ladies. It harbours glamour and beauty and capitalizes on fully exposed bodies.

Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher in his philosophical argument in 1981 coined a term called “representational discourse and imagery”, wherein he outlines three components, simulation, a process in which representation of things replace the “things being represented”. This is a problematic notion in advertising because it causes de-humanization. In advertising, the process of representation becomes more important than the real-thing. Signs are thought of as representing reality, signs that mask the reality, and signs that mask the absence of reality. With this, advertising leads us to simulacrum, a state where signs have no relation with reality whatsoever. Thus, with advertising’s global mass invasion of the mass media, copies of copies of the same projection are created and bombarded on human retina. The simulation no longer reflects the original but reflects a simulation. Hence, with the advertising and fashion industry’s portrayal of women as beauty and sex object, there is absolute negation of the real woman. The woman which we see in advertisements is not real but an image of a woman based on male libidinal expectations. The reconstruction of women image in the name of women rights and equality of gender is far removed from reality as women still suffer sexual slavery. Advertising has successfully glamourized and not empowered women at praxis level.

Double Standard: Feminism and the Culpability of Women in their Sexualization and Objectification

The feminist movement has had a tremendous impact on the role and status of men and women. Since early 1960s, many well noted feminists such as Betty Friedman and Germaine Green have challenged traditional, male-dominated societies by questioning the social restrictions placed on women and demanding action from political groups as well as from women themselves. Much of the blame for women’s unhappiness was placed on the post-war consumer society and on advertiser’s exploitation of women. During this time, advertisers were criticized for their stereotypical portrayal of women in advertisements. Subsequent empirical and academic research in this area has shown these claims were not entirely unfounded. The advertising industry has, to a degree, responded to these criticisms and pressures by portraying women in more diverse and equal roles, that is, in position of power and responsibility.

While all these allegations may be true, one simple fact that must not be overlooked is that women have a role to play in this purported misrepresentation. Daniel (2011) posit that women contribute to their perceived uncomplimentary representation in advertising. To support her claim, Daniel (2011) employed pictorial semiotics along with critical discourse analysis to interrogate the role of women in the whole process of their pictorial misrepresentation. Frequency count of the identified pictorial preferences and clothing items in her analysis reveal that the women whose pictures were published /used in advertising were actually active agents in the whole process of their so-called pictorial misrepresentation.

The above submission by Daniel (2011) gives the impression that women have aligned themselves with the dominant patriarchal paradigm within the society to perpetuate the patriarchal ideology through their pictorial misrepresentation in advertising. Obviously, sex remains the greatest avenue of sales. It may appeal to what is “human” in those that take “pleasure”, but it does not show advertising as a friend of women. Basically, therefore the main focus of advertising is sales. Women are the ones to determine their destiny through refusing to be construed in manners that do not help their cause. They are the ones to resist being presented in manners that do not compliment them nor tell the whole of their story. It seems until they do, the commodification of women is likely to continue unabated in advertising. Therefore, women are those sustaining the patriarchal social order through their giving support and hegemonic consent to the “sex symbol” of themselves in advertising.

Conclusion

This paper has attempted to examine the current state of women portrayal in advertising by reviewing past and present studies. The image of women in advertising has been found to be very negative and capable of negatively influencing the perception of women in the society. This extremely negative portrayal of women in advertising is unrealistic. The paper concludes that, in this era of concern for women’s empowerment, advertising is counterproductive and damaging to the cause of women. Rather than contribute to the much needed empowerment of women, advertising only lead to the subjugation of women and strengthen the forces which push women to the background in this patriarchal world. Though, the culpability of women cannot be overlooked nor dismissed with the wave of the hand in this gargano.

15 July 2020

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