Portrayals of Gender in Television Commercials and the Effects on Achievement Aspirations of Audiences

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Valerie Hooper
Honors Thesis: Rough Draft
April 30, 2008

Portrayals of Gender in Television Commercials and the Effects on
Achievement Aspirations of Audiences

Though research on the effects of television commercials exists, very few studies
look solely at gender within commercials and its effect on the future goals of
viewers, and no studies examine this theory with males. For this study, a content
analysis was performed on current prime time commercials. Then, twenty-four
male and female undergraduate students at the University of New Hampshire
were surveyed to examine the relationship between gender stereotypes in
commercials and achievement particularly in the domestic and occupational
sectors. The relationship between these variables was shown to be significant in
the male groups, but not with females.

Gender is one of the most studied social paradigms as it is the main paradigm that people
use in determining how to act and interact with others. For this reason, it is important to look at
the ways in which individuals receive messages about gender norms. This paper seeks to
examine portrayals of gender in television commercials and the effects that such gendered
images have on viewers. To clarify, gender refers to the social meanings attached to the sexes
within a particular social system (Kramer, 2005). From a sociological standpoint, the research
about television commercials affecting the gender perceptions of its viewers is extremely
relevant. Because television advertisements transmit cultural ideas about gender, they help to
socially construct gender. Commercials may affect the way that people think about their own
gender, and contribute to the ongoing social stratification of genders in our society.
While television commercials are designed with the purpose of selling specific products,
it is hard to deny the fact that the characters in the advertisements behave in ways that appear
normal and make sense to viewers. They contain characters, events, and relationships that


viewers will most likely deem as authentic (Lewis, 1991). By relating to the characters within the
commercials, individuals are able to make parallels between the televised world and their own
lives. If gender roles within the commercials are perceived as realistic, an individual’s ideas
about the ‘correct’ way of “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman, 1987) for him/herself and also
other genders may be changed (Lewis, 1991).
Since commercials often offer lessons about appropriate gender behavior (Blakeney,
Barnes, and McKeough, 1983; Coltrane and Messineo, 2000; Leiss, Kline, and Jhally, 1986;
Stern and Mastro, 2004), it is important to study what they are portraying and how the viewers
perceive them. This study seeks to explore these concepts based upon three research questions.
As no content analyses examining gender in commercials have been published since 2004, the
first research question focuses on the content of more up to date commercials:
Q1: To what extent do the portrayals of males and females differ in television
commercials, particularly in terms of numbers, product representation, and actions

In examining the effect television advertisements have on the viewers, two theories are
prominent: social learning theory and cultivation theory. Social learning theory simply states that
individuals learn through observation. In the case of television, people learn through observing
the characters within the commercials. Cultivation theory points out that television creates a
“shared cultural environment of images and representations within which we grow up and live”
(Morgan and Rothschild, 1983). Based on these two theories and using the data from the content
analysis, two more questions are proposed:
Q2: To what extent does viewing traditionally or non-traditionally gender stereotyped
commercials influence one’s achievement aspirations?

Q3: How do individuals perceive gender representations in television commercials and
how well do they relate to televised portrayals of their gender?


In 1939, RCA introduced the first consumer television receiver sets at the New York
World's Fair (Bells, 2004). It is estimated that in 1939, fewer then two hundred televisions were
purchased worldwide, but that by the mid 1960s the number had grown to over one hundred
thousand televisions sold. Data from 1996 shows that there are over a billion televisions in
operation around the world (http://www.civilization.ca/hist/tv/tv02eng.html). Very few alive
today can remember a time when television did not infiltrate most homes in America.
Just two years after television was introduced to the world, the first television
advertisement was broadcast in the United States. On July 1, 1941, the Bulova Watch Company
paid $9 to NBC for a 20-second spot aired before a baseball game between the Brooklyn
Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. The commercial simply displayed a Bulova watch over a map
of the United States, with a voiceover of the company's slogan (Bulova, 2007). Since then,
commercials have evolved to include animation, music or jingles, catch phrases, and even special
effects. Some television commercials have been played so frequently that they have been
integrated into pop culture, such as commercials featuring the Energizer Bunny and Geico
Insurance’s infamous gecko. Television advertisements are used to sell everything imaginable,
from household products, goods and services, and even political campaigns (Chabotte, 2007).
With over ninety-eight percent of Americans owning a television, and the average
household watching said television for over thirty hours a week with one fifth of every hour
airing commercials, television has become the most popular medium for advertising (Coltrane
and Messineo, 2000). The role of advertising “is to verbalize…the possible meanings of things
and to facilitate the exchange of meanings occurring in social interactions” (Leiss, Kline, and


Jhally, 1986); it provides a visual representation in order to negotiate between people, things, and
social meaning. Television commercials permeate everyday life, yet they often create false
images and cause social dissonance; as commercials are an extension of our message system,
they reflect social asymmetries that exist in our culture (Yanni, 1990), such as the gender divide.
Television commercials can be seen as scripts and rehearsed social routines, which may define
certain social expectations (Geis, Brown, Jennings, and Porter, 1984). Since television in general,
as well as television advertising, is so omni-present in our society, much research had been done
on the topic, particularly in content analyses and the effects that such portrayals have on viewers.
Gender Portrayals
As of 2003, men outnumbered women in all aspects of television commercials. 54% of
primary characters in the commercials were male (Scharrer, Kim, Lin, and Liu, 2006), and in
looking at all characters shown, men outnumber female characters by more than 3 to 2 (Stern and
Mastro, 2004). Men also were the voiceover more frequently, with 85.9% of the off-screen
narration being a male voice (Coltrane and Messineo, 2000).
In a content analysis of the literature addressing gender and domestic chores in television
commercials, Scharrer, Kim, Lin, and Liu (2006) concluded that male characters are more likely
to be portrayed outside of the home, while female characters are more frequently shown in
domestic settings, particularly the kitchen and bathroom. In those domestic settings female
characters were more likely to be involved in housework and childcare than men. When men
were shown performing domestic tasks, they were often depicted as incompetent, mostly meant
to be a source for humor. These portrayals of failure and humor may reinforce traditional gender
roles by implying that “men are somehow ‘naturally’ ill-suited for certain types of work, and
therefore those chores are best left to women” (Scharrer et al, p. 216).


Along with this data, men are more likely to be portrayed in the workforce: in the
workforce, men were twice as likely to hold high-level business roles, and four times more likely
to have white collar positions than females (Hong, 1997). These depictions may lead to the
viewer’s belief that men are more competent in business roles, particularly those of high power.
When men were shown taking care of children, they are more likely to appear outside, are more
likely to be shown with boys, and are hardly ever depicted with an infant. To the extent that men
are shown as more involved in family life, they still tend to depend largely on knowledge and
activities that are stereotypically male (Kaufman, 1999).
Bartsch, Burnett, Diller, and Rankin-Williams (2000) looked at the products being sold in
the commercials to research whether men or women were more likely to sell domestic products
such as food, cleaners, cosmetics, etc., or non-domestic products, including things outside of the
home, such as travel, credit cards, and automobiles. Their findings were that women were
significantly more likely to be the product representative for domestic products at 59%,
compared to men’s 41%, and men (70%) were significantly more likely to be product
representatives for non domestic products, showing an increase in gender bias for product
representatives compared to commercials ten years prior (Bartsch, Burnett, Diller and Rankin-
Williams, 2000).

In sum, the literature shows large and consistent difference in the way men and women
are portrayed in commercials. Women are shown less in televised advertisements, and are still
identified primarily by their family role as housekeeper and caretaker. Men are shown in
stereotypical roles of authority and dominance (Craig, 1992), and when shown attempting non-
traditional gender roles such as cleaning are often seen as incompetent, reinforcing the traditional
role of women as caretakers (Scharrer et al, 2006), and these gender differences seem to occur


regardless of the age of the primary characters (Stern and Mastro, 2004). Such depictions could
send the message that males and females should confine themselves to a more narrow set of
traditionally defined activities, and promote inequality through exaggerations of difference
between the genders (Coltrane and Messineo, 2000).
Effects of Gender in Commercials on Audience
While audience studies have shown that viewers do not automatically imitate what they
watch on television, the imagery they see may lead to certain forms of understanding,
interpretation, and experience (Press, 1991). According to social construction theory, people’s
responses are shaped based on interpretation of the world around them; they construct
knowledge based on their understanding of what is happening in society (Searle, 1995). Because
of their repeated prevalence, media images promote acceptance of current social arrangements,
no matter how skewed the images are (Coltrane and Messineo, 2000). Thus, it is no surprise that
exposure to television commercials has been associated with upholding traditional gender role
attitudes (Blakeney, Barnes, and McKeough, 1983), as well as reporting behaviors in line with
the gender stereotypes portrayed (O’Bryant, Corder-Bolz, 1978).
The bulk of research examining the effects of television commercials has focused on
children. Research indicates a relationship between exposure to gendered images in television
commercials and children’s perceptions of gender roles (Klinger, Hamilton, and Cantrell, 2001;
Morgan and Rothschild, 1983; Pike and Jennings, 2005). This suggests that children are not only
aware of the gendered images in the advertisements, but have also learned gender
appropriateness through modeled behavior.

Other than looking at children, many studies focus on the effects gender portrayals in
commercials have on women. A study conducted by Geis, Brown, Jennings, and Porter (1984)


suggests that gender stereotypes that are implicitly enacted in television commercials, even
though never explicitly stated, may inhibit women’s achievement aspirations. The researchers
showed commercials that featured gender stereotypes to one group, and to another group showed
identical commercials, but where gender roles were reversed.
After viewing traditional commercials, women were significantly more likely to
emphasize aspirations of homemaking, while women who had seen the reversed role
commercials were significantly more likely to show a balance between achievement and
homemaking, with a greater net achievement score (Geis et al, 1984). More importantly, the
essays from the women who viewed the traditional gender role commercials were
indistinguishable from the essays from the control group. This shows that the commercial
stimulus was not creating the effect, but mirroring a cultural image of women’s place in society,
and in turn the effect could be eliminated by exposing women to reverse role commercials (Geis
et al, 1984).
In contrast to the studies regarding the impact of gender in commercials on children and
women, little to no research has been conducted investigating advertisements’ effects on men.
While the literature shows that television commercials often portray a hegemonic depiction of
masculinity (Craig, 1992), the only potential detrimental effects of this that have been researched
are in regards to body image, and this is often in concurrence with studies of female body image.
No research has looked at how representations of masculinity in commercials effect men’s
perception of their own gender, of femininity, or of the relation between the two.
In sum, the fact that most of the literature shows uniformly traditionally gendered content
has been shown to impact the audience in some ways. Children showed signs that they had been
affected by the portrayals of gender, and traditional and stereotypical depictions of femininity in


commercials led to women having fewer aspirations for achievement. Perhaps the most
interesting data is that when shown non-traditional feminine roles, women had higher
aspirations. Although these effects in the laboratory were presumably temporary, the effects of
constant repetition over a lifetime presumably are not, suggesting the impact that changing
depictions of femininity could have on female viewers.
All of the literature examined found that there are significant differences in the depiction
of masculinity and femininity in television commercials. Even in sheer numbers men dominate,
appearing as characters more often than women, and also having more voice-overs in
commercials. In terms of roles, similar to the still held gender ideology that women belong in the
home and men belong at work, in commercials men are more likely to be portrayed outside of
the home, participate less in domestic tasks, and promote products that are less domestic
(Coltrane and Messineo, 2000; Scharrer et al, 2006; Stern and Mastro, 2004).
Through examination of the current literature on the topic, it can be seen that popular
consumer culture is both producer and product of social inequality. Television commercials
replicate the gender division still seen in our society today, and also lead to further divisions in
expected gendered behavior, self-confidence, and future aspirations. Individuals young and old
look to the television screen to help determine which gender related roles are likely to be met
with social approval and which may incur social penalties. For this reason, it is important to
recognize both blatant and subtle gender messages, and discuss how such depictions
should/should not be replicated in daily life.


Advertisers set out to create commercials that will sell products, yet scholars have shown
that in doing so, they also teach specific beliefs and schemas. For this reason, it is important to
study the nature of what is being portrayed as it may impact the message viewers take away. In
order to gather data on gender representations in current commercials, a content analysis was
preformed. In particular, this analysis sought to identify which (if either) gender was portrayed
more often as main and secondary characters, the types of products males and females were
likely to represent, the behaviors and actions of males and females, and where these actions

One week of prime-time television commercials was sampled from four major television
networks (CBS, ABC, FOX and NBC) from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. nightly. Data collection occurred
from Saturday, January 5, 2008 to Friday, January 11, 2008. As in other content analyses
(Bartsch, Burnett, Diller and Rankin-Williams, 2000; Stern and Mastro, 2004), local
commercials, political advertisements, public service announcements, movie trailers, and
channel specific commercials were not included, totaling 598 excluded advertisements.
Commercials that were shown more than once were counted each time they appeared, as this
study did not aim to describe individual advertisements, rather the patterns of advertisements
broadcasted. In total, 1,538 commercials were coded.

As the focus was representations of gender, the unit of analysis was the individual
character. Using the technique of Stern and Mastro (2004), main characters were identified in
each commercial, up to a maximum of three individuals per commercial. Main characters were
determined by the first three characters with a speaking role, or characters on which the


commercial specifically focused. All other characters were counted only to use for reporting
numbers of men and women and no other data about their appearance or actions were recorded.
In total, 1,945 individual main characters were coded from the commercial sample.

This analysis coded for gender, product type, primary setting, and primary behavior.
Gender was coded as either masculine or feminine. As done in Stern and Mastro’s (2004) content
analysis, the type of product being represented was divided into three categories: home products,
away products, and both home and away products. Home products included household items
such as food, cleaners, personal care items and furniture. Away products included things that are
typically used outside of the home, such as credit cards, cars, restaurants, and travel. Both home
and away products included things that could be used in either location, such as clothing,
electronics, and sporting gear.

The primary setting each character was shown in was recorded as one of six possible
categories: place of employment, home, outdoors, restaurant, other inside location, car, and none
(where the character was only in front of a backdrop). The primary behavior each character
engaged in was coded into one of four categories, including work (shown in a paid working
position: white collar, blue collar, or professional athlete), domestic (shown in unpaid domestic
work in the house such as cooking, cleaning, child care), recreation (shown in a recreational
activity such as playing sports, watching television, shopping), and other (any actions that do not
fit into one of the three aforementioned categories).

Unlike many previous content analyses, the ratio of male to female main characters,
while still unbalanced, was much closer, with males being 53.2% of the main characters, and
females being 46.8%. Even when all characters shown in the commercials are taken into account,