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Gender Stereotypes in Advertising – a Misrepresentation or a Mere Reflection?

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    The mass media has always been a great way for businesses to reach out to the people and indeed marketers have well utilised this medium of advertising. Nonetheless, they have also been traditionally criticised for portraying strong gender stereotypes, especially negative stereotypes of women. Unfortunately, such criticisms had little effect and today, gender stereotypes in advertising still exist (Tsu, Lee & Phua, 2002; Cortese, 2008; Hung & Li, 2006). The following will explore the changes in gender roles in advertising and the challenges still faced by women today.

    Women today generally have more opportunities for advancement, thanks to greater western influences (Tsu, Lee & Phua, 2002, p. 853), resulting in an overall improvement to their financial well being (Hung & Li, 2006, p. 7). Not surprisingly, this change had an unusual effect on their male counterparts. (Klien, 1995, as cited in Cortese, 2008, p. 72) According to Anthony Cortese (2008), bodybuilding may be men’s answer to the increase in women’s economic, political and social power. He explains if men can no longer lead women in such areas, then at least they must be able to physically intimidate them (p. 2).

    This insecurity in men possibly confirms the improved status of women, which lays the foundation for greater change in gender roles, such as new gender identities. The success of women’s rights and feminist theory has largely been aided by their improved status, resulting in new identities for both men and women. (Tsu, Lee & Phua, 2002; Cortese, 2008; Hung & Li, 2006) According to Anthony Cortese (2008), men have replaced women as the sex object in postmodern advertising because women’s rights groups successfully made it politically incorrect to portray women as seducers.

    Counter-intuitively, this role-reversal has brought advertisers good business, (p. 73) and might explain why advertisers still continue to give men the role of the sex object. In modern China, there is a similar, but more conservative portrayal of new identities. Hung & Li (2006) describes the four new feminine identities that modern women in China are socialised to pursue: nurturer, strong woman, flower vase and the urban sophisticate. (p. 11) Over 80% of magazine advertisements examined portrayed one of these four identities, making these the possible new identities of the Chinese women. (p. 7)

    Conversely, Thomas Tsu, Lee Boon Ling and Eleanor Phua (2002), disagree and find little change in men and women’s identities in Singapore and Malaysia. Instead, they find “significant gender-role stereotyping” still, in these countries’ television commercials (p. 859). They comment that there is some way to go before the elimination of gender stereotypes in the television commercials of these two countries. (p. 860) All in all, the changes in identities in the west appear to be more radical as compared to the east, which is not surprising, since the east has traditionally been more conservative.

    For this reason, advertisers in the East still cling on to gender stereotypes in advertisements. Gender stereotypes in the east have seen advertisers in China focusing on traditional female stereotypes such as: beauty, housewife, dependent on males. Consequently, these advertisers rarely focus on females’ type of employment (Hung & Li, 2006, p. 21). Is there a reason for this? According to Thomas Tsu, Lee Boon Ling and Eleanor Phua (2002), gender-role portrayals are indicative of women’s status in a country (p. 860). In this context, this lack of portrayal indicates the lack of women in top jobs.

    According to Anthony Cortese (2008), there is indeed a lack of women in top positions. When asked whether portraying men as sex objects could be a retaliation strategy by top female ad executives, he reasons that it is unlikely, due to the lack of women in top positions as advertisers or clients. (p. 74) Therefore, women could still be inhibited by the glass ceiling despite the proliferation of gender equality. With improved statuses and new identities, gender stereotypes are still portrayed in postmodern advertising.

    Is this a misrepresentation, or merely a reflection of reality? Given the similarities between the gender roles portrayed in advertising and the gender roles present in society, it can be argued that the reason for the existence of gender stereotypes in postmodern advertising is due to the presence of such gender stereotypes in society.


    Tsu Wee Tan, T. , Lee Boon, L. , & Phua Cheay Theng, E. (2002). Gender-role portrayals in Malaysian and Singaporean television commercials: an international advertising perspective. Journal of Business Research, 55(10), 853-861. Cortese, A. J. (2008). Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising in Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising (3rd ed. ) (42-47, 69-75). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. Hung, K. & Li, S. Y. (2006). Images of the Contemporary Woman in Advertising in China: A Content Analysis. Journal of International Consumer Marketing. 19 (2), 7-23. Retrieved on 15 Dec 2010 from http://www. coms. hkbu. edu. hk/~kineta/files/JICM. pdf Doi:10. 1300/J046v19n02_02.

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