The Portrayal of Men and Women in TV Ads

Danielle Limpinnian

Gender representation on the smallest scale has always been important for one to understand what it means to be male or female. So to look at it in terms of advertising (possibly considered the most powerful and influential medium in this ever-increasing commercial society) is to look at it with a more serious eye. From the images inflicted upon us in the patriarchal mass media that surrounds us, it is assumed that we have been encouraged to mould ourselves into a set ideal. For a woman, that means having beauty, elegance, passivity and good domestic ability and for a man that means being tough, ‘rough n’ ready’, competitive and business minded. Sitting in the 21st century however, it would seem to many that these ideals are no longer essential in gaining acceptance into society although they may still be prevalent. Today, women are frequently self-reliant and career focused whereas many men 'feel they have the right to self-expression and self-indulgence, to love and be loved' (Barthel 1992:148). The new man and new woman might be present in today’s society but to what extent are television advertisements an accurate account of this new lifestyle? Centring predominantly on my own findings from questionnaires and group discussions, reactions to advertising images from a small but valuable section of society (students) have been analysed and will be discussed. Reference to findings concluded from this research (names will be changed for confidentiality purposes) will be interspersed throughout the essay. The main body of the essay will centre on the following three main groups of television advertisements: The household product advert, the beauty advert and the beer advert.

The household product advertisement

Over the past decade, more and more women have either been ditching the housework altogether, or combining it with a career. Today 54 % of woman with pre-school children, are (largely accepted as being due to the feminism movement) either in full or part-time employment (Social Trends 2000) And to compliment this, an increasing amount of househusbands are emerging. Given these facts then, why is it that women still stand as the predominant feature in household product commercials? According to Dow (1995:200, cited in Holtzman 2000:80), 'one of the reasons why television is resistant to the messages of feminism... is that they (sponsors) view those messages as conflicting with woman's desire to consume.' Advertisers do not want to present a liberated woman because this new woman does not want and thus will not buy their products. For this reason the advertisers’ homely woman image lives on.

Another reason for this could be the fact that men dominate the workplace. 3% of directors in general are women. (Paten, 12th March 2002) The advertising industry itself has a particularly high men to female ratio. Based on statistics produced in Campaign November 11th 1983 (TCU report 1984:23), it was revealed that only 17 out of 244 advertising directors were women and in an industry so greatly dominated by men is it not likely that consciously or subconsciously the adverts produced will be biased? Even with the bigger freedom of choice given to women nowadays we are still to a certain extent living in a patriarchal society which looks through the male gaze. Women are still being portrayed as being dependent on men. In the most recent Toilet Duck advert for example, the housewife’s attempt at cleaning the toilet proves unsuccessful. The voice-over (female) tells us of Toilet Duck who provides active tablets to wash away the grime. It is not explicitly stated but by his top hat and tails we are encouraged to believe him to be male, indicating that the woman needs a man to invent products in order for her to do the work well. The man is the adviser and the woman shows her gratitude by blowing him a kiss. She could not do it without him, resulting in the traditional message that women need men. Voice-overs represent authority and it has been reported that over 94% of voice-overs are male.(Chandler, 1998) The use of a female voice indicates that voices of women are coming to represent knowledge and intelligence. Yet, female voices are really only used for advertising household products, ‘women’s products’, advertisements which encourage 'flattery to hail women as experts well versed in the finer points of household management (Macdonald 1995:78).

In my group talk we discussed this advert. A short part of the conversation follows:

All participants recognised that ' The duck saved the day, the man helped the helpless woman.'(Pete 20) However, none of the participants were particularly offended by the implication, not even the women, in fact they seemed to be quite detached from the image as if they could not relate or identify with the character. Although there have been many complaints to the ASA about female portrayal in advertisements, far more often than not, the public, just as Sally 19 said, accept these images just as ‘ a stereotype’. 'Advertisers largely do not create the images they depict out of nothing. Advertisers draw upon the same corpus of displays that we all use to make sense of social life.' (Goffman 1976, cited in Jhally 1990:133-134) The public have come to accept these images as the portrayed norm, in thinking that it does not represent reality, as they say ‘it’s just an advert’, they can easily dismiss it. It must also be remembered that the participants here are all from a sample of students who only need bother with cleaning their room. Therefore it is likely that cleaning products do not hold much significance for them and this could be why the stereotypes do not offend them.

Some cleaning product advertisements however, attempt to break the housewife stereotype by including men. Generally however, the man is portrayed as being inexperienced. Take the Parazone advert for instance, when the man is searching for the cleaning products to clean the toilet, even hitting his head on the unit to doubly show his incompetence when the woman walks in and cleans the toilet seat in a jiffy with a Parazone wipe. This depicts the woman to be in control for the fact that she knows better than the man. It also could suggest that this easy and quick to use wipe is allowing her to get the job done quickly and go off to work, baring in mind that it probably is a part-time job if she has to make time for the home too. Either way, this advert is suggested to be simultaneously enforcing the fact that the woman is the best person to be in the home and therefore the cleaning terrain should remain with her.

The beauty advertisement

Women have always been very beauty conscious and insecure about their appearances and advertisers have exploited this by bombarding them with ways in which to ‘improve themselves’. In recent times however, the introduction of western terminology such as ‘independence’ and ‘intelligence’ in association with women has helped their liberation. Threatened by these terms, the Japanese have overcome them by 'interpreting them against the background of traditional values,'(tanaka 1994:131) using these terms to encourage the female to gain independence but only through buying products. A phrase which they used in an advert was: 'Chiteki-de joohinna shiruku burausu', meaning 'An intelligent and noble silk blouse.' How is an intelligent blouse possible? They have stretched the meaning of intelligence to encompass impressions of elegance and splendour. They have done this so that women will be conned into believing that intelligence comes through clothes rather than mental study. (Tanaka 1994:110) This thereby seems to conclude that to find any sort of financial success is to start by being beautiful, 'Japanese group ideology and male chauvinism have been rescued' (Tanaka 1994:131).

Pressure on women to look good however is not new but it is only really in the last decade that men too have started to feel pressurised into enhancing their natural looks. Advertising has encouraged a feminisation of culture, as it puts all potential consumers in the classic role of the female: manipulable, submissive, seeing themselves as objects. If women’s advertisements cry "Buy this product and he will notice you" men’s advertisements similarly promise that female attention will follow immediately upon purchase'(Barthel 1992:148).

A current example of this is the Gillette advertisement Mach 3. (a razor.) A handsome, topless, muscular man shaves with a Mach 3, cuts to demonstration of the blade shaving smoothly to the skin, cuts to a beautiful woman feeling his smooth face. A female voice-over tells the male audience of the razor’s attributes: a close shave but (possibly more important for a man) the appeal this look will have for a woman: 'You’ll love the difference and so will we.' In this instance a female voice-over is used for a product outside the household, but it does not stand to represent the intellectuality of women, it is only used to play on men’s emotions, to try and encourage them to buy the product because this supposedly will get the girl.

In response to my question posed: ' Do you to any extent try and match your appearance to the models on television adverts?' All the males gave a definite no, 50% females gave a definite no, and the other 50% said yes if it was a hair or clothes style that they liked but otherwise no. Sally (19) made an interesting point by saying that consciously they do not strive to be like the models, but subconsciously these idealistic looks shape their views. Although the males in the survey insisted that they were not influenced by the advert, Gillette consistently holds a strong place in the market, which suggests that to a good extent men are influenced by such commercials which they feel will make them more attractive to the opposite sex. Barthel 1992:148 agrees that men are tending to their appearances 'but in service of a traditional masculine goal. The payoff is still good sex and lots of it."

The Beer Advertisement

Beer advertisements 'constitute a guide for becoming a man - a manual on masculinity.'(Strate 1992:78) On television advertisements the way to achieve that refreshing rewarding brew was to demonstrate your manly-hood through overcoming challenges in energetic sports, or proving yourself through strenuous hard work. 'Beer serves as a reward for a job well done, and receiving a beer from one’s peers acts as a symbol of other men’s respect for the worker’s accomplishment.'(Strate 1992:80). This ideology dominates the most recent Guiness advert: A young man stands in a hurling match, about to take the last strike, which could win it or lose it for the team. The scar on his face enforces his hard manly status and the opposition look similar to the pig men from The lord of the rings emphasising the enormity that he is up against. His situation frequently cuts to what would be in store for him if he were to win: lifted up by the crowd, a beautiful girl’s kiss, celebration with mates but most importantly, a glass of Guiness. As the man is about to strike the ball, it cuts to the word ‘Believe’. This commercial encompasses the established man’s man image as it is all about strength, skill, guts, success and having a strong self esteem. This advert was discussed through my group discussion and the following is one comment made:

It not only returns to tradition in terms of its Irish roots but in respect to the conventional image of masculinity.

Masculinity in response to a Budweiser advert was examined on one of the questionnaires, which prompted interesting responses. The advert concerned four young black men who were on the phone to each other, asking: ' Wasssap?' to which they generally replied ' Nothin, just watchin the game, havin a bud (Budweiser.)' All were on the phone but two were also watching a football match and one was on the computer. ‘Are they displaying masculinity’? All of the male participants concerned in the survey said yes, ‘they are demonstrating masculinity as they are having a few beers, chilling out with the lads and watching sport.’ 2/3 of the female participants however said no, ‘they are just demonstrating how childish men can be, they’re just having a laugh.’ This suggests that men and women have different perspectives on the portrayal of masculinity, it also suggests that the definition of masculinity in the male eye has expanded. Masculinity means strength and power, but it also means being lazy and laddish. Nevertheless the Budweiser advertisement still holds true of the man’s manual in the respect that beer brings peers together. 'Beer becomes a symbol of group membership. It also serves as a means for demonstrating the group’s egalitarian values.'(Strate 1992:88).

Let us now look briefly at a new type of beer advertisement, the most recent Boddingtons one. To the question 'How do you feel women are presented in Beer advertisements?' The general consensus was that people did not remember any beer adverts, which featured women, or if they did, they were presented as the 'good looking barmaid, or nagging partner.' (Emily 18). This advertisement, however, features both a man and a woman who are in bed together and the woman clearly takes the dominant role. She asks for some role-play together, which results in the man pouring her an imaginary pint of Boddingtons which she then proceeds to drink and feel fully sexually satisfied as she rolls over and goes to sleep. The man’s role is made redundant as the beer gives the woman her sexual independence. It was interesting to pursue students’ perception of this kind of advertisement. Was it only targeted at woman or could men find it appealing as well or would the female’s dominance threaten them?

In respect to beer advertisements, it appears that generally students are not bothered or concerned about the portrayal of men and women in a political or moral sense. If they see something different, it catches their attention, it makes them laugh. It seems that less interest actually lies in the ethical issues of portrayal but of the comedy factor that can come out of these portrayals or just having an excuse to look at some attractive people. 'As long as women are in tight tops, they can do whatever they want' (James 20).

To a fair extent, advertisers have been changing their campaigns to correspond with changing lifestyles, demonstrated in the respect that on television advertisements we see men as well as women doing the housework and wanting to look beautiful. This is complemented by the growing recognition of the media that women do drink and enjoy a pint of beer. Despite this however, according to my study, 4/6 people believe that television advertising’s portrayal of men and women is not an accurate portrayal of society whereas 2/6 people are unsure. This suggests that the advertising industry has a long way to go if it is to paint us a picture of the sexes that we are going to recognise in our everyday lives. At the same time however, it should be considered that the advertising industry (in general) is not there to meet our social needs but is there to make sales and deal with big money. Their power comes from our pockets, and as long as we keep buying, they are not going to change a thing.

April 2002