Sex Roles, Sex, and Race Factors in Advertising and Satisfaction: Some Information and More Questions

Albert J. Della Bitta, University of Rhode Island
[ to cite ]:
Albert J. Della Bitta (1984) ,"Sex Roles, Sex, and Race Factors in Advertising and Satisfaction: Some Information and More Questions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 100-102.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 100-102


Albert J. Della Bitta, University of Rhode Island


The tradition of interest in sex roles in advertising and factors influencing product satisfaction are continued in the three papers of this session. The papers range from concern with the ability of advertising to influence womens' perception of themselves collectively, to development of a set of dimensions for evaluating advertising sex role stereotyping, to a study of the relationship between sex and race with childrens' satisfaction regarding video games. All three papers raise a number of interesting questions. Since their perspectives range from a strong managerial focus to more general interests, and from the development of a paradigm to empirical testing, taken together the three papers raise a number of interesting issues, all of which cannot be addressed in this limited space. However, some of the considerations generated by each paper are discussed in turn.

Sex Roles in Advertisements

Kilbourne's (1984) study explores the possibility that the manner in which women are portrayed in advertising media can influence their self evaluations. As a consequence, advertisements might affect the endeavors to which women aspire. An underlying rationale for this concern is that in any given culture sex roles are internalized through the socialization process. Therefore, aspects of the social system will influence how men and women perceive each other and themselves. The focus of this study is quite interesting since it addresses-an area that has received little exploration: the unintended influences of advertising.

Kilbourne has focused on one facet of the consequences of sex role stereotyping - the Possible influence of sex role portrayals in magazine advertisements on womens' self evaluations. Of course, for advertisements that stress typical role stereotypes, the effect can be quite different than those showing women in nontypical roles. The latter situation is a focus of interest in this study. Is it possible that advertisements depicting women in managerial roles could influence their collective self-perceptions and aspirations relative to such roles?

The author argues that two competing hypotheses, each derived from a different conceptual scheme, emerge regarding how women will respond when exposed to advertisements featuring women in professional roles. The social comparison viewpoint suggests that such advertisements would lead to increases in womens' self-confidence and independence of judgment compared to what would have occurred from exposure to advertisements using a traditional role format. The claimed alternative explanation is the contrast effect (Sherif and Hovland 1953). This holds that stimuli that are highly discrepant from the individual's initial position will be judged as belonging to some other stimulus set, and consequently not move the individual's position in their direction.

What the author appears to aim at testing, therefore, is how women will generally react when exposed to advertisements showing women in professional roles. This is done even though the author shows recognition that the contrast effect is only evoked when stimuli are highly discrepant from the viewer's initial position.

What apparently has not been adequately considered is the assimilation effect which has also been suggested by Sherif and others. This effect is consistent with the paper's review of social comparison theory since it proposes that stimuli not highly discrepant from the individual's initial position will be assimilated and displace the initial position in their direction. Therefore, taken as a unified conceptual scheme, assimilation-contrast theory argues that an individual's reaction to a stimulus is conditional on how discrepant it is from her initial position. Given this, it is not highly appropriate to test whether an assimilation or contrast effect will generally occur among women to professional role format advertisements. A much more fruitful approach would be to explore the degree to which advertisements can deviate from existing role perception-without eliciting a contrast effect.

The hypothesis as stated in the paper is phased in relative terms which requires that women subjects evaluate the managerial attributes of women relative to those of men. Since nothing was said in the conceptual background about such relative perceptions, it is perplexing that the hypothesis is phrased in this manner. Potential consequences are the possibility of confounding and increasing subjects' awareness of the specific nature of the studY.

Several items deserve mention with regard to the methods employed. First, college students were used as subjects. As in all cases, how well these subjects generally represent the aggregate population is an appropriate question. Since college students may have significant professional aspirations their standards of judgment could be quite different than women with no professional aspirations. Unfortunately, the degree to which this is the case is not known.

The experiment was carefully constructed in a number of ways. Treatments were randomly assigned, males participated and helped disguise the study's purpose, fictitious brand names were used, manipulation checks were employed, and subjects' traditionalism was used as a blocking variable. All of these controls contributed to the study's internal validity.

Another issue regarding method is the choice of experimental products. Two of those chosen are usually related to the household and one (calculator) could be viewed as professionally oriented. This is significant since Wortzel and Frisbie (1974) found that womens' role preferences are based on the type of product being advertised e.g., traditional roles were preferred for household products. Therefore, study results may have been biased through the unbalanced use of household products.

For purposes of analysis the mean of four response measures was used as the dependent variable. A justification for this method of collapsing response data is not given and its consequence may have been to mask some useful information. A more appropriate analysis scheme would probably involve use of MANOVA. In this way the interrelationships between response measures could be appropriately accommodated. Given the method that was employed, it would have been useful to display the entire ANOVA table. In this way the relationship between variables could be assessed in addition to a measure of statistical significance. That is, the omega square statistic (Hayes 1971) could be computed to estimate the overall strength of association between the independent and dependent variables.

Finally, in terms of the author's discussion, it must again be mentioned that the apparent contrast effect that may have been generated in this testing does not necessarily imply a general contrast effect. It may only indicate that the advertisements employed were sufficiently deviant from subjects' present standards of reference and less deviant values might result in an assimilation effect. Further testing employing a range of professional-format advertisements is appropriate.

Avoiding Sex Role Stereotypes

The paper by Fennell and Weber (1984) represents an intriguing effort to develop dimensions for evaluating sex role stereotypes in advertising. There is a serious research for application perspective in this paper since it was strongly motivated by a perceived need to guide marketing managers in selecting appropriate roles for women in advertisements.

The introduction makes a strong and quite effective statement for the development of a conceptual background to guide research in this area. As stated in the paper, marketers are in need of guidance on how to portray women in advertisements. The authors also accurately note that extant research generates many questions but little practical guidance. Indeed the feeling is that many more important questions still need to be formulated in this area. And, as Alpert's (1979) comments suggest, this situation is certainly not of recent vintage. It is for this reason that the paper's focus toward development of a conceptual scheme to guide marketers in portraying women in advertising should be greeted warmly.

The authors also hit home on a point that has at least been implicit in some previous research and is relevant to the paper by Kilbourne (1984). A given market segment is likely to be comprised of subgroups defined in terms of different attitudes toward women's roles and how women should be portrayed in advertisements. In fact, such disparity of opinion is likely to exist across other market segments who might not be the target of specific product advertising but are likely to be exposed to it. Thus, it is possible that the sex roles shown in advertisements for the Lynx automobile can affect consumers' attitudes toward other Ford products. The degree to which a firm's offerings are family branded could facilitate the generalization of such attitudes.

While the authors have embarked on an ambitious undertaking to specify a comprehensive set of dimensions for evaluating sex role portrayals in advertising, they seem to have left concept behind in the introduction. That is, after calling for a conceptual scheme to guide advertising evaluations, the remainder of the paper contains little conceptual background. Instead, previous research is reviewed for dimensions of evaluation and the authors add to this list. What is conspicuously absent is a conceptual argument for these particular dimensions as opposed to others which may have been suggested. For example, what justifies the inclusion of a model's pose in the list of dimensions but not the type of clothing worn? More generally, why is one dimension to be included (or have a greater weight) than another dimension? The answer is to be found in a conceptual scheme that identifies relevant variables and describes their interrelationships. Since this conceptual background is absent, we will have a difficult time choosing dimensions of evaluation and assessing their relative weights.

The authors distinguish objective from subjective dimensions in their evaluation scheme by defining objective dimensions as observable characteristics with no inferences regarding attributes of the model. Since many dimensions are subject to interpretation, and thus influenced by personal frames of reference, this distinction is highly appropriate and should be commended. However, the manner in which this distinction has been employed deserves some question. The Appendix indicates that the following were classified as "objective" characteristics: model's interests, artificiality of pose, status of occupation, and decorative use of model. It would seem that these factors might more appropriately be reclassified as subjective factors.

The scheme's categorization of the model's interactions with others involves: a) a women alone, b) female with another female, and c) female with male. A number of advertisements depict a female with both males and females -- Hanes, Wisk (ring around the collar) and Polident are just three. How are these to be categorized? Should the main interaction determine the existing category or, perhaps more appropriately as well as-more difficult, is a new category of classification needed?

Another issue regarding the categories is raised when gender differences for activities are explicated: a) those in which there are male and female versions of the behavior, and b) those in which there are only female versions of the behavior. Aside from the difficulty in using such categories, the need for another category should be considered: nongender activities. For example, the activities of gardening, tennis, and golf, as well as others, can be displayed in a non gender manner. It seems inappropriate force such situations into male and female versions.

In the discussion section of the paper the authors again return to the argument that various groups in a market may have different and even conflicting views regarding the manner in which females are portrayed in advertising. This reiterates the need for a conceptual scheme to guide the selection of dimensions to evaluate advertisements. It is likely that many dimensions the authors have worked so hard to develop will also be identified by such conceptual groundwork. However, what also will be forthcoming from such a framework are reasons why the dimensions are important and an indication of their relative importance. This would be highly useful information to marketers searching for the most appropriate manner in which to portray women in advertisements.

Race, Sex, and Childrens' Satisfaction

The study by Jordan and Leigh (1984) investigates relationships between race and sex with childrens' satisfaction regarding video games. The authors point out that little research exists on the satisfaction of child consumers. Therefore, their efforts should be applauded.

Six hypotheses are generated regarding the relationships of sex, race with game-specific indicators of game satisfaction, game-specific predictors of satisfaction, and use-indicators of video games. Where possible, these hypotheses are related to previous research and specifically to prior research on childrens t satisfaction. Although the review leading to these hypotheses is somewhat labored and difficult to follow, a set of hypotheses are explicitly detailed for testing.

Some concern exists over the authors' reference to the "effects" of race and sex. Since these variables are not controlled for in an experimental setting and are not even the subject of concern in the sampling plan, the intention to explore the effects of such covariates appears inappropriate. It would be more appropriate to examine the relationships between these variables and product satisfaction without the inference of causality.

In terms of study design, the method of sampling raises several questions. The sample of brands was based on the assumption that popular video games would be satisfying while unpopular (as measured by general use) games would be dissatisfying. This assumes that all children conform to the likes of the group and it also does not account for the temporal nature of "in games." That is, a given arcade game may not be dissatisfying but just yield somewhat less satisfaction than the new popular hit. A second sampling issue relates to the selection of children just finishing one of the popular arcade games. Their experience is fresh and they are likely to be experiencing thrill or frustration from their play. These factors are not likely to be the same for games not recently played. Therefore, response data could easily be confounded by these experiences. Would it not have been better to sample a wider cross section of children rather than potentially ardent arcade players that just finished one of their favorite games? Sampling mainly ardent players can also mask important differences by race and sex which may exist in the general population. This self-selection situation is a serious potential problem.

Generally, childrens' perceptions of others' (peers', parents') reactions were used as a measure of the others actual reactions. Yet, it was not generally acknowledged that considerable disparity could exist between actual and perceived conditions. Considerable projection or misperception could have taken place among respondents in such cases.

Surprisingly, the socioeconomic background of children was not measured. This is unfortunate since several of the results could be interpreted in light of socioeconomic differences. For example, the background of children playing at the two sample locations could explain observed differences at the two sites. This is especially interesting because race and weekly spending money also differed at the two locations. Also, other results explained by race may actually be due to SES differences. Future work should incorporate such measures.

Analysis was accomplished using a large number of ANOVAs. Given that a random effects model was implied by the sampling method, care must be taken to avoid inappropriate inferences of causality from race and sex factors. Also, if analysis of variance is to be used, since a number of the dependent variates appear to be conceptually related, consideration should be given to using MANOVA in place of univariate analysis.

In conclusion, the paper has raised a number of interesting issues and has addressed various methodological problems of considerable complexity. Its contributions can be expanded, however, by a replication study using different sampling methods and more refined measures. This extension is encouraged since the area of childrens' satisfaction research is in need of the type of effort the authors have undertaken.


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