Sex Roles and Consumer Perceptions of Promotions, Products, and Self: What Do We Know and Where Should We Be Headed?

Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts
Easwar Iyer, University of Massachusetts
ABSTRACT - Sex roles have been a focus of attention in Consumer Behavior because they are believed to have an impact on individual and family decision-making and ultimately the purchase of consumer goods and services. Of special interest to marketers is their effect on perceptions of promotions and products. The present paper examines the influence of culturally prescribed sex roles on individuals' reactions to sex role characterizations in promotions, the gendering of products, and one's self-concept (which purportedly underlies sex role stereotypic perceptions). Avenues for further research which complement and integrate the above streams are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Kathleen Debevec and Easwar Iyer (1986) ,"Sex Roles and Consumer Perceptions of Promotions, Products, and Self: What Do We Know and Where Should We Be Headed?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 210-214.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 210-214


Kathleen Debevec, University of Massachusetts

Easwar Iyer, University of Massachusetts


Sex roles have been a focus of attention in Consumer Behavior because they are believed to have an impact on individual and family decision-making and ultimately the purchase of consumer goods and services. Of special interest to marketers is their effect on perceptions of promotions and products. The present paper examines the influence of culturally prescribed sex roles on individuals' reactions to sex role characterizations in promotions, the gendering of products, and one's self-concept (which purportedly underlies sex role stereotypic perceptions). Avenues for further research which complement and integrate the above streams are suggested.


The growing number of women entering the workforce in recent years has triggered a change in sex roles for both men and women. The effect of these changing roles has been studied primarily in terms of how family decision-making has been influenced (Scanzoni 1977; Park and Iyer 1981). Dual-earning families have been a target of investigation because of the increased time pressures felt by "working wives" (Strober and Weinberg 1980) and its expected effect on convenience-oriented consumption such as the purchase of time-saving durables (like a microwave oven), food requiring less preparation (frozen foods), and services. The cause and effect relationships expected were often not found because they were based on t^"^graphic characteristics of families (working vs. nonworking wives) rather than perceptual variation of the woman's working status such as the degree of her labor force attachment (Maret-Havens 1977) and professional status in the workplace (Schaninger and Allen 1981).

The importance of understanding consumers' perceptions as they relate to changing sex roles should not be underestimated because of their potential impact on the effectiveness of marketing strategies. As men and women assume different roles, they would be expected to view themselves differently and this change in self-concept would likely influence their perceptions of marketing strategies, in particular, promotional strategies and product positioning. This paper reviews research investigating the influence of changing sex roles on individualist perceptions of a) promotions. (2) products, and (3) themselves. Each of the three areas is reviewed individually and future research is proposed in each section which would enhance our understanding of each area and the relationships between the perceptual constructs such that effective marketing strategies may be developed.


Research focusing on sex roles in advertising has arisen from societal as well as marketing concerns. Societal criticisms have centered primarily on women's stereotypical roles in ads and their effect on the socialization of children and the perpetuation of women's "place" in society. Critics content that women's roles are changing but that advertisers are not keeping pace with these changes or depicting women realistically. Consequently, researchers have attempted to document women's roles in TV commercials (Courtney and Whipple 1974; Dominick and Rauch 1971; McArthur and Resko 1975; Scheibe 1979; Schneider and Schneider 1979; Sharits and Lammers 1983) . and print ads (Belkaoui and Belkaoui 1976; Courtney and Lockeretz 1971; Wagner and Banos 1973) to determine the extent to which the criticisms are justified. In the earlier studies, women were found to be portrayed in stereotypically feminine roles, whether in the home or on the job (Courtney and Whipple 1974; Courtney and Lockeretz 1971; Wagner and Banos 1973; Dominick and Rauch 1972) whereas, more recently, their image relative to that of men seems to have improved (Scheibe 1979; Sharits and Lammers 1983). Men's roles in advertising have also been a target of criticism. Men often serve as announcers or demonstrators of products, and when they are shown "using" a household product, they tend to be depicted as helpless and dependent on a woman for instructions (Scheibe 1979). For example, in a commercial for Aunt Jemima waffles, the father is portrayed as helpless while preparing breakfast in order to promote the product's ease of preparation. Such a stereotypical representation (of men or women), while unflattering, may effectively serve the purpose of emphasizing a specific product attribute.

Marketers' concerns revolve around the effectiveness of traditional versus progressive sex role portrayals in advertising and individuals' preferences for one type of portrayal over another. Most published research focuses on the latter. Lull, Hanson, and Marx (1977) found that women were more sensitive and critical of the sex role stereotyping of females than were men and that their responses were somewhat related to the extent to which they agreed with the sentiment of women's liberations. Other studies indicate that younger and more highly educated women are most critical of such stereotypic portrayals (Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia 1977; Venkatesh 1980; Witkowski 1977). Some women are so critical of such stereotypical portrayals that they stop using a product. In one of the author's experience, a woman claimed that she stopped using Wisk laundry detergent because the portrayal of women in the commercial was "very demeaning." Bettinger and Dawson (1979), however, did not find traditional roles offensive to women but did find more liberated depictions offensive (women pictured in masculine occupations). An ad for Pittsburgh National Bank in which a woman promoting the bank was featured as a construction worker may be an example of such a "liberated" portrayal and may attract criticism for that very reason.

Wortzel and Frisbie (1974) measured individual preferences for women's role portrayals in ads by having women construct print ads for a variety of products. The women were instructed to match pictures of products with pictures of women who were portrayed in family roles, fashion roles, sex object roles, and career roles. None of the role portrayals were consistently preferred. Instead, subjects matched the product to a role portrayal based on the product's function. For example, family role portrayals were preferred for products used by the family. Similarly, Buchanan and Reid (1977) created ads depicting women in traditional and nontraditional occupations (housewife, teacher, cabdriver, PhD) for a variety of products (instant breakfast drink, bath cleaner, golf clubs, blood bank) and found no one portrayal was evaluated most favorably over all products. Perhaps advertisers are best off depicting women who balance the responsibilities of career and family. Ads for Enjoli perfume portray the user of the product as a housewife and career woman.

Studies examining the effects of sex role modern and traditional women in advertising are generally lacking and additional research is warranted. Future inquiries should focus not only on preferences for each type of portrayal, but on various measures of effectiveness (Debevec and Allen 1984) such as that portrayed in McGuire's (1978) information processing model, Colley's (1961) DAGMAR model or the Lavidge and Steiner (1961) model. Each of these models suggests a hierarchy of communication effects ranging from some type of awareness through an evaluation process to purchase. In particular, McGuire's model includes attention, comprehension, yielding, retention, and behavior. In the context of this research, it might be suggested that ads featuring women in progressive roles may be more likely to generate attention than ads depicting women in traditional roles because they may be unexpected and different from the norm. Will these ads be better comprehended, however, and lead to purchase intention more often than the traditional ads?

The research to date on sex roles is also limited in that women have been the primary focus of investigation. While their role changes may be the most noticeable because of their increased participation in the work force, men's roles have also begun to change in response. Men to some degree have begun accepting nontraditional household responsibilities (e.g., food shopping and preparing meals) because of time constraints experienced by both members of dual career families. Men also acquire nontraditional household and consumer skills as they delay marriage or remain single (Roberts 1981). Consequently, should we not question the manner in which men are portrayed in advertising? Can men effectively represent household products on their own without the aid of women as supporters? Future research should focus on men's roles as well as women's roles.

Attention should also be directed to the type of product promoted and individual difference variables as they relate to traditional and progressive role portrayals for men and women. These variables have received some preliminary attention in the previous studies cited, however, their relevance will become evident in the forthcoming discussion


The notion that products possess symbolic images is not a new one (Levy 1959). These images are of concern to marketers because consumers not only purchase a product for its functional benefits but they purchase the image they perceive the product to have, whether real or imagined. Several studies have investigated recently the extent to which various types of products possess gender images (Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 1979; Alreck, Settle, and Belch 1982; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1977). Products found to have masculine images include a pocket knife, tool kit, shaving cream, cuff links, and a briefcase, to name a few (Allison et al.). Products with feminine images include a scarf, baby oil, hand lotion, bedroom slippers, gloves, and sandals.

Although consumers commonly hold gender images of products, the basis of those gender images is not completely understood. Allison et al. speculate that products may be sex-typed based on the gender of the group most likely to use the product. In addition, cultural norms relating to sex roles may dictate the types of products most appropriate for men and women to use (Morris and Cundiff 1971), implicating a circular relationship. This relationship between a product's use and its gender image is intuitively logical but has yet to be tested.

Marketers have attempted, as well, to form gender images for products and brands. Advertisements for cosmetics and diet soda have traditionally been aimed at women; however, in an attempt to expand the market for these products, ads have more recently been directed at men. The Pepsi Cola Company is positioning its Diet Pepsi brand to a male market by enlisting the aid of two well-known male athletes to promote the product. Not surprisingly, they are depicted in a brand choice, usage situation thus providing support for the previous assertion. Can a stereotypically feminine product be perceived as acceptable for men as a result of two men promoting the product? To what extent can marketers alter the gender image of a product, whether it is one they have created or one which has been culturally determined? In the maturity stage of a product's life cycle, marketers often try to "ungenderize" a product or brand. The Lowenbrau beer campaign with its "Here's to good friends" slogan may be an example of this strategy. Beer has traditionally been positioned as a masculine product, but Lowenbrau has developed ads featuring men and women in neutral social situations supposedly consuming the product. Do consumers weigh promotional cues on an equal footing with usage cues in forming gender images for products? We would hypothesize that usage cues are critical and the effectiveness of promotions could be enhanced by featuring the targeted gender in a "usage" situation. Are there other variables not mentioned which may influence a product's image, such as the gender of the person most likely to purchase the product? These inquiries should be subject to empirical testing.

Although a product's gender image up to this point has been characterized as either masculine or feminine, this dichotomous distinction has been questioned and tested (Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 19?9). Earlier studies conceptualized a product's gender as a bipolar construct (Aiken 1963; Fry 1971; Morris and Cundiff 1971; Vitz and Johnson 1965) while later studies began treating the masculinity and femininity of products as separate dimensions, prompted somewhat by Bem's (1974) research on sex roles (Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1977; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1977).

Bem was interested in classifying individuals according to their sex role orientation as masculine, feminine, androgynous, or undifferentiated. Individuals rate themselves on a series of masculines feminine, and neutral trait dimensions and are subsequently categorized as high masculine, low feminine (a masculine orientation), high feminine, low masculine (a feminine orientation), high masculine, high feminine (androgynous), and low masculine, low feminine (undifferentiated).

The logic then followed that if people could be classified along these dimensions based on their sex role orientation, so too may products be perceived along these dimensions. Allison, et al. tested this assertion by having subjects rate 24 products on two separate 9-point scales, one tapping the products' perceived femininity and the other tapping the products' perceived masculinity. They hypothesized that if masculinity/femininity is a dichotomous construct, the scores for each product should sum to ten (e.g., a product rated as a 7 on the masculine scale should be rated as a 3 on the feminine scale). The majority of products did not satisfy this unidimensional criteria and they concluded that masculinity and femininity are two separate constructs. These findings therefore suggest that products may be perceived as androgynous (high masculine, high feminine) and undifferentiated (low feminine, low masculine). Androgynous products may be those which are "used" equally by men and women while undifferentiated products may simply be those which have not yet established a gender image. When attempting to classify products along these dimensions, Golden, Allison, and Clee (1977) found that none of the products they tested could be labeled as androgynous or undifferentiated. They formed three product groups instead, high masculine--low feminine, medium masculine--medium feminine, and low masculine--high feminine.

Additional evidence supporting the gender classification of products is desirable. Potentially, marketers may be able to draw up a typology of products along gender dimensions which may provide insight into how classes of products may be characterized. Exploring the roles men and women play in society, trait characteristics commonly assigned to men and women, and potential usage situations (Dickson 1980) may provide a starting point in such a classification scheme. For example, "household cleaning" products may be perceived as highly feminine because of women's traditional role as homemaker. "Financial services" may be considered as masculine because of men's perceived knowledge or expertise in handling financial matters and their traditional assumption of this role. "High technology" products may be perceived as masculine following similar logic. Groups of individuals may differ with respect to such gender stereotyping because of their own set of past experiences. College students and dual career couples may be less likely than those residing in a traditional family structure to assign clearcut gender images to such products and services because of their own personal exposure to household maintenance, budgeting, and/or computers. Such a classification scheme based on individuals' perceived roles, personal characteristics, and possible usage situations may provide marketers with some generalizable yardsticks upon which they may begin to make strategy decisions.

As mentioned earlier, product gendering has become an issue in developing promotional strategies. Marketers have taken an active stance in gendering products in an effort to target new groups of customers and develop new market segments. Altering the gender of a product or service, however, is not undertaken without some degree of risk. While opening up new market segments, promoters risk alienating their established market. The question arises as to what degree men and women can be credible spokespersons for cross-gender products, given that product usage by men or women (as depicted in such ads) is likely related to the product's overall gender image. This concern is especially critical given the general sensitivity of males to using products with a feminine image (Morris and Cundiff 1971). Can a woman credibly and effectively promote an Individual Retirement Account or a bank charge card? Will the ad for VISA which depicts a woman receiving her own "classic" card and breaking it in by inviting her male friend to dinner be as effective as the one in which the roles are reversed? Since these are "products" which both men and women can certainly buy into, it is critical that the spokesperson not alienate target consumers. Will a woman be effective promoting a personal computer to business people? This product has primarily been promoted by men, whether targeted for the workplace or to parents in the home. Are there certain "types" of masculine products a woman can endorse effectively? Are there certain "types" of feminine products a man can endorse effectively? Will a man be a credible spokesperson promoting dishwashing liquid or laundry detergent, without the presence of a woman? Insights into these questions may be enhanced by considering situational variables, as suggested earlier.


Are there definable source characteristics which may lend credibility to cross-gender promotions? Some recent work in social psychology may provide partial insight. An individual's appearance in terms of their physical attractiveness, grooming, and physique have been found to affect perceptions of their masculinity and femininity. Gillen (1981) found that individuals are sex-typed based on their physical attractiveness. Attractive women are perceived as more masculine than unattractive women while attractive men were perceived as more masculine than unattractive men. In a follow-up study, Cash, Gillen, and Burns (1977) conducted further research to determine if attractiveness would be a detriment to women in the workplace, especially relative to stereotypically male occupations (where masculine traits would likely be important for success). They found that highly attractive women were less apt to be recommended for nonmanagerial jobs. For men, however, attractiveness was always an advantage, whether they were being recommended for managerial or nonmanagerial Jobs.

Given the link between attractiveness and sex-typing, it might be expected that attractive women will be less effective than unattractive or average-looking women in promoting products with a-masculine image because the unattractive women are perceived as relatively masculine. Unattractive men may be more effective than attractive men in promoting products with a female image (since attractive men are perceived as more masculine. This latter suggestion may be faulty, however, given other research which has found that attractiveness is always an advantage for men, regardless of sex-typing (Cash and Janda 1984).

In addition, there is some evidence that an individual's grooming and physique influence perceptions of their masculinity and femininity (Cash and Janda 1984; Deaux and Lewis 1984). Woman groomed in a relatively masculine fashion (short hair, little makeup, clothed in a suit) were perceived as more competent and were more likely to be Judged as potential managers than women groomed in a "feminized" style. Individuals who are perceived as tall, strong, and broad-shouldered (whether male or female) are judged to have masculine personality traits and thought to be employed in a masculine-type occupation. Even though the "pure" masculine or feminine appearance may be beneficial in the contest of promoting certain gender-stereotyped products, on other occasions, the androgynous appearance proves to be particularly successful. It has been argued by some that one of the reasons for Michael Jackson's dizzy success lies in "the high-pitched voice, the androgynous good looks, and the dangling forelock" (Davis and Allen 1985).

Future research should investigate the extent to which these "image" variables interact with the gender of a model and reflect on their perceived masculinity and femininity, thus influencing the model's effectiveness in promoting "gendered" products. We have little, if any, evidence whether a female model can enhance her credibility in promoting a "masculine" product by wearing a business suit rather than a dress or by altering other aspects of her appearance. Studies on impression management suggest that props (such as the suit) and appearance variables (hair, makeup, etc ) can effect impressions formed of others (Schlenker 1980). The use of masculine props may enhance the effectiveness of a woman promoting a product with an otherwise masculine image.

It might also be questioned whether these image variables are more effective with certain classes of products. Given women's entry-into the business environment in professional/ managerial positions, she may be an effective promoter of business-type products or even financial services (possibly reflective of her financial independence). These categories of products/services may be more malleable in terms of their sex-typed image than others which may be linked to roles women have not assumed in great numbers (e.g., lawncare lawnmower, repair work--wrench). Similarly, there may be certain types of "feminine" products a man can or cannot endorse effectively (hairspray, over cleaner) and these too may be related to tasks which men have or have not begun to assume in the household. Also of interest would be the extent to which individual personality factors (or one's self-concept) influence acceptance or rejection of the aforementioned traditional and progressive role portrayals. This latter variable will be subsequently addressed.


In an attempt to understand individuals' evaluations of and reactions to products and promotions, researchers have tried to identify individual "personality" variables related to sex roles likely to influence their perceptions (Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 1979; Alreck, Settle, and Belch 1982; Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978; Golden, Allison, and Clee; Morris and Cundiff 1971). These personality variables have been generally referred to as an individual's sex-role orientation or sex-role self-concept and were subsequently measured using a-variety of instruments, including Gough's (1952) California Psychological Inventory (CPI) Fe-scale (Aiken 1963; Fry 1971; Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978; MOLL;S and Cundiff 1971; Vitz and Johnston 1965), Spence's et al. (1974) Personality Attributes Questionnaire (PAQ) (Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978; Gentry and Haley 1984), and Bem's (1974) Sex-Role Inventory (Allison, Golden, Mullet. and Coogan 1979; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1977).

Gough's CPI Fe-scale examines masculinity and femininity on a continuum using 38 true-false items. The PAQ treats masculinity and femininity as two separate dimensions and individuals can be classified as masculine, feminine, androgynous (those receiving high scores on both the masculinity and femininity scales), or low-masculine, low-feminine. Bem's Sex Role Inventory, as described earlier, is similar to the PAQ in terms of its separate masculinity and femininity scales but it differs primarily in its measurement of these dimensions. The use of one scale or another appears to have been a choice of individual preference in the studies previously cited. The choice of a scale, however, should be directed by whether or not masculinity/femininity is unidimensional or multidimensional in nature.

Early studies attempted to relate an individual's masculinity and femininity to their product choices and found positive associations. Individuals classified as masculine (feminine) were likely to smoke cigarettes with a masculine (feminine) image (Fry 1971; Vitz and Johnston 1965). Based on these findings, more recent studies explored the relationship between a person's masculinity-femininity and perceptions of products (Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 1979; Alreck, Settle and Belch 1982; Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978; Gentry and Haley 1984; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1977), activities (Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978), brands (Gentry and Doering 1977), and promotions (Alreck, Settle, and Belch 1982; Gentry and Haley 1984). The relationship between an individual's sex-role orientation and their attitudes, perceptions, or usage patterns is not yet clearly understood. Some researchers have found that gender is at least as important as an individual's sex-role self-concept in affecting perceptions of products (Allison, Golden, Mullet, and Coogan 1979; Golden, Allison, and Clee 1977) and more important in predicting attitudes and behavior (Gentry and Doering 1977; Gentry, Doering, and O'Brien 1978). Others provide evidence that an individual's gender schema affects recall of gendered ads (Gentry and Haley 1984). Gender schema in this study was operationalized with Markus' et al. (1982) categorization scheme in which individuals are classified as feminine schematics, masculine schematics, or aschematic. Markus (1977) defines self-schema as "cognitive generalizations about self, derived from past experience, that organize and guide the processing of self-related information contained in the individual's social experiences" (p. 64). It is predicted that feminine (masculine) schematics will favor feminine (masculine) stimuli in their processing of incoming information (Markus et al. 1982). Gentry and Haley (1984) exposed subjects to ads featuring masculine, feminine, and neutral products and varied the gender of the model for each product to create sex-role congruent and incongruent ads. They found that masculine females were more apt to recall ads for masculine products that their feminine counterpart, although their results were not statistically significant. They suggest that their results warrant additional research into the effect of one's gender orientation in the processing of advertising information.

The Gentry and Haley study is useful in that it begins to address the interaction between a product's gender and a model's gender but it appears to be limited in two respects. First it focused only on one measure of advertising effectiveness recall. As mentioned earlier, other measures of advertising effectiveness also warrant attention. In addition, it might be useful to operationalize sex-role traditional and modern portrayals in a more blatant fashion. Print ads featuring a male and female model with masculine and feminine products may not be stimulating enough to evoke sex-role congruent or incongruent images, especially when the accompanying wording focuses only on the features of each product. The models may have been perceived as decorative and functionless. Future studies might depict men and woven delivering testimonials for the gendered products, thus linking the model and product in terms of a usage situation. This latter inquiry would be in line with the contention of previous researchers who have suggested that a product's gender image is related to the gender of individuals most likely to use the product. Such portrayals may draw greater attention and be evaluated in a manner consistent with gender schema theory.


Researchers have made considerable progress in broadening our understanding of the effects of changing sex roles on consumers' perceptions of products and promotions. It is clear, however, that marketers are in need of additional information regarding promotional strategies, product positioning strategies, and with respect to individuals to whom their strategies are aimed. An integrated research effort which examines the synergistic effect of these variables should be undertaken if we are to deepen our understanding of how individuals respond to changing sex roles.


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