Special Session Summary Consumer Constructions of Gender

Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Rhode Island
[ to cite ]:
Jonathan E. Schroeder (1998) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Constructions of Gender", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 363-365.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 363-365



Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Rhode Island


This session brought together three papers that investigate how gender is influenced, or "constructed" through consumer activities. By construction, we mean how consumption choices, product offerings, advertising, and the media create, reflect, and interact with gender identities. Consumers buy male and female deodorants, clothing, magazines, fragrances, etc. We do not mean to imply that gender is constructed wholly through consumption, but that consumer behavior is a rich forum for investigating the display, socialization, and maintenance of masculine and feminine identity. The papers are linked through their focus on gender, interpretation, and historical context as critical issues in consumer research.

Pennell, a developmental psychologist, used a sample of 5 to 7 year olds to investigate the role that toys play in consumer constructions of gender. She found that children perceive gender specificity in toys quite clearly, and provide interesting, consumption-based explanations for gender linked products. Her paper is noteworthy in that it provides a voice to consumers underrepresented in research-young children. This paper thus sets the stage for the others that look at gender later in the consumer’s life.

Calvin Klein’s advertising campaigns have sparked controversy and comment for over twenty years. Sex appeal is usually invoked by Klein’s ads, and provides much of the equity in his products, ranging from blue jeans to evening wear. Schroeder’s paper focuses attention on the CK One campaign, which introduced a "genderless" fragrance to the market in 1994. The paper utilizes a multi-method approach to investigate how the ads represent gender, from an art historical perspective and a reader-response perspective. Insights from a sample of students are contrasted with reading from a visual analysis to provide a grounded interpretation of how an influential-and successful-advertising campaign constructs gender.

Hupfer’s paper turns to Martha Stewart-and her media empire of magazines, television, and books-to look at an influential "role model" for women. Martha Stewart’s magazine, in particular is both loved and loathed as an icon of the new women-able to do it all: bake, sew, garden, entertain, collect valuable things, etc. Her brand equity consists largely of her role as a provider, within typical feminine roles. Hupfer’s analysis, informed by Victorian history and an eye for popular cultural forms, provides insight into the iconic power that Stewart represents to women and men alike.

This session contributes to consumer research by (1) focusing our attention on socialization issues, (2) presenting a multi-method study to uncover meaning construction in consumers, and (3) linking consumer research to historical processes. Moreover, the session provided a forum to discuss serious issues of media influence and representation of gender relations-a topic which merits serious attention from consumer researchers.




Greta Eleen Pennell, University of Indianapolis

This presentation describes an empirical study of the relationship between gender-typed toys and American children’s emerging understanding of what it means to be male and female. Extending previous semiotic research in this area, this study highlights the role toys play in socializing children and reinforcing stereotypical notions of gender. One-on-one, semi-structured interviews with 110 children between the ages of 5 and 7 years reveal that children’s perceptions of the consumption styles expressed in play contribute to their understanding of the larger social structure and their place within it.

Understanding and using gender-based taxonomies for encoding and organizing information is not only pervasive, it is something that is taught and learned early. From the moment of birth, infants are "invested" with symbols proclaiming to all a child’s sex-class identity/membership. Headbands and bows specifically designed for the hairless head of an infant are used along with color-coded diapers to eliminate any question about the wearer’s gender. As a result, "the responses of the world toward the child are differently mobilized" (Stone 1962) and toddlers quickly learn to identify themselves as either a girl or a boy. Such sartorial trappings are only one of myriad ways children learn to do gender (West and Zimmerman 1987). Some of children’s most vivid gender lessons can be found in their toys.

Toys exert their influence on the contents of children’s developing gender identity across multiple domains. As cultural artifacts, toys are imbued with symbolic content that reflects the cultural zeitgeist. Exposure to these products provide children with some of their first experiences with the dominant culture’s expectations and beliefs regarding gender. Previous semiotic analyses of children’s toys and the advertisements promoting them have shown that the message conveyed to children is one that preserves traditional ideologies of (e.g., Kline 1993; Pennell 1994). Moreover, transformation of otherwise gender neutral playthings (e.g., tape recorders, teddy bears, tricycles) into highly differentiated boy and girl models exaggerates the boundary separating what it means to be male from what it means to be female. While previous readings of toys as texts have provided invaluable insights into the potential influence the marketplace may have in the realm of children’s culture and play, few studies have examied children’s readings of these texts.

Children’s perceptions of consumption styles expressed in play contribute to their understanding of the larger social structure and their place within it (Kline 1993, p. 348). However, children are not "mindless cultural automatons" that simply download, in toto, society’s gender program. Rather, they are active processors of information who accommodate to and assimilate diverse and often contradictory gender cues in an effort to make sense of their social world.

The primary goal of this study is to examine the relationship between gendered products and what children understanding of these social categories. In particular, my research focuses on some of our youngest consumers-5-7 year olds. These children are already making independent purchase trips to various retailers (McNeal 1992) and most developmental psychologists agree that by this age gender identity is well established.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 110 children enrolled in kindergarten (21 girls and 27 boys) and first grade (37 girls and 25 boys) classes at two suburban elementary schools. Both parental consent and children’s assent was obtained before each interview. The "grand tour" question used in these interviews, "What makes this a toy girls (or boys) would like?," was asked after the child selected pictures of toys girls (or boys) would like to play with from a set of 30 pictures. The interviews were tape recorded. Transcriptions of the interviews were analyzed hermeneutically to look at themes and common issues.

The themes emerging from this analysis revealed that perceptions regarding the gender-appropriateness of toys are quite salient to children. Moreover, these themes parallel the genderisms identified in previous research (Bristor and Fischer 1993; Goffman 1976; Pennell 1994). However, rather than making "natural kinds" of arguments regarding boys’ and girls’ preferences the children explained differences in terms of familiarity and "knowing how" to play with various toys the "right way." Finally, children’s explanations regarding the undesirability of toys like Barney and Sesame Street characters highlight children’s use of products in the social construction of age and age-related identities.



Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of Rhode Island

This study investigates a provocative and interesting advertising campaign through two avenues: (1) an interpretive approach informed by art criticism, and (2) data from a student sample asked to respond to the ads. In combination, these two approaches provide useful insight into the workings of an ad that speaks to the question of how gender is represented and consumed.

Gender plays an important part in how consumers relate to products, advertising, and consumption tasks (e.g. Elliot and Ritson 1995; Stern 1993; Thompson 1996). Introduced by Calvin Klein in 1994, CK One is a fragrance marketed to both sexes "for a man or a woman," reads the ad copy-noteworthy in today’s targeted environment, especially in a product category that is closely linked with gender identity and sexual allure. The CK One ads feature stark black & white photographs of people who seem out of place in the advertising pantheon. Skinheads mingle incongruously with tough looking black women. "Feminine" men are posed next to Kate Moss, the famous British supermodel. Men with long hair pose next to a short-haired women with large tattoos on her arm. The ad is well-known among teenagers and twenty-somethings, and Calvin Klein has introduced a second gender neutral fragrance campaign, CK Be. The CK One ads seem to play and subvert gender norms, and have generated much attention and controversy.

In this study, a visual analysis of the CK One campaign is contrasted with data from consumers. This approach is informed by a growing body of knowledge within "visual culture" studies. An art historical approach grounds our analysis of advertising images, focusing our attention on how the body-particularly women’s bodies-has been represented in Western art, a source for many conventions in contemporary advertising (e.g. Mullins 1985; Suleiman 1986). Scholars in the humanities provide consumer researchers with a variety of useful techniques and terms with which to analyze and interpret images in advertising (Schroeder 1997; Scott 1994), such as the male gaze, the acknowledgment that much imagery is produced by men for men (however, see Kaplan 1983); image analysis (Freedberg 1989); and historical insight (Baxandall 1987). For example, the CK One ad can be understood within the art genre of the portrait, particularly guild portraits associated with the "Dutch masters"-largely a male tradition. Many elements in the ads, furthermore, also relate to the figure in art, specifically the nude-representing females, for the most part. It is proposed that the juxtaposition of these gendered genres contribute to the representation-and commingling-of gender within the CK One ad.

However, most consumers are not necessarily visually "literate," and these art historical references and conventions may not mean anything or carry much weight in their viewing of an ad. Consumers are active in the meaning constructive process, creating meanings that are sensible to them in particular life circumstances. Most consumers are unaware of the history and iconology of images, and often interpret advertising for their own uses: "the media-particularly the new media-are accessible to and used frequently by less powerful members of society-children, ethnic minorities, and marginal members of society-to create realities that more satisfactorily fulfill their needs" (Edlestein 1997). Thus, this study compares and contrasts a critical approach with responses from consumers in attempt to build an interpretive network for understanding the CK One campaign

The second component of this study utilizes data from college students-CK One’s target audience-to investigate meaning construction in advertising, borrowing from reader response theory and art criticism. A group of twenty students enrolled in an advanced advertising course were asked to write at length about the CK One ads, providing in-depth responses to the images in the ads. Four themes-or readings-emerge from the analysis-(1) the ads look "cool," (2) the students view the ads as promoting equality for genders and races, (3) the situation seems normal, or natural, to the students, (4) and they think the ads are effective. Further analysis of the images in the ads show associations to glamour and nostalgia through the use of black and white photos, as well as insights into the compositional details of the ad.

The students consistently see Calvin Klein as taboo breaking, encouraging gender experimentation, and norm questioning. Is he? Can advertising really afford to subvert gender roles by creating gender neutral products and campaigns? Discussion focused on (1) the use of multiple methods in consumer research, (2) art historical perspectives on representing gender, and (3) issues of gender in advertising, especially Calvin Klein, and (4) how consumers create meaning in ads.



Maureen E. Hupfer, University of Alberta

This paper analyzes the Martha Stewart phenomenon for insights into media effects on gender roles, the role of opinion leaders, and her influence in the world of consumer trends. Discourse from popular media and trade journals concerning Martha Stewart is employed to scrutinize the role Stewart plays in media constructions of what a modern women should be.

The "world’s No.1 living megabrand," Martha Stewart presides over a business empire that includes Martha Stewart Living magazine (MSL), a syndicated television show and newspaper column; books on entertaining, renovation, and coking; a mail-order catalog (Martha by Mail) and license agreements with K Mart and Sherwin-Williams. Her seemingly unerring business sense is widely heralded in practitioner publications and commentators have described her as a "brand icon" (Kelly 1996). According to Martha Stewart Omnimedia executive David Steward, MSL is essentially the "homemaking bible" for a "large group of upper-income, educated women" (Adams 1996). She inspires near-religious zeal among her legions of devoted fans.

Admired for her ability to tap a desire for a "more feminine way of life", Stewart has also been charged with setting the feminist agenda back forty years to an era of post-war domesticity (Gordon 1991). Perhaps symptomatic of anti-feminist backlash, the Martha "cult" is said to depend on the successful exploitation of the guilt and insecurities experienced by professional women who feel estranged from home and hearth (Talbot 1996). Talbot, however, argues that Stewart’s empire is more appropriately interpreted as a modern-day reincarnation of the nineteenth century doctrine of separate spheres and the corresponding domestic science movement. Similar to Victorian upper middle-class chatelaines, women in Stewart’s world are expected to apply rational method and organizational acumen to their domestic responsibilities. Stewart wants to "make homemaking glamorous again", give women back "a sense of pleasure and accomplishment in their homes" as well as "a sense of the old-fashioned values of a well-ordered house and garden" ("Stewart" 1993). Stewart’s business vision, however, resembles not so much the views prescribed for the archetypal Victorian homemaker as it does the proposals put forth by the nineteenth century British social reformer and designer William Morris.

Both modern-day chatelaine and empire builder, Stewart simultaneously embraces the personae of "America’s most famous real-life homemaker" (Swetkey and Romero 1993) and "one-woman industry" (Hubbard and Seymore 1988). Consequently, I propose that discussions of Martha Stewart have become an important popular culture forum in which contemporary gender roles are debated, negotiated and contested. This study joins efforts by consumer researchers to investigate the role consuming plays in current conceptions of gender.



Eileen Fischer, York University

Fischer presented a model to guide consumer research the social construction of gender. She showed how each of the papers touches on salient issues of consumer research, but that much remains to be done within gender research. She applauded efforts to study children, as well as the historical approaches in the last two papers. She encouraged the bridging of reader-response approaches and interpretive approaches, and called for more incorporation of these efforts. Discussion focused on historical antecedents of consumption, and how consumers resist and disrupt gender categories through consumption.


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