Gender Role Portrayals in Advertising: an Individual Differences Analysis


Maureen Coughlin and P. J. O'Connor (1985) ,"Gender Role Portrayals in Advertising: an Individual Differences Analysis", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 238-241.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 238-241


Maureen Coughlin, Baruch College, C.U.N.Y.

P. J. O'Connor, Baruch College, C.U.N.Y.


In recent years, researchers have been monitoring an increasingly dynamic consumer market with respect to social roles relating to gender. In particular, most of the attention has focused upon the changing role of women in contemporary society. Much of the research has been limited to the examination of sex role portrayals in advertising (Courtney and Lockeretz 1971; Wagner and Banos 1973; Wortzel and Frisbie 1974; Venkatesan and Losco 1975; Belkaoui and Belkaoui 1976; Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia 1977; and Weinberger, Petroshius, and Westin 1979). The content of this research, which utilizes mass media as the focal point for investigating social change, has primarily been one dimensional in that it is limited to variations in the content of advertisements as they have evolved over time. Empirical investigations geared toward the reactions of those viewing the changing roles depicted in promotional campaigns have been given little attention.

The purpose of the current study is to bridge the gap between these noted changes in advertising and consumer reactions to these changes. The effect of specific audience characteristics on reactions to divergent roles in advertisements portraying women will be examined. The personality and attitude of the viewer are believed to be salient diagnostic audience characteristics to be investigated. Specifically, the masculine, androgynous, feminine nature of personality is expected to explain differences in reactions to changing female roles in advertisements. In a dynamic sex role environment, such a personality variable may be more explanatory than gender per se. Viewer's attitudes toward the role of women in society is also investigated as an explanatory variable eliciting an evaluative reaction to traditional versus non-traditional role portrayals in promotional campaigns.


The trait approach measuring masculine, feminine, and androgynous (i.e., both masculine and feminine) personality characteristics has been applied in a limited number of marketing studies. These have examined such issues as product and brand use, leisure time activities, media exposure, and decision making (Burns 1977; Gentry and Doering 1977). It was proposed in these studies that the consumer's personality trait would identify differences in behavior not explained by gender. Some significant findings supporting this proposition were reported. Burns (1977) found that female consumers having masculine personality characteristics reported having a more dominant influence in family decision making for some product categories. Gentry and Doering (1977) reported that androgynous individuals significantly differed from others in their leisure time activities in that they tended to be more active recreationally. However, personality characteristics of this type were not found to explain differences in product use, brand preferences, or media exposure. In the study presented herein, the concept of masculine, androgynous, feminine personality is examined as an explanatory variable with respect to reactions to advertising content rather than preferences for particular types of media.

The attitude of consumers toward the role of women has been identified in the marketing literature as a factor in profiling lifestyles and in influencing family decisions. Green and Cunningham (1975) investigated differences in consumption related aspects of family decision making between families in which the wife is characterized by varying role related attitudes. Wives with a liberal view of the female rule were more likely to participate with their husbands in decision making than their conservative or moderate counterparts. Liberal minded women actually dominated the decision process in selected product categories. Duker and Tucker (1977) examined the reactions to stereotypic female roles portrayed in advertisements by women who were measured on independence and predispositions to the women's liberation movement. Their findings indicate that neither independent personalities, nor pro-feminist views affected the subject's regard for the stereotypic female role in advertisements.

Venkatesh (1980) found that three groups of women, who were identified as traditionalists, moderates, and feminists, differed significantly across various demographic, lifestyle, and magazine readership dimensions. In addition, a large number of feminists, unlike traditionalists, perceived that role portrayals in advertising depict women as "sexual objects" and do not reflect changes that are taking place in contemporary social values. The measures employed were self reported general attitudes. In contrast, the current study undertaken actually measures reactions to specific role depictions in varying advertisements.


As a consequence of contemporary changes in sex related social roles, it is expected, as indicated by the above literature, that variations in consumer behavior are a function of personality type rather than gender. It is hypothesized in this study that the masculine, androgynous, feminine personality proclivities of advertising viewers will explain more variation in purchase intentions than gender by itself for a product promoted by a traditional versus non-traditional female model. Thus, males and females may react similarly to varying female roles; but masculine, androgynous, and feminine women, and men, may differ significantly. It is felt that a viewer's reaction to a particular sex related role will be congruent with their gender trait personality. That is, women with masculine personalities will be more likely to react positively to the portrayal of a female model in a traditionally male-linked role, whereas feminine women will react favorably to a traditional female role for the model. In contradistinction, both masculine and feminine men will react negatively to a non-traditional female role for the model. Androgynous personality types of both genders should react similarly to either traditional or non-traditional role portrayals.

Consumers' reactions to traditional versus non-traditional role depictions are also expected to be consistent with their attitudes toward female roles. Consumers with liberal attitudes toward the role of women are expected to react more favorably to the portrayal in advertisements of a non-traditional female role than those consumers with conservative or moderate views. This expectation is consistent with previous findings, noted earlier, that liberal women differ significantly from others in several consumption related behaviors.


Due to the complexities involved in testing the reactions to an advertisement and intention to buy, a bogus product was utilized in this study. This reduces the problem of previous exposure to advertisements and/or previous experience with the product. A bogus brand of mouthwash, Min-Tee, served as the product stimulus. The product category was chosen because of a Target Group Index report indicating a balanced user ratio between men and women. Thus, it is assumed that the bogus brand, Min-Tee, is neutral and not necessarily associated with a gender related image. This neutral image is deemed important because of the gender role focus of the research

The data were collected by personal interviews throughout the City of New York. The interviewers were trained during eight sessions conducted over a four week period. The training included instructions on general interviewing techniques, handling non-response, and role playing situations concentrating specifically on eliminating interviewer bias. A total of 435 interviews were conducted, but after editing, there were a total of 420 useable interviews.

There were several types of data collected during the interviews. First, the intention to buy the product was measured. A five point scale anchored by definitely would buy and definitely would not buy was employed for this measure.

Subjects' masculine, androgynous, or feminine personality was also measured. Bem's Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) was employed which treats masculinity and femininity as two independent dimensions. The inventory consists of disguised structured questions in the form of an adjective checklist with a seven point scale anchored by almost never true and almost always true. See Table 1 for the BSRI checklist. Respondents were asked to indicate how well each personality characteristic described him/her.

Bem (1974) estimated the internal consistency of the BSRI by computing alpha coefficients separately for the masculinity and femininity scores of subjects in each of two samples. Results found the scores were highly reliable (Masculinity - .86, Femininity - .80, Androgyny s .85). The relationship between masculinity and femininity was independent with correlations approximately zero. Test-retest reliability was calculated after the scales were administered for a second time to a subset of the original sample. The three scores proved highly reliable over the four week interval between tests (Masculinity r - .90, Femininity r .90, Androgyny r - .93).

Subjects' attitudes toward the role of women in society were measured using the "autonomy for women" inventory developed by Arnott (1972). The autonomy inventory is shown in Table 2 and consists of ten Likert-type statements. The intensity of agreement with the statements is measured on a seven point scale anchored by strongly agree and strongly disagree. Scores were tabulated and subjects were categorized as conservative, moderate, or liberal. The points scored on the ten item inventory can range from 10 (strongly negative on all items) to 70 (strongly positive on all items). According to Arnott's scheme, scores ranging from 10-25 are categorized as conservative in attitude toward the autonomy of women, those with scores ranging from 33-47 are moderate, and those with scores ranging from 55-70 are liberal. The seven point separation between conservative and moderate, and between moderate and liberal categories is used in the scoring to distinguish the three categories by intensity of responses. The reliability of the "autonomy for women" inventory was examined by Arnott and produced an r s .78 in a test retest of sociology students.






Manipulation Check

In order to validate the experimental advertisements as depicting traditional and non-traditional role portrayals, a pre-test was conducted. Originally, there were two advertisements featuring the same model in two different situations. The background in one ad was an executive office setting while the other background was a supermarket. The product promoted in the advertisements, a mouthwash, is positioned in situations of social interaction, such as an office or shopping situation. It was expected that the situation would dictate the perceived traditional/non-traditional role portrayal. A pre-test sample of 159 students were asked to respond by telling a story about the female model in the advertisement. These stories were reviewed by two content analysts, working independently, to determine the perceived role portrayed. Results indicated that a similar role was perceived in both ads since the described occupation of the model was that of an executive or career woman. Apparently, the figure and not the background was the dominant cue. The model was attired in a gray pin-striped pantSuit. Accordingly, two additional advertisements were developed featuring the same model in the same settings, only this time attired in a dress.

All four advertisements were utilized in the study. Similarly, subjects were asked to relate a story about the model featured in the ads. Content analysis clearly indicated that attire was the dominant cue determining expected role. The traditional role was depicted in ads in which the model was attired in a dress. In the office setting, she was perceived as a secretary, while in the supermarket, she was seen as a housewife. The non-traditional role was depicted in the ads in which the model was attired in a pantsuit. In both the office and the supermarket, she was perceived as an executive or career woman, traditionally male linked roles. In summary, two advertisements depicted a traditional female role, while two depicted a non-traditional female role.


In the analysis of the data, purchase intent is the dependent variable and defined as the respondent's reaction to the advertisement. Personality characteristics, attitude toward the role of women, and the four advertisements are the independent variables. Specific contrasts between the purchase intent ratings, for subcomponents of the personality and attitude categories, are the main interest in this study. Orthogonal contrasts of the data provide this needed information. The contrasts are evaluated within the traditional and non-traditional advertisements.

The utility of segmenting the audience by sex-role related personality characteristics is of no consequence if gender per se can provide the same information. Therefore, a preliminary ANOVA testing the significance of gender was undertaken and no significant differences were found. The ANOVA for purchase intent by sex resulted in a F ratio with a .55 level of significance. A factorial ANOVA testing interactions between gender and the ads, and between personality characteristics and the ads, on variations in purchase intent, were also found to be insignificant with .29 and .40 levels of significance, respectively. Thus, the data were analyzed separately for men and women to test the hypotheses relating to personality characteristics.

There were significant differences found in the purchase intentions of women reacting to the non-traditional female role based on personality characteristics (see Table 3). The orthogonal contrasts indicated that feminine women were significantly more positive in their purchase intentions than the masculine women (see table 4). This evidence is contrary to the hypotheses that masculine women would react more positively to the non-traditional ad, and feminine women would react more negatively.





There were no significant differences found in the purchase intent of men reacting to the non-traditional role based on personality characteristics. Interestingly, though, masculine personality typed men were significantly more negative than feminine men in their reaction to the traditional female role. With respect to androgynous men and women, a bivariate analysis was conducted because the number of orthogonal contrasts are constrained by the degrees of freedom. There appear to be no differences in reaction to the nontraditional role by androgynous subjects; however, they both have negative purchase intentions (see Table 5).



Reactions to the role portrayed in the ads based upon the respondent's attitude toward the role of women were also investigated. There were no significant differences in purchase intent found based on attitude (men .73 level of significance, women .26 level of significance). There are some limitations to the current study. Only one product was investigated and it may be that its neutral aspects attenuated the findings. Only print ads were employed as opposed to other media. Also, intentions, rather than actual behavior, were measured.


Personality characteristics were evidenced as a significant, albeit limited, factor in explaining purchase intent as a-function of the female roles featured in four print advertisements. As hypothesized, androgynous males and females reacted similarly to the ads. Unexpectedly, however, cross-sex typed women (i.e., those having masculine personalities) were found to react unfavorably to the advertisements depicting a non-traditional female role. Men with masculine personalities responded unfavorably to the traditional female role, also an unexpected finding.

It was noted in the literature reviewed that masculine women behave differently from others in their influence in the family decision process. The results of this study indicate that the masculine personality explains differences not explained by gender in reactions to ads. However, further research is needed to determine why the masculine personality operated contrary to expectations.

The idea that one's attitude toward the role of women in society will predispose reactions to varying sex role depictions in advertisements was not supported in this study. Respondents with conservative, moderate, or liberal attitudes toward the female role did not react differently to the traditional versus non-traditional role portrayals. In the literature reviewed, liberal women were reported to differ from conservatives and moderates in their attitudes toward sex role stereotyping in advertising. Thus, it would seem that a general attitude toward gender related roles will not predispose a consumer to react in a specific manner toward a specific individual advertisement. As gender related role portrayals in advertising continue to evolve, it is important for marketers to not only realize how advertising content changes, but to be able to monitor and anticipate reactions to these changes by selected target audiences. More research effort in this area of investigation is needed.


Arnott, C.C. (1972) "Husbands' Attitudes and Wives' Commitment to Employment," Journal of Marriage and Family, 34: 673-81.

Belkaoui, A. and Belkaoui, J.M. (1976) "A Comparative Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Print Advertisements: 1958, 1970, 1972," Journal of Marketing Research, 8: 168-72.

Bem, S.L. (1974) "The Measurement of Psychological Androgyny," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology," 42: 155-62.

Burns, A.C. (1977) "Wives' Masculine-Feminine Orientations and Their Perceptions of Husband-Wife Decision Making," in M.A. Greenberg & D.N. Bellenger (ed .) Proceedings, American Marketing Association, 521.

Courtney, A.E. and Lockeretz, S.W. (1971) "A woman's Place: An Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Magazine Advertisements," Journal of Marketing Research, 8: 92-5.

Duker, J. and Tucker, L.R. (1977) "Women's Libbers Versus Independent Women: A Study of Preferences for Women's Roles in Advertisements," Journal of Marketing Research, XIV: 469-75.

Gentry, J.U. and Doering M. (1977) "Masculinity-Femininity Related Consumer Choice," in M.A. Greenberg & D.N. Bellenger (eds.) Proceedings, American Marketing Association, 423-7.

Green, R.T. and Cunningham, I.C.M. (1975) "Feminine Role Perception and Family Purchasing Decisions," Journal of Marketing Research, XII: 325-32.

Lundstrom, W.J. and Sciglimpaglia, D. (1977) "Sex Role Portrayals in Advertising," Journal of Marketing, 41: 72-9.

Venkatesan, M. and Losco J. (1975) 'Nomen in Magazine Ads: 1959-71," Journal of Advertising Research, 15: 49-54.

Venkatesh, A. (1980) "Changing Roles of Women: A Lifestyle Analysis," Journal of Consumer Research, 7: 189-97.

Wagner, L.C. and Banos, J.B. (1973) "A Woman's Place: Follow-Up Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Magazine Advertisements," Journal of Marketing Research, X: 213-4.

Weinberger, M.G., Petroshius, S.M. and Westin, S.A. (1979) "Twenty Years of Women in Magazine Advertising: An Update," in N. Beckwith et al (eds.) Proceedings, American Market Association. 373-7.

Wortzel, L.J. and Frisbie, J.X. (1974) "Women's Role Portrayal Preferences in Advertisements: An Empirical Study," Journal of Marketing, 38: 41-6.



Maureen Coughlin, Baruch College, C.U.N.Y.
P. J. O'Connor, Baruch College, C.U.N.Y.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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