Female Role Portrayals in Print Advertising: Talking With Women About Their Perceptions and Their Preferences

ABSTRACT - In-depth interviews using print advertisements as stimulus materials were conducted with women to assess perceptions of female role portrayals in advertising. This research highlighted three interpretive themes. Courtship images evoke strong reactions and projection on the part of informants. Perceptions of and "reading" of role portrayals are related to informants' gender and feminist self-schema and the centrality of those schema to their overall self-concept. The perceived appropriateness between product and female role portrayals is also linked with informants' self schema. Findings will be used in future experimental work to distinguish among clusters of women with similar self-schema, resulting in similar views toward stereotypical female role portrayals in advertising.


Patti Williams (1995) ,"Female Role Portrayals in Print Advertising: Talking With Women About Their Perceptions and Their Preferences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 753-760.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Page 753-760


Patti Williams, University of California at Los Angeles


In-depth interviews using print advertisements as stimulus materials were conducted with women to assess perceptions of female role portrayals in advertising. This research highlighted three interpretive themes. Courtship images evoke strong reactions and projection on the part of informants. Perceptions of and "reading" of role portrayals are related to informants' gender and feminist self-schema and the centrality of those schema to their overall self-concept. The perceived appropriateness between product and female role portrayals is also linked with informants' self schema. Findings will be used in future experimental work to distinguish among clusters of women with similar self-schema, resulting in similar views toward stereotypical female role portrayals in advertising.


Feminist critics have long been concerned that the portrayals of women in advertising will have negative impact upon the way adults and children view the role of women in society. Advertising portrayals are criticized for depicting women in a narrow range of primarily traditional roles, encouraging the view of women as sexual or decorative objects, and creating unrealistic and undesirable ideals for women to uphold.

The series of interviews presented in this paper is the first step in a project concerned with assessing whether women consumers are aware of the offensive portrayals cited by these critics. These interviews focus on the following questions: Do women recognize stereotypical role portrayals in advertising? Do different women notice them differently or "read" the same ads and portrayals differently, and if so, what accounts for those differences? And, how do women feel about these role portrayals? The answers to these questions presented in the remainder of this paper represent the initial exploratory work in this area. 'Me findings from this exploration will be used to shape future empirical research to identify clusters of women who share similarities which lead to shared interpretations of the stereotypical role portrayals presented in advertisements and other media.


Beginning in the early 1970s with the high awareness of the women's movement, researchers began to empirically examine female role portrayals in advertising. The first phase of this research concentrated on content analysis, demonstrating the limited number of roles that female models in print advertising were likely to portray (Courtney and Lockeretz, 1971; Belkaoui and Belkaoui; 1976 among others). Later work focused on factors (such as education, age, and agreement with the tenets of the women's movement) that were believed to influence and explain individual differences in perceptions, and resulting preferences, for the female roles most often seen in advertising (such as Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia, 1977; Cull, Marx and Hanson, 1977).

Analyses of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Print Advertising

Courtney and Lockeretz(1971) published the first major study in the marketing literature on female role portrayals in advertising. This content analysis demonstrated that women were generally portrayed in print ads in accordance with four primary stereotypes. Women were depicted primarily as sexual objects, belonging in the home, and dependent on men. In addition, they were seldom shown making important decisions or doing important things.

At a time when this research was very popular in the field, other researchers corroborated their findings. Belkaoui and Belkaoui (1976) concluded that stereotypes from the pre-women's movement era had remained common in print advertisements in 1970 and 1972, and that advertising was not adequately portraying the diversity of women's real life roles. Venkatesan and Losco (1975) reported that while there had been an overall decline in the female images most offensive to women's groups during the period 19591971, advertisers remained insensitive to the reality of contemporary women. They found that the depiction of "Woman as a sexual object" declined after 1961, but nonetheless appeared more frequently than any other category in both men's and general interest magazines. This is followed closely by "Woman as dependent on man", which was found in nearly one out of every four magazine advertisements containing at least one woman.

Goffman (1979), in viewing advertisements as displays or pictures which demonstrate the structure of social reality, found similar results. In the ads he reviewed, the functional status of women was often portrayed as subordinate to men, with men and boys often serving the role of instructor to women and girls. The posture of women in advertisements was often seen as submissive and accepting of subordination, or childlike, unserious or even clown-like, while the same was not the case for men pictured in similar ads.

Perceptions of Female Role Portrayals in Print Advertisements

After the initial work demonstrating the narrow portrayals of women in print advertisements, researchers began to ask whether these portrayals were apparent to consumers, and if so, what factors could be used to predict awareness and resulting attitudes toward the ads and products within them.

Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia (1977) reported that women generally have more critical attitudes toward role portrayals than do men. In their study, the women with the most critical attitudes were articulate, influential, younger, better educated, upper status women who had rejected the values and stereotypes of the traditional roles for women in society. Cull, Hanson and Marx (1977) provided evidence that recognition of sex stereotypes was correlated with reported agreement with the ideals of the women's movement.

Other researchers, however, were unable to predict role preferences or purchase behavior based upon feminist attitudes. Wortzel and Frisbie (1974) hypothesized that presenting products in conjunction with a woman in a career or neutral role would make the product appear more desirable to women than if the woman in the ad were depicted in a sex-object, family or fashion-object role. They believed this was likely to be especially true for women who strongly agreed with the tenets of the women's movement. In fact, however, the authors found that the role preference pattern for women with positive attitudes toward the women's movement were remarkably similar to the pattern for those with negative attitudes. They concluded that women react primarily to the product-use situation with which they arc confronted and tend to "select role preferences on the basis of function rather than on the basis of ideology." These results were supported in a later study by Duker and Tucker (1977). Mazis and Beuttenmuller (1973) also found only a weak relationship between women's liberation attitudes and perceptions of advertisements.

Authors have also attempted to correlate various demographic variables such as age and education, as well as geographic variables with preferences for role portrayals in advertising. However, of the many variables which have been studied with respect to their relationship to recognition of and preference for role portrayals in advertising, only gender of the respondent has consistently produced significant differences (Courtney and Whipple, 1983). This paper suggests that previous work has focused too much on prediction based on "external" variables rather than upon variables more "internal" and reflective of self, to the women viewing the ads.

Wilson and Moore (1979) previously suggested that in the context of sexually-oriented advertising, elements of self-concept are likely to influence perceptions. They posited that the stimulus presented in ads should be congruent with either actual or ideal self images of the consumer in order to serve as a link between the viewer and the product. They continued, "This theory may also explain the negative reaction of feminists to sex in ads. These critics are not likely to project themselves into the ad since their values are diametrically opposed to those embodied in the female model."

It is from the prior work in this area that research presented in this paper begins. Content analysis has demonstrated that role portrayals of women in advertising are limited and often stereotypical. It is certainly important, then, to ask whether consumers are as aware of these portrayals as are feminist groups. It is also important to understand whether this awareness translates into affect for the advertisements, the products they feature and perhaps even toward advertising in general. Further, it is important to consider whether or not , as suggested by feminist groups, these portrayals have an impact upon the self-images and self-esteem of individuals.


The research reported in this paper was gathered via in-depth interviews with three female subjects. The depth interview was chosen as a method because of its unique ability to provide a large quantity of information that can be particularly useful when beginning the exploration of anew topic. While the number of informants in this project is small, their experiences and perceptions, as well as the reseacher's introspection regarding role portrayals in advertising, provide a remarkably rich understanding which was adequate to alter the researcher's thinking significantly enough to suggest new directions for future research into this area.

Because previous research on this topic (Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia, 1977) indicates that those women with more education, higher social status and leadership positions are most likely to be critical of female role portrayals in advertising, this study focused exclusively on women who did not fit that description. It was the researcher's a priori belief that recognition, perception of and criticism for stereotypical portrayals is not exclusively the domain of upper class females, so a conscious decision was made to limit the sample of informants in this way.

Each of the, three informants in this study is a white female between the ages of 33 and 45, living in a major metropolitan area in Southern California. Two were known to the author as neighborhood acquaintances, while the third was referred to the author by a friend.- Two of the women do not have college degrees. Each informant is employed in a support-staff type role (accounts receivable supervisor, researcher, and program coordinator), and coincidentally, all work in similar industries. Two of the informants work for competing recruitment/employment advertising firms, while the third works for a cable television network.

Each interview lasted approximately one hour and was driven by the use of stimulus materials. These stimulus materials consisted of a set of 17 full-page, four-color print advertisements collected from various nationally published magazines. Initially, 44 advertisements were collected. This large set was then reduced to 17 in order to minimize fatigue of informants.

These 17 advertisements were selected to provide a cross-section of the roles most often identified in content analysis studies of female role portrayals, as well as to provide a spectrum of the roles of women and their relationships with men. As a result, the sample included women depicted as sexual objects, housewives and career women, as well as men and women depicted together in romantic relationships, working relationships, and familial relationships. It also included several depictions only of men which could be contrasted with similar depictions of women, such as professional role and parental role.

Before talking with the informants in this study, the researcher also engaged in introspection (Wallendorf and Brucks, 1993) for each of the advertisements chosen for the study. The researcher recorded her own impressions regarding the gender portrayals in each advertisement. As a feminist with a critical attitude toward female role portrayals in advertising, the researcher's opinions may be seen as representative of a certain interpretive community of critical feminism. Initially this introspection was meant to serve as an preliminary exploration of this topic and as an opportunity to further inform the researcher's work. As the interviews commenced, however, the author was often surprised to find how different her impressions were from those of her informants. Her introspection often provided a counterpoint to the words of the informants and led to a desire to understand the differences in reading these ads found in this small group of women. This desire has shaped the results reported in this work and where appropriate throughout the paper, the researcher's opinions will be compared to the reactions of the informants.

The development of the interview format was an iterative process, with adjustments made sequentially to enhance the informants' opportunities to view and discuss the advertisements. In order to facilitate the natural elicitation of gender-relevant information, informants were asked first to share their impressions of the people portrayed in the advertisements. If the ensuing discussion did not include gender-relevant perceptions, the interviewer more directly questioned the informants about this issue.

For the first interview, the advertisements were initially presented as a holistic set to encourage comparisons among the ads, and then each ad was discussed individually. As this process was rather cumbersome and resulted in tremendous repetition, for the second interview each ad was discussed only individually. Often, however, this individual presentation did not directly encourage informants to comment on gender in the ads. In the final interview, the researcher clustered the ads into groups of twos or threes that facilitated direct comparisons of the gender role portrayals in the ads in each cluster. While this comparison process seemed to be more effective than either of the previous methods, it was difficult to be certain as the final informant was also simply more aware of gender portrayals in advertising and required less prompting to approach this subject than did the first two.

In addition, for two of the interviews, a feminist deconstructionist methodology was employed to pursue the underlying gender conceptions of each informant. Informants were asked whether they could imagine the women in the ads as men, or vice versa, in order "to uncover traits and values so habitually defined as masculine or feminine that they are unimaginable in the other sex." (Stem, 1993)

Each interview was then transcribed and richly coded for meaning or ideas via a method of constant comparison (Glaser and Anselm, 1967). This encoding allowed for comparisons between interviews and the researcher's introspection, and for the development of larger interpretive themes linking the experiences, perceptions and ideas of the three informants.


Three major interpretive themes emerged from the words of these informants and will be outlined in this paper. The first theme, "The Power of Courtship", refers to the deep pleasure and intensity of self-projection which all three informants revealed in response to advertisements that contained images of romance and love.

The second theme points to the importance of internal self-structures in perceiving role portrayals in advertising. In particular, the centrality of gender self-schema to an individual's overall self-concept, as well as the inclusion in that self-schema of feminist values is important. Social psychologists have argued that an individual's self-schema impacts the perception of others. The responses of informants in this study indicate that elements of the self-schema, or valued self-traits, can have a substantial impact upon the way "others" presented in advertising are perceived. Informants also indicated, consistent with previous studies, that the appropriateness of role portrayals in ads often hinges upon the product being used. This "Match Between Product and Role" is the third theme, and is also impacted by self-schematic issues.

The Power of Courtship

In her 1991 paper, Stem characterized the romance genre as a form of soft-core pornography that women find arousing, socially acceptable and non-threatening. This feminine pornography is contrasted with traditional, "male" pornography that concentrates on sexual images and sexual gratification. Romances, Stem said, are the literature of courtship rather than of consummation. "Romances stop after foreplay because they have but one major theme"-.courtship. They end with marriage and the image of living happily ever after.

Several advertisements in the set of stimuli for these interviews inspired reactions which resonate with this courtship theme. All three informants became emotionally involved in these ads, able to self-project to a tremendous degree and to create imaginative stories about the people portrayed in the ads. Also importantly, the role portrayals of women in these ads were never seen by any of the informants as sexist or inappropriate, contrary to the researcher's own introspection.

In response to a DeBeers Diamond advertisement which reads, "The first time I gave her a diamond ring her hug took my breath away", Janet (wf, single, 33) said:

"My absolute favorite ad of all times. I love this ad. It's so sexy because it doesn't show anything but these shadows and this glorious ring. Ohhh, I want to be the woman in this ad .... It's just so, ohhh, it's sexy. I have a real emotional response to this. It makes me sort of step out of myself. I could be the person who has a guy like this. And he's lucky to have a gal like this. Oh, God, they're just so, I don't know. They're sexy. And they're in love ... This is love, this has taken off. This is something new. I like that. 'Took my breath away.' Yeah, I want someone to feel like that when they look in my eyes and put a ring on my finger. That I took their breath away. That's why I'd like to be her. I'd like to experience that. This couple, I like them. I want to he them. They're young, healthy, and not only do they backpack, they have these exquisite evenings at home or at a restaurant. They look into each other's eyes a lot. And they like being together. And it runs the gamut the things they do together. They strike me as a couple that does everything. Everything."

She clearly has a very strong reaction to the image of love presented in this ad. She sees it as a powerful depiction of the kind of relationship she herself would like to have, and she is able to project her own ideal images for a relationship on to the two silhouettes presented in the ad.

Similarly, Riley, (wf, single, 45) contrasts an advertisement for Bic Twin Select disposable razors with one for Courvoisier, clearly illustrating the qualitative difference between a pornography of courtship with one of consummation. While one ad is seen to be about sex, the other is about love.

Riley: It (Bic Twin Select ad) doesn't have a risque quality. It looks wholesome, it looks like they're married. So even though her legs are totally exposed, I didn't see it as sexy as this one (Courvoisier ad).

Interviewer: That one doesn't look like they're married?

Riley: No. (laughter) ... it looks like a little holiday cheer could be involved there. The dark stockings, the glass of booze in the hand. This just makes me think of office couplings and things. And you can't really see their expression. These (Bic ad) look like they're smiling, and this (Courvoisier) just looks like they're into it. And it's sexier. The fact that she's facing him and he has his hand on her. They (Bic ad) could be relaxing and could fall asleep that way maybe. And the look on their faces renders it wholesome."

Whereas the courtship-oriented Bic ad is seen as "wholesome" and respectable because it implies commitment with romance, the Courvoisier ad is dirty. The dark stockings, the alcohol, the erotic orientation of the lovers pictured, all bring forth images of one night stands and sex for the sake of sex.

All three informants recalled the DeBeers ads from television and spoke of them as among their favorite commercials of all time. Similarly, each informant spontaneously mentioned the current Taster's Choice campaign featuring the ongoing relationship development between two neighbors through their shared enjoyment of the instant coffee. These ads successfully focus on romance and courtship leading to long-term, emotionally fulfilling commitment, and resonate with the deeply held desires of the women interviewed in this study.

Gender Self-Schema and the Perception of Role Portrayals

Previous research on female role portrayals in advertising attempted to correlate women's liberation attitudes with perceptions of the portrayals, but were unable to achieve statistical significance. As suggested by Wilson and Moore (1979), self-concept theory, and particularly, self-schema theory, may provide an explanation for these results. While previous researchers asked about agreement with feminist tenets, they did not attempt to estimate the degree to which those tenets were incorporated into their subjects' view of themselves. Agreement with feminist tenets may not be the same thing as incorporation into the self-concept in a way that will lead to behavioral consistency. Furthermore, while several individuals may all be schematic on "feminism", this self-schema will not be equally central (important) as a defining self characteristic to all of them. Differences in centrality lead to strong differences in the degree to which the schema is used to process incoming information.

The self-schema revealed by the informants in this study help us understand their perceptions of female role portrayals in the stimulus advertisements. In particular, these women's gender self-schema, and whether or not their schema includes a central feminist component, relates to their perceptions of and preferences for the advertisements presented in this study.

The excerpts presented from these interviews indicate that the informants "read" ads differently. Though there are some similarities in perceptions, there are also many differences which stem from their differences in self-concept. These differences illustrate that the meaning of ads, even the "gender meaning" presented in the ads' role portrayals, is not inherent (Stem, 1989, 1994; Scott, 1994). Meaning is created by readers and different readers may obtain different meanings from the same text.

Social psychologists have argued that schema, networks of memory-based associations that organize and guide an individual's perceptions, are the central cognitive units in the human information-processing system (Markus and Sentis, 1982). Individuals who are schematic in a particular domain should be able to encode schema-consistent information quickly, and organize incoming information in schema-relevant categories (Bem, 1981). Markus (1977) has argued that attempts to organize, summarize or explain one's own behavior in a particular domain will result in the formation of similar such cognitive structures about the self: self-schema. These schema represent the way the self has been differentiated and articulated in memory in particular domains (Markus, 1977).

Individuals vary enormously in the content and organization of their self-schema, developing them on dimensions which are important to them and which they thus choose to attend to, and not developing them on others. For instance, Markus (1982) states that though virtually all individuals develop some basic appreciation and understanding of their biological sex, only some people seem to construct an elaborate self-schema about their gender. She further asserts that behavioral consistency with self-description is most likely to occur for those individuals who base their self-descriptions upon a self-schema in the relevant domain. In contrast, those individuals who have no such clear schema about themselves are unlikely to exhibit such consistency in behavior.

The union of an individual's many domain-specific schemas make up the self-concept which can be seen as a system of substructures or a hierarchy of knowledge structures about the self (Markus and Sentis, 1982). Some self-conceptions receive repeated activation because of their importance in identifying or defining the self, and are likely to be strong, well-articulated and chronically accessible for the processing of incoming information. These views can be considered as the core self. Other, less central self-schema, will vary in their accessibility, and thus their influence on processing, depending on the individual's affective or motivational state, or on prevailing social conditions (Markus, 1986).

Markus and Smith (1981) have also argued that this self-schema based processing occurs not only for self-relevant information but for social cognition in general. Once established, schema function as selective mechanisms which determine whether information is attended to, how it is structured and what is done to it subsequently (Markus, 1977). As individuals accrue knowledge about themselves and generate self-schema in various behavioral domains, they become "experts" in that domain, particularly so in the case of highly central self-schema. The expertise that accumulates affects the processing of information relevant to that domain (Markus and Sentis,1982). Markus (1985) argues that for schematics, the ability to use the information contained in the most central elements of their self-schema should allow them when perceiving others to do many of the things that experts can do: recognize when input is relevant to their domain; integrate this information with previously acquired information; and, make use of contextual cues to fill in incomplete or missing information in schema-consistent ways. When an individual has considerable expertise in a particular domain and obtains relatively low levels of knowledge about other people being perceived, the self-concept is believed to provide a powerful frame of reference for social perception.

Based on Markus' conceptualization of self-schema and their varying centrality for individuals, a woman with a strong feminist self-schema should act as an "expert" when interpreting others in this domain. The research described in this study provided an opportunity to discover whether the informants interviewed did indeed possess that self-schematic expertise in the domains of gender and feminism. In the ads, only minimal information is imparted to the consumer about the individuals pictured. A woman with central feminist self-schema then, should be more likely than a woman without such a self-schema or with a less central such self-schema, to notice, react to and discuss stereotypical role portrayals in advertisements.

The following section of this paper will present a brief overview of the self-schema revealed by informants during the course of their interviews and demonstrate how those schema relate to their impressions of the stimulus advertisements.

Janet: Family, Friends, Love and then Feminism

Janet provided the most complete presentation of self-concept in the study. It is clear from her words that family and friends, which represent to her an extended family, are very important to her sense of self. She places a high value on them and responds quickly, both positively and negatively, to advertising images which feature these kinds of relationships.

"I'm a very family oriented individual and that's always appealed to me. Mom, dad and kids. I love that, I really do love that ... And I love getting together with friends. It's one of my favorite things. Right behind being with family is being with friends, in a big way."

While focusing on depictions of these relationships, she often overlooks what other readers might see as sexist or stereotypical portrayals of women. In response to an ad for a recipe contest sponsored by Pillsbury and Green Giant featuring a family gathered around a pot of food, Janet says:

"I am moved by this family. Them all gathered around the meal makes me feel like they all participated in it. You know that it wasn't just mom in the kitchen doing stuff. It's a family in the kitchen making their dinner ... Maybe it's the idea of food, that you have sustenance in order to live, but family is the sustenance you need for emotional things throughout life ... And see, they weren't just in the kitchen cooking up dinner, they're cooking up a way to get $50,000."

This construal of what looked to the researcher as a stereotypical portrayal of a housewife presenting the evening meal to her family, is natural to Janet because of her value for family and the genuine family feeling she perceives in the ad.

Similarly, Janet has a strong desire to have a meaningful romantic relationship with a man that would lead to marriage and children. As a result, she had a strong reaction to these courtship advertisements, and did not focus on what might be construed as stereotypical portrayals.

"I want this (the DeBeers Diamond ad) to be the beginning of a relationship and this (Pillsbury/Green Giant family) to be the culmination, the family.

Further, Janet's yearning to achieve certain possible selves relates to the way she views women portrayed in advertising. In response to an ad for Hanes stockings, Janet says,

"And this ad, I would. buy their stockings. Because this is so great ... She's very classy. You only see three quarters of her, but you can tell. You can tell she is a very classy woman. She sits like I wish I could sit. Sometimes I think I'm very manly the way I sit. And she looks completely feminine and she's sophisticated ... I suppose women who were more self-confident than I might not feel that way, but I do have some real work to do as far as self-confidence and I would easily switch places with her. Could I please switch places with her? She's so together. That whole look is completely together. She's classy and sophisticated ... I want the legs too, the stockings and the legs...She reminds me that I'm not self-confident but it's not her fault. And there is a real feeling that this is what I could be if I could learn to sit like a lady. But not in a way that's demeaning. She's not doing it. Anything that's talking now is my lack of self-confidence. Not what she's doing to me."

While she indicates that she is aware of the feminist criticism for ads which make women feel physically inadequate, she rejects it here and takes complete responsibility for the feelings it produces in her. She seems to feel a sense of kindredness with the woman in this ad whom she wants to be able to emulate- ' She does not extrapolate from this ad to advertising or society as a whole perpetuating images that remind women of their "inadequacies." In contrast, the researcher saw this ad as presenting the headless, faceless body of a woman sitting alluringly with her legs prominently displayed. She is primarily a physical object, not much different from a sculpture of ideal femininity or beauty, with no sense of life, individuality or personality about her.

Yet Janet also considers herself to be a feminist and when the subject of women in advertising is directly mentioned she has a great deal to say.

Janet: I think there are too many ads that show women in bathing suits and that bugs me. And women in bathing suits selling cars and beer. I don't get it. If you drink a lot of beer, you don't have a shape like that.

Interviewer: Tell me about which ads cross the line. What sort of ads are offensive to you?

Janet: Almost all beer commercials. Oh and feminine protection ads infuriate me.

Interviewer: What about them makes you angry?

Janet: You know, it seems to me that woman's secretions are allowed to be a million dollar business, and that you can't ... condom ads are controversial? Wait a minute. You can advertise for the early pregnancy test, 'Your doctor and the cure, she recommends Mycelex 7'. Fuck you, I won't even buy that stuff because they advertise it. How dare they. How dare women not be as sacred as men appear to be.

So while Janet does have a strong feminist view point, it is clear from the interview in its entirety, that her self-schema in this domain is less central to her self-concept than are her values for family, friends, love and yearning to achieve what she sees as a more desirable self. As a result, these other self-schema often supersede her feminist perspective in processing and evaluating female role portrayals in advertising.

Julie: Androgyny and the Interchangeability of Gender Roles

Julie's (wf, married, 35) sense of self is quite different from Janet's. Unlike Janet, who is very conscious of her "female-ness", Julie has an androgynous gender self-schema in that she has not sharply differentiated herself on the basis of gender, and has incorporated both masculine and feminine elements into her self-concept (Markus, 1982).

Julie: My husband and I kind of trade-off. In fact, he does a lot more cooking than I do. We're not the typical husband and wife type. And since he's out of work, he does all the housework and I do all the working. Sort of a role reversal there. We don't have male/female stigmas that, you know, 'You take out the garbage, I cook the food', thing. I think my children are similar. My son likes to cook, my daughter takes karate.

Interviewer: That seems to be an important value for you.

Julie: Yeah, I think so. My parents were that way too. A little more stereotypical than us, but not too much.

She believes that there are not many differences between the social roles that men and women can occupy, and that men and women are essentially "interchangeable". However, when asked to engage in feminist deconstructionist role reversal for an ad for Smimoff Vodka featuring two men standing together, she is not always able to do so easily and she is bothered by this.

Interviewer: What if you saw two women standing holding lobsters in this same place at this time. Would that feel right to you?

Julie: You know what, probably no. I don't think it would and I hate to say that, because it should. You know, I mean, it should. But no I don't think so. Maybe it's the setting. I guess I still have a little bit of that stereotypical, you know, the men down at the docks.

Interviewer: You wouldn't see women standing on those docks holding lobsters saying they just met their dates for dinner?

Julie: No. If they were, they'd probably be looking at the lobsters in a tank, pointing. As opposed to touching them. I'm surprised I think that way.

Interviewer: Do you feel like you should always be able to see them as interchangeable?

Julie: Yes.

Despite her value for non-traditional sex roles, however, Julie does not have a feminist perspective, and feminist issues were not a concern with her when looking at the stimulus ads. Her responses to two advertisements are presented below. The first, for Learning International, shows an older man sitting at a conference table, clearly distressed over the state of his business. In the background are two other men. The second ad, for Hawaiian Tropic tanning lotion, features three women in bikinis.

Julie: Do I notice anything about women? I don't see any women in this ad (Learning International).

Interviewer: Does that matter to you?

Julie: No. It doesn't bother me. Sometimes you have women there, sometimes you don't. I don't think it's an intentional thing. It's just the way it is.

Interviewer: What if you saw these women (Hawaiian Tropic) in a different ad for a different product? Would you have a different feeling about it?

Julie: You mean like if these women were sitting in their bathing suits on top of a car? Okay. It's unnecessary, I think, because you're trying to sell a car. But that's a been there, done that kind of thing. There's always a woman on a car. It's typical. It doesn't bother me. I don't know why it doesn't bother me, but it doesn't. Obviously the girl knew what she was doing when she got up on the car. So, she made a conscious choice to do it. It's not like someone was standing there with a gun saying get up on the car.

While Julie has rejected stereotypical gender roles for herself and her family, she is not bothered by their continued propagation in advertising and as a result, does not react to the stereotypical portrayals of women as many feminists would. The absence of women in an ad about executives making important business decisions is not seen as part of a larger pattern of women missing from such environments. She also believes that absent physical coercion, sexual images are not forced upon women but are a matter of individual choice. She ignores or is unaware of the subtle influence of societal norms in perpetuating these images of women.

Julie clearly has a schema for gender for both herself and her family. Yet this does not insure perception of stereotypical role portrayals in advertising. And while she is aware of the feminist discourse on portrayals of women in advertising, this discourse is not a part of Julie's perceptions because these values are not a part of her self.

Riley: A Central Feminist Self-Schema

Unlike both Janet and Julie, feminist thought is very central to Riley's self concept. She has devoted a great deal of thought to the roles that women are assigned in society and the role of the hegemonic process. She says:

"Sometimes I think money is the bottom line and other times I think it isn't really. I think it's about maintaining that balance of power. Even though I know money is big, I think power is as big an issue as money. "nose are the two biggies. Like Meryl Streep said recently that if there were an audience of people dying to see films about 50-year old women, we'd see them. I don't think we'd see them. Because it's about more than just making money. I think there probably is a whole audience out there, especially as my generation gets older. They could make a lot of money, but they won't. Because men produce and direct and cast. You know the thing about when a male actor is 20 he has a 20-year old as his leading lady. When he's 30 he has a 30-year old, but when he's 40 he has a 20-year old again. I think it's more about maintaining the status quo."

As a result of the importance of this issue to her sense of self, she is self-directed to notice gender-relevant information in her environment and is quick to pick it out in the stimulus materials. Often her first impressions are of the use of gender in an ad. This is her first response to an ad for Waterman pens featuring a family of siblings with one sister and four brothers:

"If I didn't know they were a family, I would think, 'Typical, four men and one woman.' There are always more men in ads and on TV shows and in movies and everything, except in real life in which there are more women than men. So I remember first seeing that and thinking uh-oh. You know my danger signals went off, and then I saw it was a family and I said what can you do."

The importance of gender to Riley's self-concept leads her to process information in this domain with the characteristics of expertise described by Markus (1985). She spontaneously goes to the domain of gender first when interpreting the stimulus ads, immediately recognizing the portrayals as domain relevant and using the contextual cues present in the ad to fill in incomplete information in a way that is consistent with her strong gender self-schema. It is clear that gender and feminism are chronically accessible, highly central, self-schema for Riley, used for interpreting much of the social world she sees around her.

The recognition and perception of stereotypical depictions of women in these ads is a function of the informants' internal self-structures. In the past, researchers have focused on measuring external variables such as demographics or agreement with feminist statements to predict perceptions of role portrayals. While these external factors may be related to the internal structures, they may not be the key variables needed for understanding this phenomenon. Focusing on the role that the self plays, and perhaps the relationships of potentially predictive external variables to that self, can provide a richer understanding. Future research will attempt to build upon this to distinguish among clusters of women with similar gender self-schema and importance to their overall self-concepts, which lead to similar views and reactions toward stereotypical role portrayals in advertising and other media.

The Match Between Product and Role

Wortzel and Frisbie (1974) concluded that women react to female role portrayals in advertising primarily with respect to product use situations rather than with respect to attitudes toward women's liberation. Similarly, Johnson and Satow (1978), found that the women they interviewed found the use of sex in ads acceptable in certain cases. ne informants in this study also had rules about when using sexual images was appropriate to the product and when it was not. These rules, however, are related to the informant's gender self-schema and resulting views regarding depictions of women in advertising. In response to a Hawaiian Tropic ad featuring three young women in bikinis, Julie (wf, married, 35) commented:

"They are young and attractive, but for what it's for, this is probably the appropriate type of advertising"

In contrast, Riley (wf, single, 45) found this ad to be quite offensive.

Riley: Oh, boy. For this one I would just say, same old shit. Three girls in a bikini with long hair and smiling and not looking too bright.

Interviewer: Does it matter that it's an ad for suntan lotion?

Riley: No. Absolutely no. Same old shit. I can see them thinking, 'Oh we're justified in doing this because it's suntan lotion.' But to me it looks like you could put them anywhere. You know those ads where you think, why are there three half naked women here? They're selling spatulas. This looks like just that kind of ad. It doesn't make a bit of difference what it's for. I hate it. They look dumb and stupid and exploited. I hate the whole thing.

Yet Riley did not find the headless, leggy image in the Hanes stockings ads inappropriate at all. She said,

"They're selling hosiery so that's a very feminine image. I'm not offended by it. I think that's one mood of a woman."

While women are likely to evaluate the appropriateness of the product with the role of the female model being used to sell it before dismissing the role portrayal, not all women are likely to measure that appropriateness in the same way. This is again a call for researchers to more clearly understand the internal dimensions of self that lead to these impressions.


Though this research was conducted with a small number of informants, the richness of their comments revealed several important themes regarding women's perceptions of role portrayals in advertising. Awareness of stereotypical role portrayals and perceptions of them varies by individual, depending upon internal structures of self that reflect important values with respect to gender and feminism. Self-concept theory has much to add to our understanding of how women view the women they see in ads and how they measure the appropriateness of the portrayed roles with the products being promoted.

Each of the women interviewed for this paper had a different self-orientation regarding issues of gender and feminism. Julie, while rejecting traditional sex roles for herself and her family, has no feminist self-schema. As a result, she does not interpret role portrayals of women in the stimulus advertisements presented as critically as do the other two informants. While Janet clearly has a feminist self-schema, it is much less central to her overall self-concept than are family, friends and love. As a result, her feminist perspective was not the first view imposed on the incoming stimulus advertisements. Riley, in contrast, is not only schematic on feminism, but has placed such importance on that domain that feminism is very central to her self-concept as a whole. Her feminist self-schema works as an anticipatory structure, "providing a readiness for her to search for and to assimilate incoming information in schema-relevant terms" (Bem, 1981).

An understanding of the importance of self-schematicity in certain domains and the influence of centrality on schematicity, can provide a better understanding of the differences in perceiving and reacting to stereotypical portrayals of women in advertising. The application of self-concept theory may allow researchers to obtain more significant, stable results regarding which women are aware of such portrayals and which are not. While many of the variables measured in the past in attempts to understand this phenomena may be linked to differences in self-schema in relevant domains, they did not directly measure internal self structures.

The results of the research presented in this study will be used to fashion future empirical work to test the correlation between schematicity for gender and feminism and the centrality of those self-schema to the overall self-concept with recognition of and reactions toward stereotypical female role portrayals in advertising. As the findings in these interviews suggest, it is hypothesized that those women with central self-schema on gender and feminism will be more aware and critical of such portrayals.

This research, however, does leave some questions unanswered. With only three interviews, focusing on a particular subset of the population of women in America, this paper does not address the wider gender influences which advertisements and other media images can have upon men and women alike. Clearly such influences are likely to exist and are worthwhile subjects for future research.

In addition, some important questions remain unanswered with respect to the findings from the three women who were interviewed for this paper. The informants in this study revealed a number of inconsistencies in their feminist self-schema. It is not clear how Julie can so soundly reject traditional sex roles and at the same time not seem to object to the propagation of them in society at large through advertising. Similarly, Janet clearly felt a lack of confidence when confronted with "perfect" legs presented in the Hanes advertisement, but stated very emphatically that such a reaction was her own fault rather than the fault of the model featured in the ad. Finally, neither Janet nor Riley, who have feminist self-schema, found any of the courtship advertisements' portrayals of women to be offensive, in contrast to the introspection of the researcher. It is clear that not only are women holding or not holding feminist self-schema, but that they select some elements of feminist thought and reject others when fashioning their schema. Why this is done and how they discriminate among these elements is not clear, yet may have profound impact upon the viewing of stereotypical role portrayals. Understanding this phenomena is an important area of future research not only for fully comprehending the perceptions of female role portrayals in advertising, but also for gaining perspective on the spectrum of feminist thought among women.


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Patti Williams, University of California at Los Angeles


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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