How Should Women Be Portrayed in Advertisements?-- a Call For Research

ABSTRACT - The roles which women portray in advertisements have been the subject of much public criticism and some empirical research. This paper reviews that research, describes problem areas which need research and presents hypotheses whose exploration should provide useful insights aimed at improving both advertising and over-all marketing strategy.


Mary Lou Roberts and Perri B. Koggan (1979) ,"How Should Women Be Portrayed in Advertisements?-- a Call For Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 66-72.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 66-72


Mary Lou Roberts, Boston University

Perri B. Koggan, Grey Advertising, Inc.


The roles which women portray in advertisements have been the subject of much public criticism and some empirical research. This paper reviews that research, describes problem areas which need research and presents hypotheses whose exploration should provide useful insights aimed at improving both advertising and over-all marketing strategy.


In recent years advertisers and their agencies have received criticism from a wide variety of sources concerning the manner in which women are portrayed in advertisements. The critics state that the women shown in ads are too often "only housewives;" stupid or incompetent; dependent on men; decorative or sex objects; passive; and not involved in making major decisions (Advertising Age, April 21, 1975).

There is no doubt that many of these criticisms were, and to an extent still are, valid. There also is no doubt that many advertisers have attempted to respond by discarding stereotypes and trying to create more appealing role incumbents. If any doubt exists that they have made these attempts in the face of extremely sparse information, we hope to dispel this doubt and will present a list of hypotheses which, though it is by no means exhaustive, is intended to encourage research in this area. Such research should provide guidance for day-to-day advertising decisions and at the same time increase our knowledge of consumer behavior in general and female consumers in particular.

Even though advertisers act in good faith, their efforts at discarding stereotypes while appealing to today's woman may encounter wholly unexpected criticism or marketplace failure. Two examples will illustrate some of the pitfalls.

A cosmetics ad showing the face of an attractive young woman was captioned: "Your face isn't safe in this city." According to a company spokesperson, this was intended to be "a straightforward pitch for skin protection against smog" (Liddick, 1978). This particular advertisement was attacked by Women Against Violence Against Women, a group protesting messages which portray violence directed at women. Both the manufacturer and agency agreed that the possibility of misinterpretation existed and withdrew the ad (Liddick, 1978).

The second example deals more directly with role portrayal. Researchers created four versions of an ad for an instant breakfast drink. The ads varied only in the occupation of the spokesman - a housewife, a grade school teacher, a cab driver and a Ph.D. In an experimental setting the ad with the female Ph.D. was the least preferred. The reason appeared to be that this food product was associated with more traditional female roles (Advertising Age, April 18, 1977).

The problem of female role portrayal in advertisements has many dimensions. We intend to deal with only a selected few of these dimensions -- most viable role for the chief female actor, her relationship to and interaction with significant others and the relationship between role portrayal and selected product categories. We have chosen these dimensions because they point to avenues of research which can help marketers in their analysis of basic strategy decisions such as product positioning and market segmentation while they improve their promotional strategy and execution. Some dimensions such as sexual innuendo, nudity, and violence have been omitted from our discussion because, although they are important creative issues, they seem less germane to major strategic considerations.

Before we discuss topics which need to be researched, it is necessary to review the existing empirical work.


Presence of Role Stereotypes in Media Advertising

Courtney and Lockeretz (1971) conducted a content analysis of 729 ads appearing in eight general interest and news magazines during 1970. They found few women shown in employment outside the home. Most employed women were entertainers; none were shown in professional or executive roles. This was true of both ads showing women only and those showing men and women together, although the frequency of employed women increased when men and women were shown together. Women were rarely shown interacting with one another. Their conclusion was that stereotypical portrayals of women were dominant.

A follow-up study done by Wagner and Banos (1973) used ads from 1972 issues of six of the same magazines (Reader's Digest was omitted and the New York Times Magazine was substituted for Look which had ceased publication). The number of employed women shown had increased from 9 to 21 percent with some women shown as professionals, semiprofessionals, sales people and in other white-collar occupations. Fewer women were shown as entertainers or sports figures. However, more non-employed women were shown in a decorative role and fewer were shown in a family or recreational role. There was no change in the frequency of interaction between two or more women, in female involvement in major purchase decisions and in their portrayal in institutional settings. This study, then, presents a mixed picture. Employed women were better represented, although this 21% representation is far from matching the 49% of American women between 15 and 65 employed in 1972 (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1976), but the manner in which non-employed women were portrayed seemed to have degenerated.

Another replication by Belkaoui and Belkaoui (1976) added 268 ads from eight magazines published in January 1958 to the two sets of existing data. This study found that the same stereotyping reported in 1970 and 1972 with regard to employment status, occupational roles and involvement in major purchase decisions also existed in 1958. The percentage of working women shown in ads was slightly higher in 1972 than in 1958, but in all three years studied, the women were largely entertainment and sports personalities and secretarial and clerical workers. The non-working women were even more likely to be portrayed in decorative roles in 1972 and less likely to be shown in family roles. Their conclusion is that the stereotypes which existed prior to the advent of the Women's Movement were being perpetuated in the mass media of the 1970's.

A more detailed analysis by Sexton and Haberman (1974) included ads published during 1950-51, 1960-61, and 1970-71 covering six product categories -- cigarettes, beverages, automobiles, home appliances, office equipment, and airlines. They evaluated 1,827 ads on eleven dimensions which encompassed the number of persons and types of role portrayals in the ads, their relationships to one another and to the product, and the setting of the ads. Although there was some variation in the findings from one product category to another, the general results agreed with earlier studies in that there was some increase in the number of women shown in working roles from earlier to later years and a decrease in women portrayed in home and family-oriented situations. The frequency with which women were portrayed as rather passive social companions of men was large and stable even though women were shown in more varied situations as time passed. They did not, however, find an increase in decorative portrayals but found that there were more women portrayed as being alluring to men.

Venkatesan and Losco (1975), in a study of magazine ad role portrayal covering the years from 1959 to 1971, again confirmed the existence of sex object, physical beauty and female dependence stereotypes. They, too, noted a decrease in both sex object and family-oriented roles.

Dominick and Rauch (1974) conducted a study of 1,000 prime time television commercials and found that the sex object and housewife/mother role stereotypes also existed in that medium.

Effect of Role Stereotypes on Attitudes toward Advertisements

A study by Mazis and Beuttenmuller (1973) using small samples and disguised advertisements found college women reacting to favorable and unfavorable role portrayals in accordance with their positive or negative attitudes toward Women's Liberation.

Wortzel and Frisbie (1974) approached this problem by asking 100 women to choose the role portrayal (neutral, career, family, fashion, sex object) which would most enhance the desirability of ads for seven different product categories. In this sample, preference was expressed for a family-oriented role for both small and large appliances. Where women's grooming and personal care products were concerned, the career role was preferred but the traditional and fashion roles were judged acceptable. Grouping these women by positive or negative attitudes toward Women's Liberation as measured on a 22 item scale did not show any overall differences in preference for role portrayals between the two groups. Instead, the nature of the product category seemed to be the determinant of role preference. They did find, however, that women with positive attitudes toward Women's Liberation were more likely to select a specific role than the neutral portrayal and were more likely to prefer the family-oriented role than were women with negative attitudes. Women who responded positively to a repression sub-scale imbedded in the Liberation scale were more likely to reject any role choice.

A similar study by Duker and Tucker (1977) using a sample of 104 college women and actual print advertisements also found no differences in perception of ads portraying sex-stereotyped roles between women whose orientation to Women's Lib (as measured by the Barron Test of Independent Judgment) was strong and those whose orientation was weak. They suggest that underlying value structures may be more useful in analyzing women's reaction to role portrayals than are attitudes which are conceptually more superficial and transient.

Most of the available evidence, then, suggests that the presence of sex-role stereotyping in ads may not generate unfavorable perceptions of those ads even in women who hold positive attitudes toward Women's Liberation.

Effect of Attitudes Toward Role-Stereotyped Ads on Intention to Buy

Lundstron and Sciglimpaglia (1977) used a mail questionnaire to study attitudes of 150 women and 114 men toward role portrayal of both men and women in ads, company image of firms whose ads conveyed sexist images, and intention to buy products of such firms. The women in the sample had more negative attitudes toward the realism of the roles portrayed by both women and men. The negative attitudes of the women carried over to company image but no significant difference was found in intention to buy between men and women. Younger, better educated, higher SES and less traditional women held the most critical attitudes toward advertising. However, older women and those from lower income households were most likely to agree that they would discontinue purchasing a product whose ads they found offensive, although they would continue to buy other products made by the same company. Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia, therefore, conclude that the impact of offensive ads on sales may be slight because the women in their sample who are most critical of advertising also have characteristics which make them potential opinion leaders and/or consumer advocates but have little inclination to translate negative attitudes into avoidance behavior or positive action.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the exhaustive review of empirical studies:

(1) Sex role stereotypes are present in mass media advertisements and there is no clear evidence that, overall, the frequency of such stereotyping is decreasing.

(2) Most of the available evidence is based on analyses of print media.

(3) There is an abundance of data which confirms the existence of stereotypes but little which relates presence of stereotypes to attitudes toward advertisements and even less which deals with the effect of stereotyping on intended purchase behavior.

(4) The product category itself may be the chief determinant of preferred role portrayal.

(5) Reaction to role portrayal in advertisements may vary among groups of women with different socioeconomic characteristics.

(6) All published studies to date have used research designs and/or samples which lack total applicability to real world conditions.


As we said in the beginning, the advertiser is faced with a multitude of decisions and little published empirical data. Also, some of the data which does exist is contradictory.

A panel appointed by the National Advertising Review Board did examine existing attitudinal studies and presented checklists of both destructive and constructive portrayals (Advertising Age, April 2, 1975). The intent of this effort was laudatory, but a careful examination reveals that they have essentially recommended that advertisers avoid known stereotypes and present positive female role models in a manner which enhances female self-esteem and encourages the realization of female potential. This is a beginning, but hardly the detailed guidance the advertising strategist needs.

Much research is needed to generate this detailed guidance. A review of a great deal of non-empirically-based literature and observation of ads themselves have identified the major problem areas. With each problem area we present one or more hypotheses. These hypotheses may or may not be confirmed by actual data. Whether confirmed or not, we believe the data will be useful. We hope they will also stimulate research-oriented thinking about problems and/or product categories not discussed.With each area we also present ads which exemplify the issues. We again caution, however, that the verdict has not yet been made on whether the presence of stereotyped portrayal does adversely affect marketplace behavior.


Problem: Ads often depict the woman as a sex object to be admired by a man for his sake, especially in ads for health and beauty products.


The female model in this mouthwash ad is a wholesome young woman. In one picture she is holding the product. In the other picture she is clinging to a rugged young man. Although the model is attractive in her own right, the implication is clearly that she could not have "caught him" without the product's help.

The female model in this next perfume ad has an exotic, sultry aura which is enhanced by the black background. Her lips are seductively pursed and she is whispering to get "someone's" attention.

This ad seems to be implying that the woman uses the scent for the sole purpose of attracting a man. Isn't it possible that women buy perfume to feel better about themselves?


In this ad for a hair coloring product, an attractive young woman, described in the copy as an active working mother, is shown against a pastoral background. The headline and copy clearly state that both the product and the hobby contribute to her sense of well-being.


Although this is a very positive role portrayal, the lifestyle may be a bit exaggerated. How many working mothers find time to sit in the middle of a field painting a landscape? Yet it may be a fantasy ad that is very appealing to the target market.

Hypothesis: Ads for health and beauty products should appeal to a woman's sense of well being for her own sake -- not to enhance her status as a sex object.

Problem: Ads often portray the woman as a helpless fool who needs assistance to help her through the turmoil she has created or seems unable to control.

This next cake mix ad shows another wholesome young woman holding the package and the finished product. Although this ad is not overly offensive, it does portray the woman as being somewhat helpless. Couldn't the product benefit - a cake that is both easy to prepare and attractive - be emphasized without implying that the woman is afraid to try something different?


Actually, this particular problem in role stereotyping is much more prevalent on television. A multitude of examples como to mind -- "ring around the collar," the man in the toilet bowl, masculine "scrubbing bubbles," a "knowledgeable" husband recommending the right furniture polish.


This ad for a washing machine contains both mother and son and emphasizes a special feature of the machine which allows a small load to be washed economically.

This seems to be a positive role portrayal because it shows a sensible young mother performing a necessary household task intelligently.

Hypotheses: Whether a woman works or not, she should be shown as competent and creative in using products which help her to perform the tasks her roles and lifestyle necessitate. These products should be shown helping the woman to achieve objectives that are central in her perception of her role.

: The task-oriented woman (e.g., "I have regular days for washing, cleaning, etc. around the home." "If you want your floors waxed properly, you have to do it by hand.'' [Source: Wells, 1971.]) derives satisfaction from the performance of the tasks themselves.

: The family-oriented woman (e.g., "I put my family's welfare before my own." "I am the guardian of my family's health," [Source: Wells, 1971.]) derives satisfaction because she believes she has contributed to her family's well being by the performance of these tasks.

: The woman who is oriented toward activities outside the home (e.g., "I spend a lot of time working for community organizations." "I take pride in my job. [Source: Wells, 1971.] derives her major satisfaction from these activities and, therefore, is attracted by products which simplify in-home tasks.

Problem: Ads in which men and women are shown together often use women as decorative or alluring objects.


This ad for glassware shows two attractive young women sharing the celebration of a winning (male) race car driver.

This is an industrial product ad in which all of the models are mere decorations. Obviously, the women shown have not contributed to the man's success, but someone did have to hold the glasses.


This ad for men's cologne shows sexy male and female models in close proximity to one another. While this ad might appeal to a man's fantasy, it was found in a women's magazine. Would this ad compel a woman to purchase the product for "her" man?


This ad for a refrigerator shows a husband and wife having trouble fitting their old refrigerator into their new kitchen. It is a humorous approach to a real problem. It was chosen as an example because the couple is sharing the dilemma even though the solution is provided by a male celebrity spokesperson.


This ad for a feminine hygiene product shows an attractive young couple canoeing on white water. The contemporary woman wants to pursue an active life whenever she pleases and is probably attracted by themes which convey this life style.

Hypotheses: If the target market is men, portraying women as decorative or alluring is appropriate.

: If the target market is traditional women (e.g., "A woman's place is in the home.'' [Source: Wells, 1971.]) or both women and men, portraying the women as equal partners or participants is appropriate.

: If the target market is contemporary women, portraying the women as successful or dominant is appropriate. (e.g., "Women should be free to take jobs outside the home if they want them." [Source: Wells, 1971.])

Problem: Ads in which two or more women appear tend to emphasize competitive interaction.


In this ad for cat litter the hostess of a female bridge group is concerned about cat box odor. Again, the problem is a real one. However, would a group of women --your friends, at that -- really be this rude?


This ad shows a brand of beer which is bottled in two sizes. A group of women is superimposed on the smaller bottle. These women are enjoying a friendly beer together in a pleasant setting. The quality of the interaction is appropriate to today's woman. The Women's Movement has sensitized her to the pleasures of camaraderie between women.

This ad is also interesting because it deals with a traditionally male-dominated product category but portrays a new version designed to appeal to women. This recognizes the emergence of women as a force in the consumption of these product categories.

Hypothesis: Show women as congenial and supportive of one another in a setting appropriate to the life style of the target market.

Problem: Advertisers need to identify the type of person who is the most effective spokesperson for their product category.


A well-known actor is the spokesperson in this washing machine ad. Why are celebrities chosen as spokespersons for product categories where there is no apparent correlation between their image and the possession of pro-duct-related expertise? Even though they may be considered attractive by the target market, are they a credible information source?


This is an institutional ad with an energy conservation theme. It shows a woman chemist in protective clothing operating highly technical equipment. The woman shown is undoubtedly highly intelligent and expert in her field. Would, however, the average woman be able to identify with this role portrayal?

Hypotheses: Traditional women will attribute higher credibility to an authoritative male figure. This is especially true in product categories such as major appliances or those products which represent new technological developments.

: Contemporary women will prefer a female figure who has the necessary level of technical expertise.

: In promoting non-technical products including home and personal care products, all women will find a female with whose lifestyle they can identify to be the most credible.

Problem: Even when the role portrayal attempts to avoid stereotypes, the women shown are often not behaving in a manner appropriate to the role.


This ad for office systems shows a graying female executive seated at her desk. She is looking at a cathode ray tube while being served coffee by a man. Showing a female executive is commendable. However, her facial expression is clearly not that of an executive. In addition, the man serving coffee has no relation to the purpose of the ad, unless it is to exemplify the role reversal.


This ad for a charge card shows a woman shopper holding the card. Since women have traditionally been denied equal access to financial services, the ad's basic message -- the power conferred by the charge card -- is appealing. However, the woman's expression is not terribly attractive. In fact, it seems to convey the stereotype of a compulsive female purchaser.

It seems desirable to portray women in a variety of roles which would represent the diversity of modern lifestyles. Care should be taken to match role and incumbent and to create situations with which the target audience can identify.

Hypothesis: The intended role portrayal is most effective if all elements of the ad are in harmony with the role portrayal.


The question of how to most effectively portray women in all advertising media will not be answered easily or quickly. It does, however, offer tremendous scope for meaningful research and positive action by advertisers and agencies. We hope the issues raised here will be useful in generating both.


"Advertising Portraying or Directed to Women." Advertising Age, (April 21, 1975), pp. 72, 75, 78.

Ahmed Belkaoui and Janice Belkaoui. "A Comparative Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Print Advertisements: 1958, 1970, 1972," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 13 (May, 1976), pp. 168-172.

Alice Courtney and Sarah Wernick Lockeretz. "A Woman's Place: An Analysis of Roles Portrayed by Women in Magazine Advertisements," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 8 (February, 1971), pp. 92-95.

Joseph P. Dominick and Gail E. Rauch. "The Image of Women in Network TV Commercials," Journal of Broadcasting, (Summer, 1974), pp. 259-265.

Jacob M. Ducker and Lewis R. Tucker, Jr. "Women's Libbers Versus Independent Women: A Study of Preferences for Women's Roles in Advertisements," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 14 (November,-1977), pp. 469-475.

Betty Liddick. "Feminists Go To Battle Against Ads That Victimize Women." Boston Globe, February 22, 1978, p. 1.

William J. Lundstrom and Donald Sciglimpaglia. "Sex Role Portrayals in Advertising," Journal of Marketing, Vol. 41 (July, 1977), pp. 72-79.

Michael B. Mazis and Marilyn Beuttenmuller. "Attitudes Toward Women's Liberation and Perception of Advertisements,'' Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 1, 1973, 428-434.

Donald E. Sexton and Phyllis Haberman. "Women in Magazine Advertisements," Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 13 (August, 1974), pp. 41-46.

"'Traditional' TV Women Bother Men, Study Tells," Advertising Age, April 18, 1977.

Louis Wagner and Janic B. Banos. "A Woman's Place: A Follow-Up Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Magazine Advertisements," Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 10 (May, 1973), pp. 213-214.

William D. Wells. "AIO Item Library," Chicago, 1971. (Mimeographed)

Lawrence H. Wortzel and John M. Frisbie. "Woman's Role Portrayal Preferences in Advertisements: An Empirical Study." Journal of Marketing, Vol. 28 (October, 1974), pp. 41-46.

M. Venkatesan and Jean Losco, "Women in Magazine Ads: 1959-71," Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 15 (October, 1975), pp. 49-54.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, A Statistical Portrait of Women in the U.S. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976.



Mary Lou Roberts, Boston University
Perri B. Koggan, Grey Advertising, Inc.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06 | 1979

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