Stereotype Threat and a Cross Cultural Look at Sexualization of Women in Advertisements

Stereotypes are “beliefs about the features, opinions, and expected behaviors of a group that may be generalized to individuals belonging to the group” (Hegtvedt and Johnson, 2017). In society today, stereotypes still exist and are used to simplify the world. However, this simplification can lead to bias which can result in prejudice and discrimination and individuals undergoing stereotype threat. According to Steele, stereotype threat occurs when individuals suspect that they will be judged on the basis of the (negative) stereotype of the group to which they belong (1997).

Stereotype threat is a problem in social interaction because it can actually undermine an individual’s performance. For instance, an experiment carried out by Jane Elliot showed that when children were under stereotype threat they performed worse on tasks. She chose the blue-eyed children to be better and superior for the first day, and then the brown-eyed children for the second day, and in both instances when the groups were under stereotype threat, they performed worse and discriminated against the less superior group, even the brown-eyed children who had experienced discrimination on the first day.

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Similarly, stereotypes of gender exist in society today. This is because even though humans are born with a biological sex or ascribed status, gender roles which are constructed by society are learned through social interaction. Primarily, so that meanings and roles of girls and boys can be differentiated. These roles are often influenced by socializing agents such as the media. And in today’s world, within media, advertisements especially hold an incredible power over the minds of individuals in society.

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While today’s advertisements pride themselves on including women, these women are often sexualized and objectified--they’re made to feel as if they have nothing to offer other than their body when it comes to advertising. Not only are women being degraded in the media, but in doing so, they are setting examples for women of all ages. Stereotype threat is an essential factor because it does affect the portrayal of women in media (specifically in magazine advertisements) and that this is a serious issue because not only does it reflects society’s view of gender, but it also makes and reinforces particular cultural expectations of masculinity and femininity, in turn influencing gender identity.

In the media, women are often represented as sex objects. For this reason, it can be argued that women who are both old and young are taught to see themselves have nothing other than sexual value. In the documentary Killing Us Softly, Jean Kilbourne raises this issue about the sexualization of women being normalized in advertisements. This paper uses and analyzes advertisements that have been researched from four different countries; United States, Latin America, China and India. Using a variation of Bowen and Schmid’s (1997) coding scheme, the sexualization of women in advertisements is evaluated across four different regions. This paper will hypothesize that the values of each culture would affect how women were portrayed, and that the most sexualized ads would be in the United States and the least sexualized in Asia (China and India), with Latin America falling in the middle.

Literature Review

In the article Fashioning Gender Identity, Cahill (1989) primarily focuses on how an industry has been built on defining ways to attain a standard of beauty, where beauty has been commoditized. Where in today’s world media has a large influence on society, portraying what ‘beautiful’ is and that only the ‘beautiful’ succeed. In this article, Cahill also states how “parents and other caregivers in our society silently announce their infants’ sex-class identities” (p. 102.) exhibiting how society constructs gender roles from early on. This is useful for the inquiry because it could show that the way Media portrays gender, influences parents to construct gender roles and raise their children and treat them in a particular way.

An article by Mastin, Coe, Hamilton, and Tarr (2004), primarily displays how a content analysis of over 14000 adverts fail to portray woman as capable. The findings consisted of women making purchase decision for products that associate with homes and children, or products that associate with themselves. This automatically subjects them and influences society to the idea of women’s traditional roles, and portrays them as incapable to make decisions on a wide range of product purchase. This further supports the relation of portrayal of gender and stereotypical threat and woman in this case are portrayed and subjected to traditional roles depicting the idea that ‘woman belong at home’ or ‘aren’t as capable as men’.

The link between media portraying gender in a stereotypically way is also explored in Valdrova’s (2001) article which argues that media and journalists portray gender in a stereotypical way through their lack of knowledge. In this study, Media statements were used to testify to gender incorrectness through expressions like “man the hunter”, and posing questions like “is bodybuilding good for women?” further ingraining the traditional role or perceptions of males and females, influencing the idea of what the roles of males and females should look like through choice of language. The choice of language for these expressions associate certain roles for each gender. For instance, questioning whether bodybuilding is good for women gives society the idea even if they haven’t it before, that it’s not or that its uncommon. Thus the choice of language used in magazine advertisements sells ideas of normalcy and values to society. And this is essential as it affects the way men and women think not only about themselves but about each other as well.

In Courtney and Lockeretz’s (1971) research, only 12% of workers shown in all the ads were female. Furthermore, in the advertisements studied, women were portrayed as being at home or with other women. Those that smoked, drank, drive in cars or travelled did so with men’s company. This also further reflects the stereotype that ‘a women’s place is at home’ or ‘women are dependent on men’.

Another study that explored gender messages in parenting magazines also performed a content analysis, conducted by Spees and Zimmerman (2002). They found that 38.1% of the articles were gender stereotypical, showing how stereotypes of gender have in fact improved and evolved over time but still exist. Moreover, one of the essential findings within the gender stereotypical articles was that traditional gender myths such as appearance is important for girls (54.2%) and that boys are stronger or more athletic than girls (41.7%) were also supported. Data also depicted that these magazines were targeted towards mothers despite their names. This further supports the gender stereotypes that exist including that parenting is a maternal responsibility, which further succumbs to the stereotype that mothers are the only essential caregivers that should uphold the responsibility of children.

All this previous research supports that media portrays gender in a particular way, specifically a stereotypically way showing that ‘stereotype threat’ does affect the portrayal of gender in media. As media is a large influence, the way they portray these images and articles not only sell products or values, but also sell concepts of normalcy, acting as a socializing agent, telling people what they should aspire to be as well as perpetuate the idea that people should conform and live up to social norms that have been socially constructed. This impacts society mostly in a negative way because even if people don’t have an idea of a product or something in particular, it impacts their reality, and their viewpoints of the world by portraying that product or value in a particular way. The media can skew our perceptions of what is good and bad or of what is right and wrong, influencing people on how things should be rather than telling them how they already are.

Furthermore, A conclusion that multiple studies have come to is that, “Sex sells” (First, 1998; Firth, Cheng, Shaw, 2004). Unfortunately, women are often the selling point when it comes to sex in advertisements. This appeal of objectifying and sexualizing women is explained in Laura Mulvey’s (1999) piece, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in which Mulvey discusses the increasing trend of scopophillia - deriving pleasure from looking – in the media. Mulvey explains how our society is living in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, in which the pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. “The woman is an icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified”, explains Mulvey (1999). Women are merely used as sexual objects, and the woman herself carries no importance other than to serve as pleasure for her male counterparts. A study even found that “when men look at photos of nearly nude women, their pupils open wide, which in turn makes men more attentive to visual stimuli of any sort (Hawthorn, 2012). With this, it’s no wonder that sex sells. Reichart (2002) made a similar point, remarking that sex in advertising “has a relative advantage at attracting attention to the ad,” and attention is just what every company wants when they put out an advertisement. Commercials are even targeted toward certain demographics to appeal even more to those viewers (Coltrane & Messineo, 2000).

It’s been shown through the Social Cognitive Theory that with “...repeated, simple, and rewarded messages that typify television ads, viewers can and do learn from what they see in the media” (Bandura, 1986; Bandura, 2002). So what’s wrong with this combination of selling sex in advertisements by objectifying women and the impact these ads have on our cognition? It is and will affect women’s views of themselves as well as other people’s views of women.

More women are objectified in advertisements than men (Monk-Turner, et al., 2008). Additionally, “media images provide a diffuse confirmation of one’s worldview, promot[ing] acceptance of current social arrangements, and reassure[ing] people that things are the way they ought to be” (Coltrane Messineo, 2000). When women’s bodies are presented in ads and these bodies have been photoshopped and sexualized, young girls see this and assume this is the way they should look and that this is okay for companies to use in their advertisements. There is so much emphasis on the female body and what it should look like. Fouts and Burggraf ( 2000) stated that, “The observation of self-reinforcement associated with body shape and weight may give young viewers the messages that… in the case of negative self-statements, that it is acceptable to denigrate oneself based upon how one appears physically.” This exposure to unrealistic body images leaves young girls with a false expectation for their own bodies. This is detrimental to young girls’ self-worth and self-esteem.


For this paper, data was gathered through two primary sources: digital print and commercials. Before looking for the advertisements, there was a division of four different areas: U.S.A., Latin America, China and India. A set of digital print advertisements ranging from around six to ten advertisements and a set of commercials ranging from three to seven advertisements were collected. A coding scheme was devised where if the focal point of the advertisement, either in digital print ads or commercials, was considered more ‘taboo’ or racy, it was rated higher. The coding scheme was loosely based on a variation of Bowen and Schmid’s (1997) coding scheme.

For example, if an advertisement’s focal point was on a woman’s assets, specifically being her breasts, the advert was rated higher than if the focal point was the woman’s face (See Appendix Figure 1. for scale). After having collected all the advertisements from each of the areas, they were compiled and coded according to the scheme that was designed. It was proposed that advertisements that focused on women in Asia would be featured in a more conservative manner, whereas advertisement that focused on women in the United states would be featured in a more sexual manner. Specifically, it was indicated that women would be sexualized the most in the United States and sexualized the least in Asia. Sexualized, in this case, referred to how risqué we considered the body part shown.


General Results

When looking at the advertisements as a whole, it could be seen that women were sexualized in all the four focused geographic areas, but the ways in which this was displayed varied depending on each location. In congruence with the hypothesis, the United States was the place with the most sexualized advertisements in terms of content as a whole. This, however, did not match up when just looking at the numbers in the coding scheme of part of the body shown, because in terms of the area with the most “very sexual” advertisements, in other words with the most advertisements scoring “4s,” Latin America actually had more than the United States. However, when upon further analysis of the advertisements, the ones from the United States were more blatantly sexual, showing women in more suggestive positions and with textual innuendos. Additionally, more women were objectified by not having their faces as their focal feature of the ad, and instead encompassing the woman in a certain way that made us see them as objectified.

It was also seen that women tended to be sexualized more in advertisements for certain types of products. In all four areas, women were being sexualized in advertisements for hygienic products like shampoo or deodorant. Similarly this was also a trend with alcohol, with the most common one being beer.

In terms of where these advertisements were displayed, it was very interesting to see how a big part of the advertisements that were found were on the covers of women’s fashion magazines like Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Glamour, that explicitly illustrated women being sexualized. Apart from this, it was also noticed that the advertisements in India did not support the hypothesis, and instead actually had very similar body parts shown as the ones in the United States (See Appendix).

This incongruence between the collectivistic values that was attributed to India and the sexualization of advertisements that was seen could be due to the increasing westernization of Asian countries and the modernization of the younger population. This is interesting because in China these results were not shown. In fact, in China it was really difficult to find sexualized advertisements because even the ones in which women were shown wearing less conservative clothing, they were often put in power poses rather than demeaning poses.

United States of America

Of the fourteen advertisements analyzed from the USA, seven had butt, breasts, or genitals as the focal point. Four of the advertisements focused on a woman’s legs, while only three focused on the woman’s face, hands, or feet. While no advertisements showed the woman’s whole body, the vast majority of the USA’s ads focused on butt, breasts, or genitals, which were coded as very sexual and assigned a score of four. In five of the fourteen advertisements, the woman’s face was not even shown. All that was visible of her were her legs, butt, or breasts. In regard to the presence of men in the advertisements, seven of the USA ads had men with the women. Of these seven with men involved, three of them show a power dynamic in which the man has more power. For example, in one ad, the woman (whose face is cut out of the ad) is laying on her stomach and the man is sitting up right with his hand on her butt.

In five of the ads there was a textual innuendo that gave a sexual meaning to ads that were either visually tame or already visually sexual. For example, one of the ads was for American Apparel and involved a young woman laying down with her legs spread open with only a body suit on. The text accompanying this ad said, “Now Open.” Another example was an advertisement for insurance. The ad included only a woman’s legs with her jean shorts dropped to her ankles. The text said, “No one drops them like we do,” referring to the low prices for insurance.

Latin America

Latin America was the country with the most sexualized ads in terms of the most “4s” in our coding scheme of body parts shown. Eleven out of the thirteen advertisements showed either breast, butt, or genitals as the focal point. However, there was no textual innuendo that accompanied these images and, often times, women would not be placed in demeaning poses but rather they were shown standing up with a hand on their hip, mimicking a power pose. The way in which they were dressed often only emphasized one feature, being that their breasts in a V-neck top or their legs in a shorter dress. The most scandalous clothing that they were wearing consisted of a see through piece with lace, or stars covering the most sexual parts.

It is also worthwhile to note that out of the 13 advertisements, 7 contained both men and women. However, when men were present in the advertisement women were often either objectified or presented as submissive. In an Argentinian video ad for beer, the woman’s face never appears and the man continuously stares at her breasts, even when she is talking. The ad shows how the man doesn’t care about anything the girl is saying-- he just tunes her out while he stares at what really matters to him...her breasts. The ad objectifies the woman and brings forth the idea of women being valued for how they look and not what they know.


The thirteen advertisements we analyzed from China were not only the most conservative out of the total 50 advertisements, but were also the most empowering. Unlike the other countries we studied, it was actually hard to find Chinese advertisements in which the women were sexualized. The most sexual advertisements we found displayed girls legs or collar bones at most, however, these women were positioned in power poses unlike other countries models. A majority of the chinese advertisements were rated “1” and “2” on our coding scheme (See Appendix.) with rather innocent body parts, such as face, hands, feet, and arms being shown.

It was interesting to see that one of the advertisements -- a Vogue China magazine cover from 2012 -- we rated a “4” featured a caucasian woman dressed in mini shorts that revealed her butt cheeks. We found this interesting because none of the Chinese advertisements that featured Chinese women sexualized the models, but when it came to featuring a caucasian model there was noticeably more sexualization.

As for the other categories, a couple of which we decided to code as “Is there a man?” and “Type of Clothing”, the results from Chinese advertisements differed from that of the United States, Latin America, and India. With only 4/13 advertisements containing men (30%), China had the least advertisements with men in them compared to other countries. The Chinese advertisements also had the most conservative clothing, with women dressed in non-revealing dresses and business casual attire.


Of the thirteen advertisements we analyzed from India, six had butt, breasts, or genitals as the focal point. Three of the advertisements focused on a woman’s legs, while three focused on the woman’s face, hands, or feet. While no advertisements showed the woman’s whole body, the vast majority of India’s ads focused on butt, breasts, or genitals, which were coded as very sexual and assigned a score of four. It was intriguing to find that the advertisements from India were extremely similar to the ones in the United States, especially in terms of overall patterns in the coding scheme (See Appendix).

In the thirteen advertisements that were analyzed for India, we found that a lot of the digital commercials involved men, whereas a lot of the print commercials involved women without men. In fact, out of the thirteen advertisements, eight of the India ads had men with women, from which six of the eight were digital commercials.

This interaction between men and women in these ads could give way to potential power dynamics that portray men in a more powerful and dominant light relative to women. Of these eight with men involved, seven of them had a power dynamic in which the man was portrayed to be more powerful or dominant. For example, in one ad, women were in a vending machine indicating that they could be sold as objects. Their assets were highlighted, in particular their legs, while the man was outside the vending machine looking at them. The idea of women as objects was also reinforced by the fact that there was an ATM machine outside of the vending machine.

In the commercials, there were also textual innuendos that gave sexual meaning to ads that were almost always visually sexual. For example, at the end of one of the deodorant commercials, it said “just zatak her” which sounds very similar to ‘just attack her’. According to Cortese (2003), ads have used intimidation in a nonchalant way, where it has become “stimulating forerunners to intimate socializing” (p. 85). This is problematic as it is used in a way that is normalized and desensitizes the audience to the idea of violence, as well as the diminishment of women's’ wellbeing. In another ad for deodorant, there was text at the end that stated “wild stone, wild by nature”, implying that women would do anything and go wild in a sexual way for deodorant.

Conclusion and Discussion

In all regions studied, women were sexualized to some extent. However, it is interesting to see the differences in sexualization across these different cultures. The USA sexualized women more in their ads than China did. This could be due to the USA’s more individualistic culture versus China’s more collectivistic culture. In a more collectivistic culture, sexualization in advertisements may be less prevalent due to higher standards of modesty and respect among people in the society.

It is important to note a couple of limitations in the study. For one, the sample size of advertisements per region were only 13-14, which is small. In the future, it could be beneficial to collect many more advertisements for a much bigger sample size. Another limitation was the subjectivity of coding. When choosing what body part was the focal point of each ad, the researcher’s best judgement as to what attracts the eye first and how sexual these body parts should be considered was used. There was consultation with others not part of the project to code certain ambiguous ads, but there is still a high level of subjectivity when it comes to rating sexualization.

The findings could be a possible reflection of the sexist mentality many people around the world have toward women, as well as the reluctance to end this sexualization due to the success of selling sex. As many of the previous studies mentioned, this sexualization of women in advertisements can impact young, impressionable women causing a stand-still in any movements toward gender equality. Due to the more modest and empowering advertisements found in China, it’s possible that if the rest of the regions studied gain a more collectivistic way of life, women could benefit. Additionally, these differences among regions can promote intersectional feminism, allowing for different women to express their different needs as opposed to being pushed upon by only western, white feminism. It is hoped that this study can help point us all in the direction of gender equality, starting with a more critical view on how women are used in advertisements that we see each and every day.

Updated: Jan 25, 2024
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Stereotype Threat and a Cross Cultural Look at Sexualization of Women in Advertisements. (2024, Jan 25). Retrieved from

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