Stereotypical Portrayals of Gender Roles in Advertising

Every day, companies spend billions of dollars to market their products through commercials, magazine advertisements, billboards, and virtually any space they can occupy. Used as a persuasive tool, more and more advertisers are subtly injecting sexist stereotypes into their marketing campaigns, in a desperate attempt to sell a product. In a media propelled society; what effect does a derogatory message about gender have on the viewer? It’s easy to imagine an idealistic image of a man or woman negatively influencing feelings of self-worth.

Gender-infused media not only affects perceptions of self, but also attitudes towards masculinity, femininity, relationships, power, dominance, and overall, the ideal gender roles. The media floods society with advertisements and television programs that stereotypically portray gender roles in order to make a profit by selling an unrealistic, yet desirable image.

The typical advertisement features either a product or service that seems appealing, coinciding with an image that companies want consumers to buy into. For example, an advertisement that features a broad shouldered, muscular man holding a glass of a certain brand of vodka, surrounded by half-naked women is going to insinuate that those women are attainable by buying the vodka brand.

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Advertisements like this will instill false truths into the public, and as shapeable as America is; the media will consequentially manipulate attitudes towards masculinity in this way. At least stereotypical advertisements don’t single out just men: A commercial advertising a casserole dish features an aproned woman, smiling uncontrollably as she removes the perfect, steaming casserole from the oven.

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Why is the woman always the person cooking in these commercials? How often do commercials feature a man in front of the oven? I cannot remember ever seeing one, unless it’s at a grill — a man’s oven. Is the man at work providing for his family? The media would suggest so, or maybe he’s out drinking vodka with the half-naked women.

Through these stereotypical and desirable images, advertisers imply that men are to be macho, muscular, sole breadwinners, and women are to be the stay-at-home mothers,homemakers, and caretakers for the children. These messages are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in today’s media, and are playing a pivotal role in shaping the public’s perception of masculinity and femininity. For example; virtually all pickup truck ads feature a middle aged man, usually donning a cowboy hat and hauling massive logs or trailers. The man will be tall, gruff, and will have some facial hair. He will be either driving through a field, or driving up his long gravel driveway to his farmhouse. One thing will be constant; the driver of the truck will be a man. When has a woman ever been behind the wheel in a truck advertisement? Has there ever been a commercial showing a woman pulling into Walmart and getting her toddlers out of their car seats? Surely women also buy and drive trucks in America. Why are trucks being marketed only to men? This is an example of advertisements stereotyping men as the only people who drive trucks, and is implying that men should be gruff and rugged country men. Not only are truck advertisements stereotyping the gender of their customer, but they are also presenting ideals of what a man should be, almost as if to be worthy of driving a truck.

It’s no secret that children are taught about gender roles as well, and from a startling young age. Newborns leave the hospital bundled in either blue or pink; they are defined into either masculinity or femininity before they can even talk. As they develop as children, they are taught how to act, talk, walk, dress, sit, or stand by exterior influences, usually through parents, guardians, and other close figures in the child’s life. These teachings are determined by the child’s gender, and throughout their upbringing, they are told to “Be a big boy!” or “Act like a young lady!”. I know I was.

My mother would always tell me to start acting like a big boy in situations where  Iwould be upset, especially when I was causing a scene out in public. Instead of taking the encouraging approach, my father would sometimes just tell me to stop acting like a little girl.I began school, my parents were always teaching me the differences between how big boys and young ladies act, giving me my first lesson on gender constructs whether they knew it or not. How does a “big boy” or “young lady” act? Well, the media seems to know a thing or two about that. Children’s toy advertisements are almost never unisex. Commercials advertising toy trucks, dirtbikes, and action figures always show boys playing with them. The media saves the “indoor toys” for the young girls; they are shown in the make-up, dress-up, Barbie and Easy Bake oven commercials. I was always given the “boy” toys when I was a young child, and I remember being told that dolls, dress-up and “those” toys were for girls. I was never allowed to play with “girl toys”, not that I had a desire to anyway. I soon began to wonder what made a toy a “boy toy” or a “girl toy”. Was it because girl toys were pink, and boy toys weren’t? At the age of eight, that’s what I concluded. When the issue would be brought up in school, I soon discredited my earlier conclusion. I still wondered what determined that certain things belonged exclusively to boys or girls, including the way toys are produced and marketed. Are toy companies trying to give them a head start in life for the roles they will fill as an adult, or simply to “start them young”? That is most likely not the case. Instead, in an attempt to make a profit, the media begins to shape children’s perception of what it means to be a boy, or a girl; however, this puts them on the fast track to being chained to the gender ideals of society as they mature into adolescence and adulthood.

As children approach teenage years, they are bombarded by a new breed of aggressive advertising. Male and female adolescents are the targets of sexually charged advertisements that especially pressure teen girls into the idea that sexual activity is the only way to get attention from guys, the only way to be beautiful and sexy, or sadly — the only way to be worth anything. They are the prey to provocative advertisements that show adolescent girls in tight fitting, sexually suggestive clothing in even more suggestive body positions. Some advertisers take this method to the next level by adding elements of dominance and power through the inclusion of violence. Women are almost always portrayed as objects of sexual pleasure in these advertisements. They show women dressed provocatively in positions where a man has control and dominance over them, and this is dually effective in not only selling a false ideal of women, but also in redefining social perceptions of masculinity, femininity, male-female relationships, power, and sex.

Media such as this sexually objectifies and affects both males and females by implying false ideals, teaching women to dress less to impress, and submit themselves to men because they are dominant and have power over them. In Jean Kilbourne’s essay, “Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt: Advertising and Violence”, she discusses how even the most subtle messages of advertisements affect society in profound and potentially damaging ways. She explores the effects of violent and sexually charged advertisements, and mentions that “Male violence is subtly encouraged by ads that encourage men to be forceful and dominant, and to value sexual intimacy more than emotional intimacy.” (Kilbourne 457). This is exceedingly true in today’s advertisements; violent and sexist advertisements are sending implications of false gender ideals. Though the public might think they see right through these ideas, these ads are subtly affecting the attitudes and actions of both male and female viewers. After viewing these sexually dominant advertisements, men are fueled mentally and are often triggered to act forceful and dominant. Men can also begin to subconsciously exhibit dominant sexual behavior during intimacy; this can be through physical violence, or emotional detachment. This is an example of the power that advertisements can have on human behavior, even in the slightest way.

Through this type of advertising, women are encouraged that their self-worth is tied to their appearance, and subsequently tied into their ability to be wanted, satisfying the ideal image of a female. I can recall numerous instances during my middle school years when I witnessed other girls associating their self-worth to their appearance. By the end of my seventh grade year, I noticed several times when girls were crying to their friends because the boy they liked wouldn’t notice them. Many of them blamed it on a “weight problem” or because their jeans weren’t tight enough to turn heads. I have always been confused by the idea of girls blaming the most insignificant factors of their appearance for a lacking love life I later began to realize that companies have been using sexually charged advertisements to capitalize on these fallacious ideas. Sexual and dominant media also influences men, giving them the false impression that they are irresistible and superior to females, and that buying a product, or imitating false gender roles as seen on television will trigger these “truths” into becoming a reality. This new form of profit-seeking, objectifying, and degrading propaganda aims to sell a false image of self-worth that companies want teenagers to think is attainable by buying into a brand or product. The teenage years are a highly vulnerable time for both males and females; they are old enough to make most decisions themselves, but young enough to fall into foolish and imprudent behavior. This is what enables companies to succeed in selling sexual and desirable images to young audiences.

Advertisements such as these objectify men just as much as they do women. A recent television commercial advertising Kmart’s holiday deals on Joe Boxer undergarments, features six, fairly muscular men singing Christmas carols behind a table. The table is removed revealing that the men are only wearing Joe Boxer underwear from the waist down. This is when the men begin to shake their genitals in coordination with the bell chimes of “Jingle Bells”. Entitled “Show Your Joe”, this commercial received moderate criticism on the basis that it was inappropriate and sexually themed. This commercial is a prime example of an advertisement that not only objectifies men sexually, but also presents an “ideal” image that men are to fit a certain body type and look a certain way to be manly.

Portraits of “manliness” are frequently forged by these advertisements, and imply that one might not be a true man unless they fit certain criteria. In Harvey Mansfield’s essay, “The Manliness of Men”, he compares the traditional traits of masculinity, or manliness, to modern examples in society. He also exposes and analyzes feminist attitudes towards masculinity, and states that “Though the word is scarce in use, there is an abundance of manliness in action in America today. Young males still pick fights, often with deadly weapons. What we suffer from today, is a lack of intelligent criticism of manliness.” (Mansfield 451). This is acutely applicable to today’s advertisements portraying the male gender, though it is usually a strategically contorted version. Companies try to define what it means to be a “man” by exploiting an image of a man, maybe fighting or holding a gun, to pressure men into fitting this so-called ideal, and that would imply that someone would need to purchase this product almost as if to really become a true man. It is a troubling thought that someone would need to turn to material items to feel comfortable with who they are, however America seems to be plagued by this mindset. Manliness is publicized in many different forms in today’s media. Advertisements are portraying men solely as dominant, powerful, sexually deviant and often sexually objectified beings, although this is not what “manliness” is, contrary to what many advertisers would want consumers to believe. Companies often unintelligently extract segments of male behavior, and try to pass it off as manliness to satisfy their marketing scheme. Yes, men still get into fights and shoot people, but it would be a tragedy if advertisers were successful in instilling the false idea into the public that sex, dominance, and violence are the qualities of a man. This is another troubling reminder that gender roles are still alive and well in today’s mainstream media, exposing false ideas and provocative images to people of all ages. What will this teach young children about gender after their cartoons cut to commercial? The answer is grim, and the result is a impaired start to the learning process about one’s self, in addition to the perception of others and the many divisions that unfairly classify people.

The sad truth about gendered advertising is that by using images of differentiation, vulnerability, dominance, power, sex, sexism, and subtle messages, advertisers are able to manipulate the minds of the public, as well as attitudes towards a brand or product, in which they hope viewers will buy into. Men are portrayed as tall, serious, alert, physically moving, conscious, and with great nonchalance. Women however, are portrayed as touchy, sensual, playful, unaware, childlike, sexually themed and seductive, and usually in positions of limited mobility, with arms held close to their body. These obvious differences lead the way for advertisers to roll out the big stuff, where false images and ideals of gender roles, often laced with lethal amounts of sex, violence, dominance, and controversy, are used to confuse and manipulate viewers just long enough for them to reach for their credit cards. Gender-infused media floods society with advertisements and television programs that stereotypically portray gender roles in order to make a profit by selling an unrealistic, yet desirable image.

Unfortunately, this manipulative practice shows no sign of stopping, and will likely continue to evolve exponentially.

Works Cited

  1. Kilbourne, Jean. “Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt: Advertising and Violence.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. Sixth Ed. Gary Columbo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 455-474. Print.
  2. Mansfield, Harvey. “The Manliness of Men.” Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing.Seventh Ed. Gary Columbo, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 450-453. Print.

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Stereotypical Portrayals of Gender Roles in Advertising. (2021, Sep 11). Retrieved from

Stereotypical Portrayals of Gender Roles in Advertising

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