Thursday, September 08, 2005

Gender Stereotypes in Advertising: A Meaningless Rant

John Camm doesn't like advertising and offers a list of cliched 'rules' thereof:
"It's tiresome to see male characters in adverts who don't resemble anyone you know," he says. "But what's perhaps worse is the absolute reliance of advertising on its own regurgitated cliches."
Well, yeah. Though advertising isn't trying to represent life as it really is, but either trying to sell you a better one or use well-worn stereotypes as a shortcut to character development and narrative (it's hard to tell a story in 30 seconds). Advertising has a always seemed like a bit of a self-contained symbolic system to me (as is film and television, but perhaps to a lesser extent). His list seems pretty accurate though:

4. Mums are often harassed but NEVER depressed/unable to cope.

5. Any act of male stupidity (e.g. walking across a clean floor in muddy boots, putting the dog in the dishwasher, etc.) will be met with a wry smile, not genuine annoyance/anger.

14. Men are inherently lazy/slobbish; women are the reverse.

20. All women (except stay-at-home housewives) have interesting and enjoyable careers.
I've been reading (far too much) Judith Butler, who takes it as axiomatic that men have traditionally been associated with the mind and rationality and women with the body and materiality. If advertising reflects the prejudices of society, it would seem said prejudices have changed quite a lot. Women are still shown as more emotional (traditionally thought of as counter to reason) than men, but also more rational (because emotion and reason are no longer antithetical).

On the other hand, if the differing depictions of men and women reflect how each would like to see themselves, it would seem that men want to be dumb and laddish (probably true to an extent) and women want to be successful and sensible (also probably true). The truth is probably some combination of the two. It would be interesting to look at how men and women are portrayed when the ad is aimed at their own gender compared to when it's aimed at the opposite. I would suggest (and I'm simply pulling this out of my arse) that men are shown as laddish and slightly dumb regardless of the target-gender (both beer and cleaning-product ads) while women are shown as shallow whores in man-targeted advertising and successful uberfrauen in woman-targeted. I'm not sure what that says about the male gender, but it's probably not good - perhaps the depictions of us are right.
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