Adolescent evaluation of gender role and sexual imagery in television advertisements.

Author:Rouner, Donna

American television advertising uses sophisticated means to present technically and artistically polished presentations that offer a charmed lifestyle for viewers and consumers of advertised products. In the case of beer commercials, these images encourage the desire for a lifestyle that involves a product that is illegal for the underage audience. They may also support perceptions of gender roles that are limited and potentially destructive for young people.

Gendered and sexual images of ads are well documented (Bretl & Cantor, 1988; Goffman, 1979; Gunter, 1995; Joliffe, 1989; Reichert, Lambiase, Morgan, Carstarphen, & Zavoina, 1999). Males tend to be presented in sports and professional activity contexts, savoring freedom and adventure. Traditionally, females are portrayed either in relation to males, as spouses and homemakers, or in relation to children, as parents and homemakers. While females might be portrayed as manipulable and submissive, males appear powerful and authoritative, frequently in protagonist roles, announcers, or voice-overs. Ads shown during sports programming, some with sports content, illustrate these differences (Courtney & Lockaretz, 1971; Hall & Crum, 1994; Livingstone & Green, 1986; Schwarz, Wagner, Bannert, & Mathes, 1987).

Ads routinely depict females, and more recently males (Reichert et al., 1999), as sexual objects where nudity or lurid angles and scans of body parts are frequently employed (Archer, Iritani, Kimes, & Barrios, 1983; Bem, 1993; Courtney & Whipple, 1983; Hall & Crum, 1994; Kilbourne & Lazarus, 1987; Kilbourne & Wunderlich, 1979; Sullivan & O'Connor, 1988). Implicit sexual ads, such as body shots used to sell undergarments, cologne, clothing, cars, and power tools, are also common on television (Cohen, 1981; Kilbourne & Wunderlich, 1979). Beer ads portray a male universe with traditional gender role images featuring the ultra-masculine male who engages in physical labor, outdoor recreation, and barroom drinking. He remains cool, calm, and detached from females who provide little more than decoration (Postman, Nystrom, Strate, & Weingartner, 1988). These ads may lack references to responsible decision-making behaviors about gender role and sexuality (Cope & Kunkel, 1999; Greenberg & Buselle, 1994).

While underage alcohol consumption is increasing, and with a growing need to educate young people about healthy, responsible drinking behavior, researchers and policymakers are particularly concerned with adolescent exposure to beer advertising (Slater et al., 1997). Public officials and health campaigners are also concerned about sex in the media, particularly ads, pointing to startling increases in chlamydia, human papilloma virus, and herpes simplex among youth, as well as unwanted pregnancies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2000) and evidence of little knowledge and empowerment in sexual health decision making (Rouner & Lindsey, 2001). In addition, content analyses of gender role and sexual imagery are dated, with few studies on youth processing of sexual messages (Brown, 2000).

Given a need to focus on adolescents and sexual imagery on television, particularly beer ads, this study examines the content of beer commercials (with and without sports content) as well as non-beer commercials, presented during primetime sports and entertainment programming, as well as the adolescent audience's response and evaluation of this ad content. Learning more about television ads and about adolescent evaluations of those ads can facilitate a better understanding of how adolescents' thoughts and feelings might mediate persuasive message effects, such as message acceptance and attitude formation (Belch, 1982; Leigh, Rethans, & Whitney, 1987; Perloff, 1993; Rethans, Swasy, & Marks, 1986). Therefore, several exploratory research questions drive the content analysis of the advertisements:

RQ1: What reliable categorical distinctions about gender role and sexual portrayals can be derived from the analysis of prime-time television ads?

RQ2: What are the specific characteristics of beer versus non-beer ads with regard to gender role and sexual content?

This study combines two theoretical approaches that discuss how people seek out and respond to media messages like these advertisements: self-socialization and gender schema theories. Theories of self-socialization assume adolescents do not just directly model or adopt the behaviors of role models on television, particularly in advertising, but that they seek out information in an active manner in order to monitor their own behavior relative to others (Brown, 2000; Parsons, 1982; Walsh-Childers & Brown, 1993). Adolescents are believed to look for media models that reflect their own already developed notions about gender, with females preferring programs about relationships and interdependence, and males seeking models that are autonomous and independent (Walsh-Childers & Brown, 1993).

As identity achievement is a central developmental task of adolescence and young adulthood, gender role serves as a strong factor for the formation of identity, its development, and change. Intimate relationships are an important area of concern for young adults (Bosma, 1992), thus sex-role behavior and sexuality have a central place in adolescent and young adults' fantasies and overt behavior (Conger & Peterson, 1984; Regt, 1982). Further, adolescents likely seek out appropriate gender role and sexual media presentations, which match a model's gender to the advertised product's uses, are realistic and are not negatively stereotypical (Courtney & Whipple, 1983). Research on adolescent media consumption, such as rock music, suggests that young people look to the media messages for information about social role behavior, values, and beliefs (Rouner, 1990). Thus, processing of television advertising content may differ between males and females, based on different needs and interests according to life stages.

Gender is also assumed to play a major role in the distinct ways females and males store and process information about the self, social groups, and experiences. Gender schema theory argues that people learn, through socialization to the culture and in social discourse, to activate stored information which leads to differential processing of the same messages (Bem, 1981; Cantor & Mischel, 1979). Because schemas help direct the encoding and retrieval of information (Cantor & Mischel, 1979; Lingle & Ostrom, 1979), we would expect gender schema-based evaluations by television viewers. Gender schemas have been found to affect recall of ads (Gentry & Haley, 1984). There is little support for gender schema influence on attitudes, preferences, choice, and response latencies (Schmidt, Leclerc, & Dube-Rioux, 1988). However, adolescents may use gender schemas to perceive, attend to, store in memory, recognize, recall, and integrate information to quickly sort out and evaluate the messages they receive as important, salient, or useful. For example, Pearson (1992) found that, unlike males, adolescent females compared themselves to print ad female models, resulting in lowered levels of self-esteem.

Research studies on adult audiences have found that less traditional female role advertising portrayals are more effective and preferred by females than traditional presentations (Jaffe, 1991; Jaffe & Berger, 1994). Regarding sexual themes in advertising, females criticize commercials employing female models with strong sexual verbal innuendoes and explicit female nudity in print ads (Bello, Pitts, & Etzel, 1983), while males are found to be more energized and positive in their feelings about such ads (LaTour, 1990). Because traditional televised male portrayals tend to match male characteristics currently valued in American and other Western cultures (Bred & Cantor, 1988; Livingstone & Green, 1986), males may not be as concerned as females with gender role specifics or portrayals of males, even including nudity and sex. However, they may favor portrayals of sexually-provocative females, given their sexual curiosity. Although highly suggestive and revealing poses are found to attract attention, consumers have evaluated these ads as more offensive than other ads (Alexander & Judd, 1978; Baker, 1961; Courtney & Whipple, 1983; Steadman, 1969; Warwick, Walsh, & Miller Inc., 1981). However, if consumers infer congruency between the sex or nudity and a product's use, recall might increase (Baker & Churchill, 1977; Courtney & Whipple, 1983; Richmond & Hartman, 1982; Steadman, 1969; Tinkham & Reid, 1988). Ads that show a member of the opposite sex rather than a member of the same sex are often more favored (Baker & Churchill, 1977).

Extending the above findings to adolescents, female teens formulating their own identities might pay attention to the more modern gender role portrayals, or to the differences between traditional and nontraditional gender role presentations, perhaps comparing these to their own gender orientations. Adolescent males may demonstrate more positive evaluations of nudity. Males may be less interested in achieving an idealized body, or may exhibit this goal differently. For males, self-socialization may be directed toward content such as sports programming which contains a gendered ideal--the tough, competitive, and active sports idol. Males and females may view sports, as well as ads that occur within sports programming, differently according to their gender schemas and how these schemas influence self-socialization through media images.

By examining adolescents' cognitive responses, or thoughts that they write out in a free recall format after viewing an advertisement, this study can illuminate these gender differences believed to occur in information processing. Cognitive responses have been...

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