Gender-differentiated production features in toy commercials.

Author:Chandler, Daniel

Television viewers are not normally conscious of the formal features of television commercials such as camerawork, editing, and sound-tracks (see, for instance, Messaris, 1994, p. 158). Commercials, like the television programs which exist to support them, still tend to follow the classic Hollywood tradition of "invisible editing"--it is the represented action which is meant to be foregrounded rather than the formal conventions involved in the process of representation. Our own current concern is with gender differentiation in the use of formal features in children's commercials. Existing academic research into the production features of television advertisements for children has concentrated on their role in attracting and maintaining attention or on their interpretative importance for children (see, for instance, Bryant & Anderson, 1983; Chandler, 1997; Meyer, 1983; Salomon, 1981). Whilst the content of television ads has been widely studied in relation to gender issues, there is relatively little published research on differences in the "formal features" of children's commercials in relation to the gender of the primary audience targeted. Yet at least to some extent "the medium is the message": even more than in other televisual genres, the form or style of an advertisement is richly meaningful, and ad-makers routinely link this to gender connotations (Messaris, 1997, xv).

The only study we are aware of which has focused on formal features of the medium as gender-differentiated markers in children's commercials was conducted in the late 1970s by a group of researchers affiliated with the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children (CRITC) at the University of Kansas. Welch et al. (1979) undertook content analysis of 20 toy commercials in each of three categories: male, female, and `neutral'. Among other things, they found that markedly different production techniques were employed for the boys' and girls' advertisements studied. The boys' ads, along with those directed at a mixed audience, had higher cutting rates than ads directed at girls. The ads directed at girls used more dissolves. In addition, voices in mixed audience and boys' ads were largely male; female voices were largely limited to female commercials. Verna (1975) had previously reported a similar male dominance in this respect, finding that 100% of both male-oriented and neutral ads had a male audio track and that even in female-oriented ads 55% had male audio. British studies have also reported male dominance of voice-overs in commercials in general (Livingstone & Green, 1986; Manstead & McCulloch, 1981). Whilst the percentage of female voice-overs increased in the 1970s and 1980s, as much as 80% of voice-overs in commercials are male (Fowles, 1996, pp. 208-9, 211; see also Bretl & Cantor, 1988).

We have not been able to find any published replications of the study by Welch et al. (1979), although some of the same research team have explored related developmental issues (Huston et al., 1984; Wright & Huston, 1983). Although the original study was only small-scale, it has subsequently been widely cited. If particular formal features of commercials are gendered in the ways which the authors suggest then such findings are important. Related studies by the CRITC research group have shown that at the same time as children are learning to read the semiotic codes of television they are learning that such codes are gender-differentiated. Young viewers use the formal features of the medium (as well as content cues) to determine whether they are designed for them or not (Wright & Huston, 1983). Children as young as 6-years-old can distinguish ads targeted at males from those aimed at females by their distinctive formats and visual styles (Huston et al., 1984). The gender-differentiated use of formal features is often associated with stereotypically gendered content in commercials--and this is likely to be how children initially learn the gender connotations of such features. However, there is empirical evidence that even when content is neutral such production features can generate these gender connotations relatively autonomously.

Alongside many other socialization factors, regular exposure in childhood to commercials which are sex-typed in style as well as in content may help to establish gendered preferences for particular stylistic traits such as a stereotypical masculine taste for a rapid cutting style. Along with content cues, rapid cutting and the shorter duration of shots may also support a masculine self-image which is more action-oriented, whilst the salience of dissolves and longer shot lengths may tend to encourage an acceptance of the stereotypical association of women with passivity. The stylistic modes of address employed in advertisements may thus be a contributory factor in the gendering of tastes in televisual material, the cultural framing of activity versus passivity and perhaps also particular styles of viewing (Fiske, 1987; Morley, 1986). Findings to date cannot, of course, be taken as evidence for such speculations, but rather generate such questions for further research.

In designing our own study as a follow-up and extension to that of Welch et al. (1979), we predicted that the situation would be different in the UK twenty years on from the American study. There has been an increase in public and professional awareness and critical consciousness of gender stereotyping in the mass media since the growth of the women's rights movement and subsequent critical media literacy initiatives (Baehr & Dyer, 1987), and even the conservative world of advertisements has witnessed changes in gender representation (Fowles, 1996, p. 211). As for production features, data from the analysis of narrative film has shown that cutting rates have steadily increased over the decades (Salt, 1983; Crisp, 1987) and that non-linear, electronic editing seems to have led to even more rapid cutting (Brandt, 1994). In 1993 one US source cited an average shot-length of 1.6 seconds on MTV videos and 2.3 seconds in 30-second commercials, again reflecting a general increase in cutting rate (MacLachlan & Logan, 1993). A general tendency towards faster cutting has also been subjectively noted by television producers. Often, rapid cutting in television programs is blamed on the influence of commercials (Postman, 1986).

In addition to these situational differences from the original US study, regulatory differences between the US and UK might lead us to anticipate the possibility of differing findings from studies of commercials, although UK regulation does not extend to the formal features in which we are interested (ITC, 1998). In Britain, the content, timing, and total amount of television Commercials is strictly regulated (Hart, 1990; ITC, 1998; Jefkins, 1992): for instance, there is a clear break between programs and ads and sales messages cannot be included within programs. In the UK, programs on commercial channels are provided by regional contractors, not by advertisers--although since 1991 there has been regulated sponsorship of some programs (Jefkins, 1992, p. 169). In both countries the standard duration of a commercial is 30-seconds, although ads are occasionally longer (up to 60 seconds), and it is notable that shorter ads are being increasingly used (Condry, 1989, pp. 180ff; Myers, 1999, p. 124). The most obvious difference is that in Britain commercials appear less frequently than in the US--ads can be shown only in three specified time-slots per hour, the duration of each of these slots being three or four minutes. An American-born researcher living in Britain notes that "the ads in the US Superbowl alone would use up the allowance for 24 hours" (Myers, 1999, p. 117).


The purpose of the current study was to investigate toy commercials broadcast recently on UK television to check for gender-differentiation in the use of specific formal features. We drew up a series of investigable predictions based on a review of the literature. Those explored in this paper are as follows:

* More shots are likely to be used within each advertisement aimed at boys and consequently the average duration of each shot is shorter.

* More dissolves are likely to be used in advertisements aimed at girls.

* More male than female voice-overs are likely to be used overall, even in advertisements for girls.

Most of the existing findings regarding gender-differentiated formal features in commercials referred to post-production features (editing and voice-overs), so we also decided to look for any differences regarding camerawork, specifically shot sizes (long shots, mid-shots, and close-ups), camera angles (high, low, level, overhead), camera movement (panning left and right, pedestalling up and down, tilting up and down) and lens movement (zooming in and out)--features which have been referred to in research into children's comprehension of televisual techniques (e.g. Bryant & Anderson, 1983; Meyer, 1983; Salomon, 1981).

The next stage was to select a number of advertisements that could be classed as being intended specifically for children. Toy commercials were selected, because relatively little attention has been paid to them in the past, despite the fact that play is an integral part of childhood and the development of the self. Recordings were made of the advertisements broadcast on the HTV Wales channel (a regional version of ITV) between 7.00 a.m. and 9.30 a.m. on a number of Saturdays from the beginning of November to the middle of December 1996. Saturday mornings were targeted both for reasons of convenience and because there tends to be a greater number of advertisements aimed at children at this time (Condry, 1989, p. 203). Toys are well-known to be advertised most heavily in the months leading up to Christmas (Barcus, 1977, p. 120; Condry, 1989, pp. 188-9), and other researchers have chosen to study toy commercials during...

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