We need to be aware of how advertisers appeal to us, and we should think critically about the persuasive messages we encounter to ensure we are savvy, not passive, consumers. Because consumers purchase products with which they identify, it is important to examine the subtexts of advertisements as well as the role those subtexts play in determining what products men and women choose to associate with their personal identities.
The subtexts of a visual argument are closely associated with both intended audience and meaning. For example, a simple message such as, “You should buy this product,” means nothing without a subtext to clarify who “you” is, particularly in relationship to the product. Is “you” a 21st-century American woman? A 20th-century American woman? An American woman of the 1930s is a very a different “you” than one of, for example, the 2010s. The power of subtexts should not be underestimated: they reflect and influence the ways that men and women think about themselves and the ways that subliminal messages function in advertising.
Consider the following 2011 Dr. Pepper “Not for Women” commercial:
This ad has generated much controversy because of its clearly delineated audience. Why might advertisers restrict their audience to one gender? How is masculinity defined in this commercial? Also, see questions in the checklist below, and try to critically (not necessarily negatively, but thoughtfully) approach this ad.
Gender Subtexts in Ads: One Example—“The Homemaker Myth”
That Susie Sunshine belongs in the home instead of the workplace and that Johnny Sunshine isn’t and could never be a homemaker are ideas based on stereotypes. Consider laundry detergent advertisements: men are rarely shown doing the laundry. In most laundry detergent commercials, a mother is depicted as the official domestic caretaker, who lovingly rids her family’s clothes of grass and food stains. For some families, this may be typical. However, there are issues of gender role expectations at play in such advertisements.
Considering the Contexts of ADS: Male and Female Consumers then and Now
When analyzing an ad in terms of gender, it is certainly important to identify the ad’s intended audience. It is equally important to consider the ad’s publishing context. As definitions of femininity have evolved, commercials trying to sell products to women have changed—and the same goes for commercials advertising products for men. Consider the following sets of commercials: given what you know about the era in which each ad appeared, analyze the ad’s depiction of and appeals to male and female consumers.
ExampleS: Ads promoting Products for Men
2010 Old Spice “Questions” commercial:
1971 Old Spice commercial:
Examples: Ads promoting products for women
2012 Secret Outlast commercial:
1950s Camay Deodorant Soap commercial:
A Checklist for Analyzing Gender in Print Advertisements
- Context: What is the context for the ad’s publication? Where did it first appear—on television, on the radio, on the Internet, or in print? What magazine or online site is it published at? If applicable, where is/was the original billboard located? How would readers/viewers see or have seen this ad?
- Audience: Who is the intended audience for this ad?
- Product: What is the ad trying to sell? Can you identify it at first glance? The primary function of a visual advertisement is to sell a specific product, service, or idea: Is the product prominently displayed? Or, is it less noticeable than other aspects of the advertisement?
- People: Who is pictured in the ad? Are the models male or female?
- Roles: What roles appear to have been assigned to the models? Are the roles stereotypical?
- Appearance: What type of clothing are the models wearing? Do they appear to be wearing makeup? How is their hair styled? Does their overall ensembles reflect the product well—why or why not? Does the ad suggest that people who purchase the advertised product will look like the models in the ad?
- Body position: Are the models sitting or standing? Where are they in relation to the other elements of the ad? If there is more than one individual pictured in the ad, consider their positions in relation to one another. Does one model’s body position seem inferior or superior to the other’s? What relationship does he or she have with the product being advertised?
- Body language: What are the models’ postures? Are they standing straight and tall, leaning against something, sitting down, or hunching over? Where are their arms? How are their heads positioned? Is there a clear emotion being conveyed by either of the models’ body language? If both male and female models are featured in the ad, consider their body language toward one another. Based on body language, can you make any assumptions about the relationships between the male(s) and female(s) represented in the ad?
- Movement: Is there explicit action or movement in the ad? Implied action or movement?
- Gaze: Are the models’ eyes visible in the ad? If so, are they downcast? Looking out at the audience? Locked on another model? Focused on the product the ad is trying to sell? If they are not visible, are they obstructed or covered by the product? Or, is a model’s face cut out of the ad entirely?
- Subtexts: What are the underlying arguments or assertions of the ad? That men should pursue women aggressively? That women should pursue men aggressively? That women should be passive? That women should be mothers? That men should be family-oriented? That men should work in the professional business world? Look for subtexts that both support and refute traditional gender stereotypes.
- Written language: Is there text in the ad? If so, is the text informational? Does it directly relate to the product? Does it contain a slogan or catchphrase? Something else? What level of language is used? Slang? Jargon? Can it be interpreted in multiple ways?