advertising Portrayal of women

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Women are beautiful, strong matriarchal beings with enormous societal significance. Women are collected and self-assured individuals who embody resolve, beauty, strength of will, and character. The modern lady is incomprehensible, with enormous depth, culture, and sophistication. Unfortunately, the media continues to fail to comprehend the modern woman's frame of mind and does not provide a genuine image of women and their role in society. When they fail to adopt new ideas and concepts in gender separation, the media continues to spread sexism, the most common type of discrimination, through advertising. Sexism in media can be seen in the portrayal of women in their traditional role as submissive, powerless and sometimes less intelligent beings ignoring the significant contribution they make to our societies. As a result, society practices separation of gender in various aspects of life, including employment, households, and sports, among others. It is evident that the portrayal of women, especially in television ads, has a negative effect on our perceptions towards women in our societies.

The term advertising has its origins from a Latin word "advertere" which loosely translates to "turn towards". In addition to being an act of communication, advertising also has a significant role to play in the construction of our identities (Li 62). Advertising is a major cultural factor which molds and reflects on our lives in the modern society. According to Moriarty (2002, p. 21), adverts "are ubiquitous, and an inevitable part of everyone's lives: even if you do not read a newspaper or watch televisions, the images posted over our urban surroundings are inescapable". They reflect our perceptions of the world and owing to their widespread have the ability to change our attitudes and beliefs. Adverts on television are especially more reaching as compared to the other forms of mass media. Television is powerful because it communicates to almost everybody with access, regardless of whether they are literate or not. They are also a favorite for advertisers as they allow them to promote their products to the audience in a brisk manner.

Since the 1920's, advertisers have used gender role division, depicting males as producers and females as consumers, to "justify their profession and raise it in the public eye" (Bartel-Bouchier as cited in Mohammadi 111). Advertisers use women to show that they are the ones who sell and at the same time are the ones who spend the most time selling goods. Bartel-Bouchier (as cited n Mohammadi 112) notes that even though teenagers dominant discretionary spending in the contemporary society "if we look at the overall purchase of consumer goods, we see that women control some 80 percent of the buying power". This is an assertion that has been repeated over and over such that society readily accepts it regardless of facts that would suggest otherwise. The theory of cultivation suggests that when people are repetitively exposed to certain images, they easily memorize them and do not question them (Gerbner et al. 182). Adverts on television, therefore, have the power to manipulate peoples' minds when adverts, depicting women in a certain way are run repetitively. Repetitive exposure to the same message leads to a situation whereby values, roles, and world views concerning certain issues are common (Gerbner et al. 10). Within this paper, the author applies a semiotics discourse to analyze one advert from the US and another from Iran to demonstrate how gender roles are constructed in television and how the shape perceptions and ideologies in society.

In the essay, The Rhetoric of Image Roland Barthes presents a typical model for analyzing adverts using a semiotic discourse (Barthes and Heath 32-51). According to Barthes, adverts have plain and hidden meaning that can be read by analyzing the symbols that are in the images used. Barthes semiotics theory suggests that an image or advert can be analyzed on the basis of the linguistic message, coded iconic message, and non-coded iconic message. A semiotics analysis involves observing so as to understand the message an advert portrays and the degree to which they influence ideological worldviews. TV commercials are unique in that they have to convey their message within a few minutes and therefore have to use well inspiring and serious images in order to persuade their audience. Consequently, commercials are a good example for analyzing how ideologies are represented in visual images.

Barthes semiotics theory works along the lines of two theoretical characteristics of "connotation and denotation, and the internal relations of the sign between the signifier and the signified" ( Roland Barthes in Barthes and Heath 39). The signified can be understood either through its denotation which is the meaning of the words or signals in the dictionary or what it denoted in the real world. The connotation, on the other hand, is the interpretive association that comes with the sign and is something that depends on the culture and context of the advert. In Barthes view, the connotation is the highest level of interpretation between the two, and he also determines that individuals who share a culture are likely to have similar connotations for certain signs. An image or advert can connote multiple meanings, depending on the viewer. Different people construct different meanings from the signs contained in an advert.

The use of semiotic analysis of the commercial for Chanel’s fragrance, Coco Mademoiselle featuring Keira Knightley, can be used to show the subversive manner in which male and female polarities are represented in the contemporary society. The objective of this ad is to market Chanel Company’s world-famous fragrance, Coco Mademoiselle, to a teenage audience. In this advert, the linguistic message is a denoted message whereby the main actor, Keira Knightley, seduces a photographer before she jumps on a motorbike and rides off into the sunset while the connoted message is the fragrance Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel company. Signs that represent the figurative message of the ad can also be found in the non-linguistic part of the commercial. Knightley gives the advert an urban feel when she appears on the boulevard of Paris wearing a stylish, light brown motorcycle riding jumpsuit (“Chanel Coco Mademoiselle”). The central character, Knightley, is portrayed naked, wearing a pearl necklace and is deliberately sheltered from a black bowler hat while wearing a white dress shirt. There is a large sign of the perfume significantly marked in the foreground. The words “coco mademoiselle” also appear in black to the right of the central character. This advert accentuates the flesh of the central character by use of light tone as well as what she is wearing and her body language (“Chanel Coco Mademoiselle”).. This advert likens the perfume to the actress- a feminine arousing, youthful and exciting aroma. This advert deals with the themes of gender, sex, beauty and desirability. Denotations and connotations are used to show the ideal woman who is attractive enough to dazzle a man just like Knightley dazzles the photographer. It propagates the ideology that unfit women are considered ugly, and women are expected to be attractive for men.

In another example, a popular advert promoting home appliances (an Apollon samovar ), on Iranian television features an obese man standing in front of the kitchen while his wife is in the kitchen, taking tea. The man is the central character in the commercial, whereby his obese appearance, gesture, and laughter are mean to create humor. The man then utters the words "what a great Apollon samovar" as he offers his wife some tea. The wife is standing near a samovar in with preceding scenes showing a variety of Apollon samovars in other kitchens.

The action in this advert takes place in a modern home. The commercial tries to defamiliarize one of the assumptions of a patriarchal division of labor where the task of cooking or tea making is for the female polarity. In most Muslim societies such as Iran, women usually serve their husbands tea, but this advert tries to marginalize this tradition and set the agenda of modernity. On the other hand, having the woman near the samovar and inside the kitchen continues the stereotype that a woman's place is the kitchen. This commercial implicitly refers to the role of women to their husbands i.e. making and serving them coffee in Iranian society by use of both tradition and humor. The man has a comical obese appearance and uses humorous gestures to show that making tea is inherently feminine so if a man does it, it becomes funny. This shows that, unlike women, men do not take housework seriously and it is just comical if they do housework. The discourse of this commercial, therefore, limits the role of females to kitchen duties and disregards other roles that women in the society undertake.

Although many Islamic societies have also opened up opportunities for women to participate in different areas of the modern socio-economic arena such adverts indirectly promote values that reinforce the traditional system of gender roles. Women today can be seen to play an active role in business, politics, academic jobs and various other professions traditionally reserved for men. However, the media continues to represent women’s role in the society in traditional fashion in most of the adverts. This results in contradictions between the developments in society and what is on the media. As a result, many people in the west have the misconception that women in Islamic nations are still restricted to the traditional gender roles.

As shown in the Chanel Coco Mademoiselle commercial, advertising mirrors the values and attitudes of the society. Women are objectified and are often used as commodities in television commercials. As Bartel-Bouchier (as cited in Mohammadi 109) notes, "Advertising is also gendered in that much of it addresses our physical sense of self, our knowledge of the world gained through our bodies. It addresses our need to articulate our social identities through our physical appearances". Males use female bodies to create a sense of identity and use the evident power of the female body to control people as well as objects. This can clearly be seen in commercials for other items such as automobiles, cigarettes, and alcohol. Quite the opposite of men, women work with and within their bodies. As Bartel-Bouchier (as cited in Mohammadi 116) puts it "the female body communicates not the woman's power over others, but her presence, how she takes herself. This, in turn, is reflected in the great emphasis on the decoration of the female body, achieved through fashion and cosmetics".

This creates the perception that women should always strive to charm the masculine heart. Girls from a young age become obsessed with caring for their physical appearance since they have been taught that "they must always be pretty in order to obtain love and happiness". These quotes demonstrate that advertising, especially TV commercials, is obsessed with gender and sexuality leading to the perception that women are commodities. Objectification of women in advertising exploits their sexuality by fragmenting their bodies and focusing only on her face, legs, hair, and breasts. As a result, in the exchange between a commodity and a female model in the advertising world, the woman also becomes a commodity. Women are portrayed as no more than sexual objects whose role is to excite the audience by showing off their body parts. Females are used on TV advertising to promote a broad range of commodities from food, cosmetics, clothes, men's shaving products and so forth.

When advertisers use celebrities and models in TV commercials, it has an impact on the psychology of other women as commercials affect the way they see themselves. Furthermore, teenagers are influenced by commercials that depict the perfect lady; beautiful, well dressed and attractive. There may be long lasting effects whereby some attempt to imitate what they have seen on television and quite often end up disappointed and dissatisfied when they are unable to afford the glamorous lifestyle represented to them.

It can, therefore, be argued that adverts not only help sellers promote their commodities, but their existence also plays a role in gender construction in addition to stimulating the audience to develop their interest by creating new meanings. All adverts are created by an addresser and are targeted at an addressee (the target audience) through the use of language (slogans and short texts) as well as visual tools. There are however those who are opposed to the view that the evolution advertising has had a negative effect on how people relate with an advert and construct meanings from ideas in the ad. There is no doubt that adverts have negative effects on existing gender stereotypes and also shape the lives of consumers to a certain level. A relevant example is the adverse effect ads have on the self-esteem of teenage girls who are constantly exposed to billboards and TV commercials of “flawless” women. Such ads manipulate women into buying the advertised products so as to have the same kind hair or skin.

Defenders of adverts, however, contend that not all advertising is meant to manipulate people into buying certain kinds of products because some adverts are based on social change and use true stories and images to influence positive change in the society and change people’s perceptions and behavior. They cite the examples of adverts raising awareness about the effects of smoking and drug abuse or the importance of healthy eating which are meant to shock the audience into healthy living.

However, it can be argued that adverts have been used as a tool for educating the masses and often times has been used to teach them “how to behave, and what to think, feel, believe, fear and desire- and what not to” (Kellner, Dines and Humez as cited in Piar Chand 4). These authors further argue that “The media teaches us to be men and women by influencing our choices of dressing, looks, what we consume and even how to interact with members of different social groups.” Therefore, when analyzing the effect of advertising on gender constructs, one must take into account how society has developed towards the culture of consumerism that is evident today. In addition to economic impacts, advertising also concerns the evolution of the individual within the advertising culture. Throughout its development, advertising has contributed to the construction of gender identities in society. The most relevant example that can be provided is the evolution of the image of women in society where a shift can be observed from male supremacy towards the emancipation of women. However, it is important that this evolution of gender identities is related to the relevant context. For instance, one would find a sexist advert from the 1950’s laughable because it is no longer relevant to the cultural context of the contemporary society. Also, as Barthes (in Barthes and Heath 36) argues, it is important, when analyzing the effects of advertising, to put into consideration the context. Some of the contexts to consider in analyzing an advert include; participants, the situation, language, music, inter-text, and music among others.

Despite the fact that women’s standing, as well as the roles they play, have changed in the modern society, advertising in media continues to portray them as submissive, less capable than men, and sometimes only as sexual objects. This has a huge impact on our perception of the women in our societies because media remains a powerful tool, especially in this information era. Media plays a crucial role in how we view various groups in our societies. With television being the most dominant among all media, its significance in representing and shaping attitudes cannot be underscored. Consequently, advertising which is among the most dominant genres in television has the ability to construct a secondary discourse about gender roles. Images of men and women are needed to help us better understand how people interact, as well as the ideologies and practices in a society. Advertising, therefore, plays a significant role in constructing gender roles. Furthermore, advertising when done through an effective medium has been known to boost ideologies in the society. The ideologies are seen through the images that influence the consciousness of the viewers and also affect their inner perceptions. Since ideologies are readily accepted and most often go unnoticed, it is a hard task to alter them or even go against them.

Works cited

Bartel-Bouchier, Diane L. in “Critical Analysis of Women’s Representation in TV Advertisements from a Cultural Studies Perspective” International Journal of Women‟s Research 1 (2011) 107- 122. Web.

Chanel Coco Mademoiselle YouTube , N.p March 8, 2011. Web. 02 may 2017.

Gerbner, George et al. "The Demonstration Of Power: Violence Profile No. 10". Journal of Communication 29.3 (1979): 177-196. Web.

Gerbner, George et al. "The "mainstreaming" of America: Violence Profile No. 11." Journal of Communication. 30.3 (1980): 10-29. Web

Kellner, Dines, and Humez. In Piar Chand. "Advertising Discourse: Studying Creation And Perception Of Meaning". International Journal of English and Literature 3.2 (2012): n. pag. Web.

Li, Songqing. "Identity Constructions In Bilingual Advertising: A Critical-Cognitive Approach". Applied Linguistics (2015): amv062. Web.

Moriarty, Sandra E. "The Symbiotics Of Semiotics And Visual Communication". Journal of Visual Literacy 22.1 (2002): 19-28. Web.

Roland Barthes in Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. Image, Music, Text. 1st ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. Print.

May 02, 2023

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