Content analysis is used to evaluate portrayals of women and men in United States magazine advertisements over a 50-year period, 1950 through 2000. We examine 7,912 portrayals of people in 3,212 advertisements from the time period and analyze changes in those advertisements relative to transitions in feminism and cultural trends. Magazines from representative categories provided the sample data. Over the period studied, magazine advertising showed a trend toward objective role portrayals of women fairly equal to men. This trend perhaps resulted from feminist’s positioning women in the public as well as the private sphere. Women were still subordinated to men in more subtle aspects of advertisements, measured by Goffman’s (1979) cultural positioning framework. Sexual exploitation of both sexes was noticed.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Adbusters (2001). Manufacturing desire. http://adbusters.org/.
Baudrillard, J. (1990). The transparency of evil: Essays on extreme phenomenon. New York: Verso.
Belkaoui, A., & Belkaoui, J. M. (1976). A comparative analysis of the roles portrayed by women in print advertisements: 1958, 1970, 1972. Journal of Marketing Research, 13, 168–172.
Belknap, P., & Leonard, W. M., II. (1991). A conceptual replication and extension of Erving Goffman’s study of gender advertisements. Sex Roles, 25, 103–118.
Berger, J. (1972). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Hammondsport, U.K.: Penguin.
Bordo, S. (1999). The male body: A new look at men in private. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Budgeon, S. (1994). Fashion magazine advertising: Constructing femininity in the ‘postfeminist’ era. In L. Manca & A. Manca (Eds.), Gender and utopia in advertising: A critical reader (pp. 55–70). Lisle: Procopian Press.
Courtney, A. E., & Lockeretz, S. W. (1971). A woman’s place: An analysis of the roles portrayed by women in magazine advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research, 13, 92–95.
Coward, R. (1985). Female desires: How they are sought, bought and packaged. New York: Grove Press.
Coward, R. (1987). “Sexual liberation” and the family. In R. Betterton (Ed.), Looking on: Images of femininity in the visual arts and media (pp. 55–66). New York: Pandora.
Culley, J. D., & Bennett, R. (1976). Selling women, selling blacks. The Journal of Communication, 26, 160–174.
Dee, J. (1985). Myths and mirrors: A qualitative analysis of violence against women in mainstream advertising. Educational Resources Information Center database document # ED292139.
Devereaux, M. (1990). Oppressive texts, resisting readers, and the gendered spectator: The new aesthetics. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48, 337.
Dominick, J. R. (1979). The Portrayal of Women in Prime time, 1953–1979. Sex Roles, 5, 405–411.
Dominick, J. R., & Rauch, G. E. (1972). The image of women in network TV commercials. Journal of Broadcasting, 16, 259–265.
Ferguson, J. H., Kreshel, P. J., & Tinkham, S. F. (1990). In the pages of Ms.: Sex role portrayals of women in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 19, 40–51.
Fetterley, J. (1977). The resisting reader: A feminist approach to American fiction. Bloomington: U. of Indiana.
Ford, J. B., & LaTour, M. S. (1993). Differing reactions to female role portrayals in advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 33, 43–52.
Ganahl, D. J., & Prinsen T. J. (2001). Prime time television commercials: A virtual never land of missed social and economic opportunity. Paper presented at the Broadcast Educator Association Conference, Las Vegas, NV.
Gilly, M. C. (1988). Sex roles in advertising: A comparison of television advertisements in Australia, Mexico and the United States. Journal of Marketing, 52, 75–85.
Goffman, E. (1979). Gender advertisements. New York: Harper and Row.
Gutwill, S. (1994). Women’s eating problems: Social context and the internalization of culture. In C. Bloom, A. Gitter, S. Gutwill, L. Kogel, & L. Zaphiropoulos (Eds.), Eating problems: A feminist psychoanalytic treatment model (pp. 1–27). New York: Basic Books.
Healy, M. (1994). The mark of a man. Critical Quarterly, 36, 86–93.
Holbrook, M. B. (1987). Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s unfair in the reflections on advertising. Journal of Marketing, 51, 95–103.
Kang, M. (1997). The portrayal of women’s images in magazine advertisements: Goffman’s gender analysis revisited. Sex Roles, 37, 979–997.
Kang, N., Kara, A., Laskey, H. A., & Seaton, F. B. (1993). A SAS macro for calculating intercoder agreement in content analysis. Journal of Advertising, 22, 18–23.
Klassen, M., Jasper, C. R., & Schwartz, A. M. (1993). Men and women: Images of their relationships in magazine advertisements. Journal of Advertising Research, 33, 30–39.
Krassas, N. R., Blauwkamp, J. M., & Wesselink, P. (2001). Boxing Helena and corseting Eunice: Sexual rhetoric in cosmopolitan and playboy magazines. Sex Roles, 44, 751–771.
Krippendorff, K. (1980). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Lasch, C. (1984). The minimal self. New York: W.W. Norton.
LaTour, M. S. (1990). Female nudity in print advertising: An analysis of gender differences in arousal and ad response. Psychology and Marketing, 7, 65–81.
Lindner, K. (2004). Images of women in general interest and fashion magazine advertisements from 1955 to 2002. Sex Roles, 51, 409–421.
Lysonski, S. (1983). Female and male portrayals in magazine advertisements: A reexamination. Akron Business Review, 14, 45–50.
Macdonald, M. (1995). Representing women: Myths of femininity in the popular media. London: Edward Arnold.
Macdonald, M. (2004). From Mrs. Happyman to kissing chaps goodbye: Advertising reconstructs femininity. In C. Carter & L. Steiner (Eds.), Critical readings: Media and gender (pp. 41–67). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Marketer’s Guide to Media (1992). New York, NY: Adweek, Inc.
McArthur, L. Z., & Resko, B. G. (1975). The portrayal of men and women in American television commercials. The Journal of Social Psychology, 97, 209–220.
Nunnally, J., & Bernstein, I. (1994). Psychometric theory. New York: McGraw Hill.
O’Donnell, W. J., & O’Donnell, K. J. (1978). Update: Sex-role messages in TV commercials. The Journal of Communication, 28, 156–158.
Piirto, R. (1989). The romantic sell. American Demographics, 11, 38–41.
Pollay, R. W. (1986). The distorted mirror: Reflections on the unintended consequences of advertising. Journal of Marketing, 50, 18–36.
Reichert, T., & Lambiase, J. (Eds.). (2003). Sex in advertising: Perspectives on the erotic appeal. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Reichert, T., Lambiase, J., Morgan, S., Carstarphen, M., & Zavoina, S. (1999). Beefcake or cheesecake? No matter how you slice it, sexual explicitness in advertising continues to increase. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 76, 7–20.
Rudman, W. J., & Verdi, P. (1993). Exploitation: Comparing sexual and violent imagery of females and males in advertising. Women & Health, 20(4), 1–14.
Rust, R. T., & Cooil, B. (1994). Reliability measures for qualitative data: Theory and implications. Journal of Marketing Research, 31, 1–14.
Schneider, K. C., & Schneider, S. B. (1979). Trends in television commercials. Journal of Marketing, 50, 79–84.
Severn, J., Belch, G. E., & Belch, M. A. (1990). The effects of sexual and non-sexual advertising appeals and information level on cognitive processing and communication effectiveness. Journal of Advertising, 19, 14–22.
Sexton, D. E., & Haberman, P. (1974). Women in magazine advertisements. Journal of Advertising Research, 14, 41–46.
Shields, V. R. (1997). Selling the sex that sells: Mapping the evolution of gender advertising research across three decades. Communication Yearbook, 20, 71–109.
Soley, L., & Kurzbard, G. (1986). Sex in advertising: A comparison of 1964 and 1984 magazine ads. Journal of Advertising, 15, 45–54.
Soley, L., & Reid, L. (1988). Taking it off: Are models in magazine ads wearing less? Journalism Quarterly, 65, 960–966.
Standard rate and data: Consumer magazine and agri-media source. (1990). U.S. Consumer Magazines. Wilmette, IL: Standard Rate and Data Service.
Stern, B. (1993). Feminist literary criticism and the deconstruction of advertisements: A post modern view of advertising and consumer responses. Journal of Consumer Research, 19, 556–566.
Sullivan, G. L., & O’Connor, P. J. (1988). Women’s role portrayals in magazine advertising: 1958–1983. Sex Roles, 18, 181–188.
Tinkham, S. F., & Reid, L. N. (1988). Sex appeal in advertising revisited: Validation of a typology. In J. D. Leckenby (Ed.), Proceedings of the American Academy of Advertising (pp. 118–123). Austin: University of Texas at Austin.
Tuchman, G. (1978). The symbolic annihilation of women by the mass media. In G. Tuchman, A. K. Daniels, & J. W. Benet (Eds.), Hearth and Home: Images of women in the mass media (pp. 3–38). New York: Oxford.
Umiker-Sebeok, J. (1996). Power and construction of gendered spaces. International Review of Sociology, 6, 389–404.
Wagner, L. C., & Banos, J. B. (1973). A woman’s place: A follow-up analysis of the roles portrayed by women in magazine advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research, 19, 213–214.
Walters, S. D. (1992). Lives together/worlds apart: Mothers and daughters in popular culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U. of California.
Walters, S. D. (1995). Material girls: Making sense of feminist cultural theory. Berkeley: U. of California.
Winship, J. (1987). Handling sex. In R. Betterton (Ed.), Looking on: Images of femininity in the visual arts and media (pp. 25–41). London and New York: Pandora.
Wolin, L. D. (2003). Gender issues in advertising: An oversight synthesis of research 1970–2002. Journal of Advertising Research, 43, 111–129.
The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the valuable assistance of Linda Summers-Hoskins during the early stages of this project.
Summary of Code Scheme Used in Study
Throughout the code scheme, females and males were coded separately.
General Counting Categories:
The specific variables were the number of (1) people, (2) children, (3) elderly, (4) suggestive poses, (5) people represented by only body parts, and (6) perpetrators and victims of physical or sexual violence (multiple variables here).
For each of the Goffman categories, the first decision was a yes/no decision as to whether the variable was present or not.
Ritualistic vs. Utilitarian Touch. Ritualistic touching shows fingers and hands tracing outlines of objects, cradling or caressing things, or “just barely touching.” The face is sometimes used instead of the hands. Includes self touching, as if body is delicate and precious. Also shows hands resting in a delicate, graceful manner. Utilitarian touching shows grasping, holding or manipulating something, using the hands in a functional way.
The specific variables were the number of people using (1) ritualistic and (2) utilitarian touching.
Function Ranking. These ads show a male and female in collaboration. A hierarchy of functions can be shown within an occupational frame or in any activity. Someone performs the “executive role” providing guidance, instruction, or even feeding another. Some people are pictured outside the domain of the traditional authority and competence for their gender so are pictured as ludicrous, childlike, or unserious.
The specific variables were the number of people (1) performing the “executive” role or instructing, (2) receiving instruction and help, and (3) pictured in a traditional female or male domain and looking either competent or ludicrous/unrealistic (multiple variables here).
Ritualization of Subordination. Lowering oneself physically suggests deference. Holding the body erect and the head high suggests unashamedness, superiority, and disdain. Elevation, or high physical place, may symbolize high social place. Recumbent positions on beds and floors signal subordination (and sometimes sexual availability). Poses such as “obvious knee bends” show an unreadiness to respond. Head and body cants can be read as an acceptance of subordination, submissiveness, or appeasement. Body clowning presents the person as unserious and childlike.
The specific variables were the number of people shown (1) in images of deference, (2) with throat exposed, (3) in images of superiority, (4) in physically low places, (5) with “obvious knee bend,” (6) in canting postures, (7) in body clowning or “puckish” style, and (8a.) providing support and guidance or (8b.) receiving support and guidance.
Licensed Withdrawal. Persons pictured engaged in actions that remove them psychologically from situation at large, leaving them unoriented in and to it, dependent on the protectiveness and goodwill of others around. Persons might be pictured looking in on a social situation from a distance or from behind a one-way panel (a “participation shield”) and be little seen or not addressed.
The specific variables were the number of people shown (1) “flooding out” or “losing control,” (2) with fingers to mouth, (3) anxiously biting or sucking finger or lips, (4) in finger-to-finger position, (5) mentally drifting, looking into space, ‘dreamy’, luxuriating, (6) looking at a situation from behind something (object, hair etc.), and (7) snuggling up.
About this article
Cite this article
Mager, J., Helgeson, J.G. Fifty Years of Advertising Images: Some Changing Perspectives on Role Portrayals Along with Enduring Consistencies. Sex Roles 64, 238–252 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9782-6
- Advertising depictions
- Feminist theory
- Sexual exploitation of women
- Subordination of women
- Content analysis