Abstract: Children's Television Commercials and
To determine if children's cartoon commercials reinforce stereotypical gender
roles, 100 such commercials were analyzed according to eight (8) defining
Findings showed that female roles are sex-stereotyped in children's cartoon
commercials. Males outnumbered females in the commercials and females had fewer
speaking parts. Females were depicted as inactive, in domestic settings, as
adjuncts to males, and as primarily interested in products which enhanced beauty
or reinforced their place in society as homemakers and caretakers of children.
Children's Television Commercials
and Gender -Stereotyped Messages
In "The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media" feminist scholar Gaye
Tuchman (1978) states that television commercials "neglect or rigidly stereotype
women." She then asks, "What can the preschool girl, the school girl, the
adolescent female and the woman learn about a woman's role by watching
television?" (p. 17). This study will attempt to examine, interpret, and
categorize the messages conveyed to one segment of the female population --
prepubescent girls (between 5 to approximately 10 years of age) -- as mediated
through television advertisements directed at that group during children's
programming. Specifically, it will focus on language and products (in this
case, predominantly toys) as well as the portrayal of females and males in
advertisements during cartoon programming and whether such commercials promote
stereotypical female roles and self-value according to those roles. The study
will also compare messages aimed at males during the same programming.
While male roles are traditionally stereotyped in television commercials and
males are occasionally presented in a demeaning light, "they are nevertheless
presented as the 'important ones' whose needs and preferences take priority.
The rest of the culture also affirms male importance and counteracts the
occasionally negative images of men in television portrayals" (Jennings
(Walstedt), Geis, & Brown, 1980, p. 203).
Hence, research on the underlying gender role messages relayed by television
commercials often emphasizes those messages pertaining to female stereotypes,
because such stereotypes typically depict women as holding inferior social
The greater power of the male to control his own destiny is
part of the cultural stereotype of maleness and is inherent in
the images of the two sexes portrayed on television and in
print. (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974, p. 157)
In a study of sex role stereotypes presented, not in advertising, but in
children's cartoons, Richard M. Levinson (1973) points out that by the age of
18, the average American child will spend more time watching television than any
other activity except sleeping. Acknowledging findings that, for children, the
line between fantasy and reality is still formative, Levinson further states
that what children view through the "magic window" of television could be and
often is perceived as reality (p. 561).
The Social Advisory Panel at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), formed in
1975 to monitor and advise producers of cartoon content and advertising, made a
salient point when they noted that the tie-in with cartoon characters and
advertisement is often made through toys modeled after the cartoon characters
(Stipp, Hill-Scott, & Dorr, 1987, p. 470). This association becomes more
important when viewed in the context that female characters are underrepresented
in cartoon programming as they are in commercials (which sends the message that
women are not important). In addition, when women are present in cartoon
programming they are often cast in the role of "coquettish flirt" or as weak,
"in peril," and in need of rescue (Stipp, et al., p. 468).
A study that tested the effects of commercials on children's sex-role
perceptions before and after viewing commercials that reflected traditional or
non-traditional sex roles seems to support Levinson's assertion that television
may be perceived by children as reality. Pingree (1978) concluded that
"television commercials do have the power to influence children's attitudes
about something as incidental to the advertiser's purpose as sex role
stereotypes" and that "this influence on young children's minds is surely cause
for concern in the light of research suggesting the scarcity of alternative,
nontraditional images of women and men on television" (p. 276).
Furthermore, data obtained from Freuh and McGhee (1975) comparing the amount of
time that children spent viewing television to their attitudes about sex roles
indicated that a high amount of television viewing (25 hours or more per week)
was "clearly associated with stronger traditional sex role development . . .
Thus, there appears to be a positive relationship between amount of television
viewing and sex typing" (Pingree, 1975, p. 264).
Television commercials telescope and exaggerate the same
stereotypes that girls and women have been exposed to throughout
their lives, not only at home and at school but from all mass
media . . . If television has become a profound influence in
society, its definitions of social reality cannot be ignored.
(Jennings (Walstedt) et al., p. 203)
"As with other television programming, commercials either rendered females
invisible or presented them in a highly derogatory light" (Jennings (Walstedt)
et al., p. 202). If derogatory messages concerning the roles of females in
society are the norm in television commercials, then examination of those
commercials and identification of the messages they send is an important first
step (especially in the case of young girls) in rectifying a perpetuated
negative gender role stereotype for women. Research findings indicate that
television commercials effectively transmit messages regarding gender roles to
children who regularly view television. If those roles reflect women in a
negative or subjective social position, and if children accept those roles as
reflections of social reality, those messages should come under scrutiny with a
vision toward positive change.
The major purpose of television commercials is to sell products -- not
necessarily to promote stereotypes -- and in the case of prepubescent children
the product being promoted is often some type of toy. Therefore, studies
focusing specifically on media presentation of toys appear relevant. One such
study reported strong evidence that toy commercials and advertisements present
sex role stereotyping and that via such stereotyping the media continuously
bombards children with "examples of traditional sex roles" (Schwartz & Markham,
1985, p.158). While some social scientists insist that boys and girls are
naturally predisposed to sex-typed toy preference, indicating that such
commercials merely reflect rather than direct acceptable gender roles, evidence
to the contrary has emerged in research (Idle, Wood, Desmarais, 1993, p. 679).
For example, in a study which observed the play interaction of children and
their parents, researchers discovered an interesting paradox. In a written
survey, parents grouped toys according to gender (trucks, balls, trains, tool
sets for boys; and, dolls, doll houses, and kitchen sets for girls). Yet when
engaged in active play, those same parents did not selectively choose
gender-stereotyped toys for their children (Idle et al., p. 689). Also, the
parents did not actively encourage play with feminine toys for either sex child
yet they categorized feminine type toys as the most desirable for their
daughters and least desirable for their sons. In other words, parents explicitly
found feminine toys undesirable for boys but did not show the same aversion for
daughters' play with masculine or neutral toys (as in puzzles, Play-dough, or
books). Researchers concluded that within families children receive the clearest
messages regarding feminine toys -- unacceptable for boys and therefore,
conflicting for girls (Idle et al., p. 690). They also discovered that both male
and female children, when left to their own devices, were least interested in
the feminine-typed toys. Girls spent more time with masculine than feminine toys
and the amount of time that the parents and children interacted with each toy
indicated that the feminine-typed toys were the "least entertaining" (Idle et
al., p. 688).
Another study found that the traditionalized sex-stereotyping of toys is even
evident in suggestions made by toy salespersons (Kutner & Levinson, 1978, p. 1).
When asked to suggest toys for a boy or a girl of the same age both male and
female clerks in a variety of toy departments and stores (regardless of the
clerks' ages) overwhelmingly suggested traditional sex-stereotyped toys even
when less stereotypical toys were requested . Interestingly, male clerks were
more likely to suggest sex-stereotyped toys than women. "Our data collectively
suggest that the toy salesperson should be considered as one component in the
larger process of sex-role socialization in this society, acting, more often
than not, to reinforce the rearing of children in traditional roles" (Kutner &
Levinson, p. 6). However, such adults may merely be the products of years of
socialization as suggested by Schwartz and Markham (1985) in their analysis of
toy advertisements. They found that "the modeling of media presentations of sex
roles and toy preferences is a factor in socialization . . . Hence, in toy
advertising -- as in most other media studies -- we find strong reinforcement of
conventional sex-role definitions" (p. 169).
Despite the facts regarding the pervasive influence of television and its
messages on young children, research examining gender role messages thus far has
concentrated largely on the study of commercials aimed at an adult audience
rather than those specifically targeting children. What are some of the sex-role
or stereotypical definitions portrayed in those commercial studies? More men are
represented in television commercials (McArthur & Resko, 1975, p. 209), and
males in commercials promote more expensive products while the stereotypic women
remain silent (Livingstone & Green, 1986, p. 149). A study of British television
commercials indicated that their subliminal messages mirrored those in America:
both countries show women mainly as product users, in dependent roles, and
appearing primarily in the home setting (Harris & Stobart, 1986, p.155). Other
research shows that the importance of women is emphasized to children as early
as the pre-school years through toy commercials for products such as Barbie and
the Barbie Vanity Case -- advertisements with the message that the role of
"model" is second only to the role of "wife/mother" for females (Butler &
Paisley, 1980, p. 150).
In general, content analyses of televised commercials reveals that television
commercials seldom place women in the role of authority whether in physical
presence or voice-over, even when the product is intended for female consumers.
Nor are women usually cast as a central figure in a non-traditional female role
or occupation (McArthur & Resko, 1975, p. 211). Rewards inferred for using a
product are also gender-stereotyped in that a female's reward for using an
advertised product is approval of family or the opposite sex, while the reward
for males is the approval of friends, social advancement and career advancement
(McArthur & Resko, 1975, p.215).
Unfortunately, as much as two decades have passed since many of the studies of
television commercials and their effects were conducted. Even so, studies aimed
specifically at broadcast children's commercials were as scant then as they are
today in 1997. Yet, despite the dated nature of some of these studies they are
valuable as baseline data for comparison with more current studies. Television
technology has no doubt become more progressive as the new millennium
approaches, but have the underlying messages of commercials advanced
concurrently with the expanding role of women? In 1975, the National
Advertising Review board (noting such misogynist advertising as National
Airlines' "Fly Me" and Continental Airlines' "We really move our tail for you"
campaigns) reported that women were inaccurately presented as sex objects and
rarely as professionals (Liebert, Sprafkin, & Davidson, 1982, p.164). In 1972,
commercials studied even showed a marked difference in production techniques:
commercials for boys contained varied scenes, high activity, numerous cuts, loud
sound tracks, and aggressive behavior. Commercials for girls featured background
music, frequents fades and dissolves, and a female narrator (Williams, LaRose, &
Frost, 1981, p. 28).
The hypothesized impact of commercials on women's
self-confidence and independence refers to a lifetime of
exposure to the same basic message of inferiority endlessly
repeated in many different guises and scenarios. (Jennings
(Walstedt), et al., 1980, p. 206)
Yet, such messages need not be characterized as reflection of an acceptable and
unchangeable role of females in society. One study in which a group of girls,
ages 5 through 10 years, were systematically exposed over a one-month period to
commercials showing females in traditional male jobs concluded that more girls
showed preference for those jobs in a post-test than they had in a pre-test
(O'Bryant & Corder-Bolz, 1978, p. 243). If such a limited amount of exposure
portraying women in less traditional occupations and roles results in such a
change, a conscious effort to heighten such exposure in media could well have a
positive social influence on future generations of women.
As O'Bryant and Corder-Bolz (1978) conclude: . . . if television and other
media would make a conscientious effort to avoid stereotyping and instead to
portray diverse and challenging roles for boys and girls, it would have an
important impact upon the development of occupational aspirations" (p. 243).
A study of present day commercials then, while not immediately eradicating the
subtle impact those messages send, could still serve a clarifying and
educational purpose since, "Once documented, the presence of sexism in the media
and its subsequent effects on the developing minds of our children as well as on
our own images of the sexes can be attacked more forcefully" (Pingree, Hawkins,
Butler, & Paisley, 1976, p. 199).
Since many studies and content analyses of commercials and gender-role messages
were conducted up to two decades ago, this analysis endeavors to discover if
gender-role messages have advanced with women's changing roles or if technology
has simply been used as a vehicle for wrapping the same stereotyped messages in
slicker packaging. The hypothesis presented in this paper is that the
technological presentation of childrens' commercials may have advanced, but the
unstated messages remain unevolved, continuing to stereotype and reinforce the
traditional male/female roles of a patriarchal society. Because many past
studies analyzed sex-stereotyping through the examination of television
advertisements aimed at an adult audience (Butler & Paisley, 1980; Harris &
Stobart, 1986; Jennings (Waldstedt) et al., 1980; Livingstone & Green, 1986;
McArthur & Resko, 1975; Pingree, et al., 1976; Tuchman, 1978), criteria
established by those studies must necessarily be examined, selected, and adapted
to age-appropriate application or codability.
Past research examines several common aspects studied in commercial
advertisements. Definitions may vary somewhat between researchers regarding the
common aspects of television commercials examined. However, generally the
common aspects studied in past research may be categorized as the number of male
or female representations per commercial; the interaction or lack thereof and
type of interaction between genders within the same setting; the setting and the
product as stereotypically male, female, or neutral; the categorization of
stereotypically active (male) or inactive (female) roles; whether male, female,
or both have speaking parts and the format of that part, and details involving
the technical aspects of production.
The number of males/females represented in each commercial is self-explanatory.
Interaction, setting, product, activity level, speaking part, and technical
production will be defined using guidelines for coding provided by previous
research as follows:
Interaction/Role: Whether or not the males and females speak to one another,
play a game together, demonstrate or use the same product will be coded as a
"yes" or "no." Qualifying comments can include any observations about
characterizations of the female as an adjunct to the male, subservient,
unintelligent, or submissive (Tuchman, 1978). Role, in the case of children's
commercials, may often include a child imitating a professional, a celebrity, an
equal with other characters, girlfriend/boyfriend, home-maker, or other
(Livingstone & Green, 1986) or may feature girls in the role of
wife/mother/model (Butler & Paisley, 1980). Role of the males and any qualifying
comments will be noted.
Setting: Settings will be noted if the background of the central characters
appear to be predominantly "feminine" or "masculine" settings (Harris & Stobart,
1986) such as home, store, domestic for female settings and occupational setting
for male, and other (McArthur & Resko, 1975).
Product: Since toys are a mainstream product advertised during children's
programming, toys will be rated as male, female, or neutral using the following
guidelines: Feminine toys include dolls, doll houses, kitchen sets or other
domestic-related toys, telephones (Idle, et al., 1993), toy beauty kits, home
accessories, doll accessories, and fashion accessories (Schwartz & Markham,
1985). Masculine toys include trucks, trains, transportation toys, balls, tool
sets (Idle, et al., 1993), sports equipment, riding toys, skills games,
non-powered and powered vehicles, walkie-talkies (Schwartz & Markham, 1985); and
neutral toys include Play-dough, puzzles, stuffed animals, blocks, (Idle, et
al., 1993). Food items will be classified as neutral.
Active/Inactive: "Active" refers to aggressive and constructive behavior and
marked physical activity and "inactive" to deferent, passive behavior (Pingree,
1978; Williams, et al., 1981).
Speaking part: M/F and Voice-over (VO) M/F. A voice-over is an "unseen person
speaking about a product while an image is shown on the television screen"
(Tuchman, 1978). The voice-over speaker generally communicates the central
message of the commercial (Harris & Stobart, 1986).
Technological Production A (Male) or B (Female): "A" refers to activity, varied
scenes, numerous cuts, loud sound tracks and "B" is characterized by frequent
fades, dissolves and background music. These techniques were associated with
male/female production techniques which reinforced the action-oriented
stereotypes for males and the passive stereotypes for females (Williams, et al.,
Other Comments: This is simply an area to make any comments or observations to
expand on the data in the categories or to remark on aspects of a commercial
that are not included in the categories.
The commercials examined will be those aired within the time period that
Levinson (1975) describes as the Saturday morning "ghetto" (8:00 a.m. to 1:00
p.m.) for three Saturdays on three channels (Nickelodeon, The Cartoon Network,
and CBS Kidz 36) targeted specifically for a children's audience. One of each
of the three channels listed above will be viewed as follows: Nickelodeon on
Saturday, February 15, 1997; The Cartoon Network on Saturday, February, 22,
1997; and CBSKidz 36 on Saturday, March 1, 1997.
Using the above guidelines, each commercial will be coded using the format shown
*N -- Neutral
*V-O -- voice-over, male/female, if applicable
*A/I -- active/inactive
*A/B -- see definitions
*Inter. (interaction between males and females)
Numerical Count: The 100 commercials coded for this study contained 26 repeat
commercials. Therefore, the data is separated into information regarding the
complete set of commercials including repeat commercials (100) and for the set
of commercials with the repeat commercials extracted. (See Tables I & II.) For
the first set of data, or 100 commercials, the 182 male characters outnumbered
the 101 female characters by a ratio of almost 2:1. Only 41, or less than
half, of the commercials contained both male and female characters, but males
and females interacted in 34 (83%) of those 41 commercials. The commercial
settings reflected the same 2:1 ratio, with settings that fit the male
stereotype definition appearing twice as many times as those representing a
predominantly female stereotypical setting -- 37% male versus 16% female. The
remaining settings (47%) were coded as neutral and 68% of the advertised
products were categorized as neutral products, such as breakfast cereals and
fruit drinks. (See Table III for a sample list of male, female, and neutral
products advertised.) Also, the percentage of male products advertised did not
greatly exceed the number of female products advertised, 19% and 13%
respectively for an approximate 1.5:1 ratio.
The 2:1 ratio also held true when comparing the number of active males to
active females. Of the 89 active roles coded, 63 (71%) went to males while 26
(29%) went to females. The female active roles occurred almost exclusively only
when the commercials also featured males, and even then, the females were
considerably less active than their male counterparts. In fact, only 13 of the
100 commercials contained an all-girl cast and only three of the all-girl
commercials depicted a girl as a physically active person. That ratio was
reversed for males and females. When comparing the number of inactive female
roles to inactive male roles, females were depicted as inactive twice as many
times as males.
In the coding for speaking parts, the number of male and speaking roles varied
most noticeably in the category of male or female voice-over. Here, with a
total of 82 voice-overs, males outnumbered females by a ratio slightly
exceeding 5:1, with 69 male voice-overs (84%) and 13 female voice-overs (16%).
The production technology used was predominantly that associated with male
stereotypical commercials (76%), while the remaining 24% of the commercials
using the female stereotypical production techniques remained confined to
all-girl products and/or neutral products such as building blocks and
educational videos. Only one commercial for a male product was coded for the
inactive technology production methods.
Since the 100 commercials coded contained 26 repeated commercials, the data was
recalibrated for each category after extracting the repeat commercials. With
the 26 repeat commercials extracted, the data varied little from the first
sample data within every category. The 128 (60%) male characters outnumbered
the 85 (40%) females by a slightly different margin, or a 1.5: 1 ratio. In
these 74 commercials, 31 contained both males and females who interacted 25
times, or in 81% of the 31 male/female commercials. Male stereotypical settings
outnumbered female settings by almost a 2:1 ratio, or 39% and 20% respectively,
with 41% of the settings coded as neutral and 63% of the products recorded in
the neutral category. The quantity of male and female products advertised
varied marginally with 19% male products and 18% female products advertised, or
a 1.1:1 ratio.
Also, in the non-repeats sample, the number of active males outnumbered active
females by 2:1 or 68% versus 32%; and that ratio once again reversed when
comparing inactive males to inactive females. Females appeared at a 2:1 ratio to
males or 71%inactive females compared to 29% inactive males. The voice-over
ratio without the repeat commercials shows males taking the voice-over role at a
rate of 4:1, even though 63 percent of the products are categorized as neutral.
Also, the technical production methods coincide with the data from the complete
set of commercials. Active (or categorically male) production methods are used
in 54 (73%) of the commercials with the remaining 20 (27%) employing the
production methods used stereotypically for all-girl products and occasionally
for neutral products.
Many of the aforementioned studies of stereotypical messages conveyed to
children through commercial and toy advertising were conducted up to two decades
ago. Yet, the data collected in this study appears to verify the research
hypothesis that present-day messages have evolved little in terms of advancing
social stereotypical messages to females and males but instead continue to
reinforce the traditional male/female roles of a patriarchal society reflected
in previous research.
Number of Males/Females: For example, Levinson (1973), in a study of cartoon
characters, found that male characters outnumbered female characters by a ratio
of 3:1. The male/female ratio in the cartoon commercials examined in this study,
2:1, may indicate a slight improvement from Levinson's data or it could be
interpreted as only compounding with his data the number of stereotypical
messages broadcasted, since Levinson's study concentrated on cartoon characters
rather than commercial characters. However, the ratio coincides to the findings
of McArthur and Resko (1975) who found "significantly more male than female
central figures" appearing in a study of television commercials (p. 213).
Schwartz and Markham (1985) in a study of print advertisements also found that
boys were pictured more than twice as frequently as girls.
Interaction between males and females in commercials was coded as either a
"yes" or "no" in commercials where both genders appeared. It soon became
obvious that interaction, in order to register at any level, would have to be
viewed as mere eye-contact or acknowledgement of one another's presence because
interaction between the two sexes was seldom, if ever, active or overt. Even
when it occurred at such a subtle level, the nature of male/female interaction
was troubling in that the females almost invariably appeared as adjuncts to the
males. In other words, the "action" of the female characters is actually a
reaction to the behavior of the male characters.
For example, in a commercial for Corn Pops cereal, the teenaged female
character exists only to give a come-hither glance to the boy consuming the
coveted Corn Pops. In a Honey Combs cereal commercial, a lone girl sits at a
table surrounded by boys who joust with one another, both verbally and
physically. She says nothing but smiles admiringly at their horseplay. At one
point, the cereal logo is broadcast across her forehead. In two-gender
commercials, the girls stand in the background -- even in animated or cartoon
commercials. In one animated commercial advertising pizza, the lone girl in a
school full of boys stands behind a copy machine which duplicates and spits out
pizzas for the boys to eat. In a board game called "Operation" a girl smiles
in awe as a boy successfully removes a pretend body part from the plastic
"patient." In another neutral product commercial, a farcical female teacher
gushes over a boy's class project -- a machine which produces Capt. Crunch
cereal -- while his female classmates silently but visibly admire his success.
In all commercials studied, the few adult women who appeared were either
teachers or mothers. In fact, one mother was only a partial mother, a headless
background figure standing in a dress at the kitchen sink, her back to the
audience, as her son declared the goodness of yet another breakfast product.
Such images confirm and buttress research indicating that females are often
portrayed stereotypically as unintelligent, subservient, and submissive
Setting: Unfortunately, the settings for females have also remained stagnant
over the decades, at least in commercials for children's programming. In the
conciousness scale for media sexism (Pingree, et al, 1976) the highest
indicators for sexism and stereotyping in advertising were categorized as those
depicting females as mere set decorations with no real function, who belong in
the home or are restricted to other womanly occupations -- categories into which
75 percent of the women were positioned in that 1975 study (p. 197). The trend,
unfortunately, continues today, with girls appearing in non-domestic settings
only when paired with boys. Apparently, in male/female commercials, the
female's predominant role as audience to males gives her unspoken permission to
leave the home setting. Commercials with all-girl casts included the following
settings: a barrage of girls' bedrooms (one completely decorated in pink),
bathtub (with bubbles, of course), backyard pool, kitchen, flower garden, a
modeling runway and the beach (but only with Ken, Barbie's male companion, in
In contrast, toy products targeted at boys and even neutral products such as
Kit Kat candy bars and Eggo Waffles place boys, and boys only, in Wild West
scenarios or traveling in a fast car on the open road with the guys. Boys
catapult through outer space, maneuver through cavernous, dark settings, and
hurl their bodies within skateboarding rinks. Even male cartoon characters
operate in male settings -- the animated Cheetah who converses in a corporate
boardroom with an apparently powerful man about a product as non-sexually
slanted as Cheetos cheese snacks.
Product: Livingstone and Green (1986) found that women in advertisements were
primarily shown in the home setting selling domestic products and that men
represented a greater variety of products. Levinson (1973) stated that girls
made appearances in commercials primarily to sell dolls and other stereotypical
female toys and that adult females, when they make a rare appearance, represent
the most stereotypical of female roles. The girls in the present study appeared
in commercials to promote such toys as dolls, kitchen sets, and beauty aids.
Toys for girls are comprised of dolls, stuffed toys to be painted and decorated
with magic markers, hair products with the slogan, "Have fun with your hair!"
and "Take care of me twins" in which a girl never leaves her bedroom as she
states with a smile, "This is my day -- busy feeding two babies!"
Boys, in contrast, are encouraged to purchase products such as Hot Wheels with
the slogan, "So fast they crash." Action figures, weapons, vehicles, and car
washes/garages are there for the taking. Even generic food commercials for food
chains such as McDonald's and Taco Bell are followed with trailers of
male-oriented toys (intergalactic space ships and action feature film figures)
which come free with the kid's meals. Even with so-called neutral products like
Playdough, appliances such as Barber and Beauty Shop dough sets designate
appropriate play for each gender.
Active/Inactive Roles: Schwartz and Markham's (1985) study of toy
advertisements noted the disparity in activity level between the genders,
specifically, that boys appeared active and mechanical, while girls remained
passive. Not only do girls remain passive in the commercials studied, they are
often visibly unable to do otherwise. In fact, most of the girls in all-girl
commercials apparently have no legs or lower torsos. The girls, who are
depicted manipulating dolls for the most part, are usually shown as figures
comprised only of heads, upper chests, and hands. Activity for females which
involves legs and movement occurs almost exclusively in those commercials which
also include males. Otherwise, females' activity level is restricted to that of
moving their dolls around different settings, dressing Barbie, manipulating
miniature appliances, and maintaining their own appearance with products such as
Braid-n-I, for braid-your-own-hair autonomy. Of the three active females in
all-girl commercials, the activity amounted to throwing a ball in the air,
cuddling a toy while rolling on the floor, and pushing a doll in a stroller --
an activity that alas requires legs.
Even when girls appear with boys, the females seldom enjoy the same amount of
movement, energy and action afforded the boys. For example, a stereotypical
male product, Soccer Boppers, inflatable boxing gloves, does allow girls to join
in the fun. However, the boys are the fierce competitors while the girls
occasionally throw a flirtatious air-cushioned fist at a nearby boy (never at
another girl). Similiarly, after boys, with serious and fierce expressions,
dare and threaten one another with the Ninja Zip-It Sword, a small girl appears
on the screen, gives her Zip-It sword a baton-like twirl and smiles sweetly.
Oddly, her legs are, once again, missing.
In the world of cartoon commercials, boys jump, ride, slide, confront enemies,
and commandeer vehicles. In contrast, when girls are "active" they dance
together in imitation of background singers, cuddle cute stuffed toys, toss
their hair, give a boy a high-five, bite seductively into a potato chip, or, on
those rare occasions when their legs are visible, perform a cheerleading leg
spread jump. On a few occasions they manipulate an active toy such as Skate
City and the Roller Girls in which plastic girl figures on skates can be moved
down a skating ramp. Of course a minute plastic phone booth is handily
furnished with this product and the accompanying words direct girls that, the
real purpose is beauty: "At the skate city salon, doing nails, doing hair . . ."
the jingle goes.
Speaking Parts: Past studies revealed that males were often given speaking
parts or served as narrators (Butler & Paisley, 1980) while the females stood
silently by. The current examination reflects little change. Boys often
dominate the spoken words in the mixed gender commercials, but girls do speak.
However, as in the case of a cereal product that offers free magic toys, the
female speaking parts are usually confined to affirmations of the male actions.
("Wow," is the sole female speaking part after a boy completes his elaborate and
impressive magic show.) While boys shout loudly, girls speak enthusiastically,
but in tiny high-pitched tones. While boys repeatedly use the word "action"
girls repeat lines such as "Let me feed her!" (Snookums Baby) or "Use the
dishwasher!" "Let's make breakfast" and "Let's fill the refrigerator!" (Kitchen
Littles). Not surprisingly, all animated representatives for food products were
either obviously male (Capt. Crunch) or had male voices (Fruit Loops Toucan and
his three nephews.)
Voice Overs: In no other category of this commercial study is the message of
patriarchy so evident as in the use of voice-overs. This study indicates that
the number of male voices-overs has not remained at the male to female ratio of
3:1 as suggested by past research (Tuchman, 1993, p. 15) but instead has
increased to a ratio of 5:1! This is important since past studies indicate that
the voice-over represents the authority figure to the consumer (Harris &
Stobart, 1986). In fact, female voice-overs are used only for an occasional
educational video or for all-girl products while male voice overs are used for
male, neutral, and female products. In one commercial for a neutrally-coded
product called Better Blocks, a female voice-over explained the product
throughout the commercial. Yet, when it came time to give instructions on how
to purchase the product a male voice took over.
Production Technology: As previously noted, Williams, LaRose, & Frost (1981)
indicated a marked difference in production technology for male and female
product commercials, pointing out that commercials for boys contained loud sound
tracks, frequent scene changes, aggressive behavior and high activity, while
those for girls included soft background music and passive behavior. In the
commercials studied, boys and boy's products appeared in scenes with loud
explosions, yelling male voice-overs, flying objects, and repeated use of the
word "action." All-girl products were marked by background singing or music,
and tranquil low lighting. As boys knock over action figures and save the world
with Total Justice action figures, girls whisper over Angel Princess Barbie,
asleep in her canopied bed. As boys dangle-drop from the ceiling hanging on a
wire in an attempt to steal an Eggo Waffle, girls quietly feed Baby All Gone as
mother watches approvingly. This particular category is important in that such
production techniques send a non-verbal message which reinforces the verbal
messages of activity and involvement for males and the role of passive observer
for females as well as sending the message once again to girls that silence (or
at least quiet) is golden.
Schwartz and Markham (1985) concluded the following about the stereotyping of
sexual roles via children's toys and toy advertisements:
Girl's toys which are usually not intended to be
constructed or manipulated, encourage passivity, not power.
Typically, the play activities of girls encourage the
stereotypic characteristics of the female role, not exploration
or problem-solving skills. There is also evidence that media
presentations of toys affect toy preferences and sex-role
socialization. (p. 160)
Though toy advertisements have this profound impact, it appears that the sexual
stereotypical messages sent through such commercials have not changed in
decades. Children of both sexes are exposed to such stereotypical images
throughout a lifetime, and this study indicates that such messages are also
perpetuated in commercials for neutral products.
Levinson (1973 ) asserts that children as early as pre-school have already
learned a deeply ingrained lesson:
Boys, perceived to be active and achieving, are more higly
valued while girls, described by children as more emotional and
passive, are felt to have less value in society. A variety of
research suggests the values persist and become manifested in
adult women who show more "self hate," lower achievement and
success avoidance -- the "costs" of growing up female in America
If female children are repeatedly subjected to images that depict them and
their social role as less important, passive, quiet, uninquisitive, domestic,
soft, inactive, non-participatory, beauty-obsessed creatures, how will they view
and treat themselves as adults and how will the male children who have also seen
girls in such images relate to the adult females in their lives? The answer is
hinted at in the following scenario:
As the Saturday cartoon programs observed in this study progressed into the
afternoon hours, adult commercials were subtly interspersed with the toy
advertisements -- commercials with women consumers of detergents and house
cleaning products which were announced and described via male voice-overs. In
one of these commercials a woman's legs are finally shown in action, though the
feet are clad in pumps and the "action" is pushing a vacuum cleaner. Meanwhile,
a male commentator standing in the foreground observes and describes the
household product she so dutifully uses. The Saturday morning cartoon ghetto
thus makes its gentle segue into the adult world.
Table I: Data for Commercials Including Repeats
(100 Commercials Total)
No. of M/F
Table II: Data for Commercials Without Repeats
(74 Commercials Total)
MALE FEMALE NEUTRAL TOTAL
No. of M/F
Products Advertised and Categorization
Star Wars Space Shooters & Battle Belts
Power of the Force Action Figures
Total Justice Action Figures
Mario Nintendo 64
Action Fleet Vehicles
Johnny Quest Action Figures
Micro Machine Action Sets
Ninja Zipit Defenders
Star Trek Sword
Barbie Loves the Mall
Salon Star Castle with Vanity Turrets
Skate City and the Roller Girls
Snookums Baby Doll
Pound Puppies Purebreads
Take Care of Me Twins
Barbie Angel Princess
Baby All Gone
Big Brother Ken
Taco Bell (2)
Hooked on Phonics
Eggo Waffles (2)
Capt. Crunch Cereal(2)
Ritz Bits (2)
Public Service Message
Connect 4 (game)
Math Made Easy
Jay Jay Plane (Video)
Fruit String Things
Burger King (2)
Cookie Blast Oatmeal
*(2) Denotes two different commercials for the same food product or for
different food products from same company.
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Children's Television Commercials
and Gender-Stereotyped Messages
by Gail Snyder, graduate student, Georgia State University
109 Cox Acres Drive
Woodstock, GA 30188