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Gender Stereotyping In Television Commercials Aimed At Children Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 5420 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Today, children dominate the advertising scenario both as direct and indirect consumers. Every day children are exposed to advertising images to such an extent that it is taken for granted and natural. The study tries (i) to identify the nature of representation of boys and girls and their association with activities and products in three categories viz., boys only, girls only and girls & boys commercials, (ii) to analyze whether there are sex-role differences in the representation of girls and boys in television commercials aimed specifically at children, (iii) to examine the features of the television commercial content designed for children as to whether it is gender-stereotypical in nature and (iv)whether children understand the gendered nature of commercial content and measure the level of their understanding of the same. The study is a descriptive study. This investigation was embarked upon to contribute to an understanding of how gender is portrayed in television commercials aimed at children and whether it is stereotyped. The study is based on Social Learning Theory and Cultivation Analysis. The findings proved that television commercials are gender stereotyped.

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Today children dominate the advertising scenario both as direct and indirect consumers. More and more advertisements are being designed to target children and this changing situation forces us to have a re-look on advertising. It is important to find out whether such well-designed images contribute to the formation of gender identity and self-image among children. One of the important functions of advertisements is to make the audience relate and respond to those images and underlying commercial messages; so it is possible that such features of advertising might lead to identity formation either consciously or sub consciously. Children invariably encounter information about gender roles on television, both in the content and the commercials. As children move through childhood and adolescence, television is an important influence on their gender role socialization.  Their exposure to television commercials, which are stereotypical in style and content, may establish gendered preferences for particular traits.

Although recently television portrayals have been seen to change, it still refuses to adapt fully to the changing world and continues to reflect traditional, stereotyped roles for males and females in many areas, especially, advertisements. Studies have indicated that television and television advertising still adheres to sex-role stereotypes presenting women as dependent, emotional, domestic care-givers, while men are the supporting 'bread winners'. Depicting a society in this way has disturbing implications of what kind of world children believe they are living in. When they see the sexes depicted in commercials as always playing their role in the society, they are unaware that what they are observing is a biased and distorted view of the world. This becomes more significant because children do not have fully developed reasoning abilities and they cannot evaluate the conveyed message, which could contain non-rational or unrealistic information that could be deceptive. Hence it becomes crucial to investigate the portrayal of gender in television commercials directed at children.


The study tried (i) to identify the nature of representation of boys and girls and their association with activities and products in three categories viz., boys only, girls only and girls & boys commercials, (ii) to analyze whether there are sex-role differences in the representation of girls and boys in television commercials aimed specifically at children, (iii) to examine the features of the television commercial content designed for children as to whether it is gender-stereotypical in nature and (iv)whether children understand the gendered nature of commercial content and measure the level of their understanding of the same.


The study is a descriptive one, the conceptual framework based on Social Learning Theory and Cultivation Analysis. This investigation was embarked upon to contribute to an understanding of how gender is portrayed in television commercials aimed at children and whether it is stereotyped. At the same time, it also tried to analyze how young children interpret media text. At the basic level, this investigation can be reduced to the two major elements of text and audience. The quantitative methodology of content analysis was selected to explore the commercials and focus group interview was used to measure the understanding levels of the children.

Content Analysis

The purpose of the study was to find whether there are any patterns in terms of the production techniques and the overall presentation with reference to gender portrayal in television commercials specifically aimed at children; and, content analysis seemed the most appropriate approach. It is an analytical approach based on the coding and quantification of various elements of a commercial in television. It involves establishing categories and counting the number of instances when these categories are repeated within a text (Silverman, 1993). At the basic level, the purpose of the method is to identify the nature of the relative patterns within and between sets of data. This nature of content analysis has made this method suitable and applicable to the identification of possible gendered stereotyping in the commercial sample used in this investigation.


Focus group research involves organized discussion with a selected group of individuals to gain information about their views and experiences on a topic. Focus group interviewing is particularly suited for obtaining several perspectives about the same topic. The main purpose of focus group research is to draw upon respondents' attitudes, feelings, beliefs, experiences and reactions in a way in which would not be feasible using other methods. These attitudes, feelings and beliefs may be partially independent of a group or its social setting, but are more likely to be revealed via the social gathering and the interaction which being in a focus group entails. A focus group enables the researcher to gain a larger amount of information in a shorter period of time.

In order to measure children's understanding of television advertising and information about gender behavior in particular, the researcher conducted a focus group study. The sample for focus group consisted of 30 elementary school children of age group 5-6, boys, girls, ratio being 60:40. Each student was from a different school within the city of Coimbatore and they all were basically from a middle class background. They all had television sets at home and had the habit of watching television in the evening, especially the children's programs in the regional channel.

The children were shown a television programme along with the sample commercials. Directly after watching the television program, a conversation was initiated among the children to discuss about the commercials they had just watched. The discussion was regarding the relationship between gender and the various other variables like activities, interactions, settings, etc., in television commercials. Their responses were noted down carefully.


Hypothesis One: Television commercials positioned at boys and television commercials positioned at girls have different production features.

Hypothesis Two: Television commercials targeting girls and television commercials targeting

boys use different editing techniques.

Hypothesis Three: Gender roles are stereotyped in television commercials aimed at children.

Hypothesis Four: There are more advertisements aimed at boys than at girls or for both.

Hypothesis Five: Children aged 5 & 6 years are able to distinguish between programs and commercials and comprehend the messages (gender stereotyping) in advertisements.

Sample Selection

The sample was convenience and purposive sample of children's commercial programming videotaped between 5pm and 6 pm covering a composite week, for one year. This was in line with Doolittle and Pepper's study which was called as representative of a typical weekend in that it did not occur near a major holiday and was within the prime viewing season (Doolittle and Pepper, 1975). Thus, although the sample was not random, all seasons of the year were included in the sample. In this way, the commercials were not biased in favor of summer related products or winter specific items.


General Findings

The study analyzed 118 television commercials aired during children's programs during the weekdays at prime time from 5 pm to 6 pm. 91 of the 118 advertisements (71%) were positioned at specifically one gender(n=91), either boys or girls. The rest targeted both boys and girls. Among single gender commercials, less than one fourth of the advertisements were directed only at girls (20%) and the other 80% of the advertisements were aimed at boys. This supports the findings of many of the previous studies.

With regard to the products advertised during children's programs, 50 % of the ads were targeted directly at children and the other 50% were targeted at parents through children. There were also commercials for adult's products which were neither used by children nor did have any child model in them like in the case of Hair Dye (Godrej) and Shaving razor (Gilatin). One of the salient features was that the traditional categories (toys, candies, snacks, food & cereals) constituted only 50% of the total sample and the toys category completing missing.

20% of the advertisements were for products in the purchase of which the decision makers were parents: but children influenced them in the decision-making process. This was revealed during the focus group interaction with the children. They said that they asked their parents for many products they saw on television which may or may not be useful for them. 30% of the products belonged to the category that were not related to children, but utilized child models to influence children as well as parents. Their target audience was both children and parents. This very big 'others' category was another important finding in the study.

Service institutions like banks had used child models. There were commercials for four banks and seven detergents during the period of the study and all those had child models as the main character/s. It may be argued that the presence of children and their activities in commercials make those attractive and interesting to watch and get the attention of the viewers quickly. Children, by singing the jingles or enacting the commercial, might also act as reminders for the parents and indirectly influence their decision making.

With reference to products and gender association, it was found that majority of the commercials for food items (67%) were associated with boys. Even in other categories like groceries and home appliances, more than 50% of the advertisements were positioned at boys. A few advertisements targeted both the genders. Only in the personal hygiene category, girls' commercials were higher in number (58%) than boy's (42%). Moreover, no single product in this category was positioned at the mixed gender.

More cars were positioned towards girls than boys. Commercials for bicycles had only boys (Hero Ranger). The only advertisement for a bicycle for girls was obvious from the brand name (Lady Bird), which in fact didn't show the girl riding the bike. These arguably imply that girls should be safe and protected so they have to travel by car whereas boys are brave and adventurous and can travel in bicycles and motorcycles. This is another idea associated with masculinity.

All the commercials of banks and detergents (100%) featured boys as main character/s. Boys did a lot of things in the commercials like instructing their mothers, advising others and demonstrating a variety of things in which generally adults are engaged in. Taking care of the house as well as girls seemed to be the responsibility of the boys, by looking at the commercials.

Production Features


With regard to settings, girls were found to be primarily in domestic settings by previous studies. The present study also revealed the same result with the girls only advertisements featuring them at home, playing inside or outside the house more than boys only or mixed gender advertisements. Girls were found to be indoors in almost half the number of total advertisements. Boys' advertisements had more shots with various backgrounds. This was evident from the fact that the dominant setting in boys' advertisements was 'no dominant setting' (37%). They were captured in so many different locations, that one could not decide a particular setting as the dominant one. These places were shops, swimming pool, cricket ground, street, etc. The second dominant setting in boys' commercials was outdoor (35%). Overall, boys seemed to be outside the house most of the times. They were primarily seen away from home. For them indoor accounted for only 23% of their locations.

Advertisements aimed at mixed gender too had more number of 'no dominant settings'. This implies that when girls were together with boys they go out of the house and have fun; but when they were alone they spent time inside the house playing with dolls. Fantasy setting seemed to be more common for the female gender. 27% advertisements for girls featured them in fantasy settings, whereas it was a mere 7% and 6% in the case of boys only and neutral advertisements respectively.


With regard to interactions featured in children's advertisements, the most obvious finding was that the interactions of girls were always almost cooperative. A majority of the girls (83%) either in girls only commercials or neutral ads, were engaged in cooperative play. Boys, on the other hand, were portrayed as independent (35%) and competitive (27%). These kinds of portrayal associated with masculinity become role models for boys to follow. Only in one commercial, the girl child was shown to be independent. Thus the study clearly showed that there was significant difference in the interaction pattern of male and female gender in advertisements aimed at children.


In terms of activities associated with children, playing was the main activity of girls (72%). Playing here referred to playing with a toy/doll or game. Though boys were also associated with playing, it was found in less than fifty percent of the advertisements. Eating and stealing were found to be the activities of boys alone. No commercial showed girls eating or stealing. At the same time, very few advertisements captured boys in a productive activity like reading. But it was common in commercials for the mixed gender (20%). To sum up, girls were associated with playing with toys or games; boys were associated with all types of activities and boys & girls together were involved in productive activities as well as playing.

Analysis of Camera Work & Editing Techniques


There were 1256 shots in 73 boys' commercials; 211 shots in 18 girls' commercials and 398 shots in 27 neutral commercials. The average was found to be 17 shots in boys' advertisements, 12 shots in girls' advertisements and 14 shots in mixed gender commercials. It was evident from the above data that boys' advertisements had more shots compared to girls only commercials. It was followed by mixed gender commercials and the girls only commercials were the last with less number of shots.

Shot Duration

When compared the girls' advertisements with that of the boys and mixed gender advertisements, there resulted a highly significant difference between the three categories with regard to shot duration. The overall average length of shot was found to be 1.39 seconds.

The average duration of a shot was found to be 1.25 seconds in boys only advertisements, 1.74 seconds in girls only advertisements and 1.18 seconds in neutral advertisements. 91% of the commercials targeting boys had more shots with duration below the average of 1.39 seconds. Similarly in most of the advertisements positioned neutrally (81%), the shot duration was below average. On the other hand, in commercials positioned at girls, the duration of more than half the number of shots (55%) was above average (>) meaning that the shots were longer. This meant there was obviously more number of shots in boys' advertisements compared to that of girls' advertisements. Shots in boys only and neutral commercials were shorter than the girls only advertisements. In other words, boys' commercials were fast paced when compared to girls' advertisements.

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This pace was an important feature that a casual viewer would not have noticed because it was not obvious. At the same time, it would make a difference while watching. This rapid cutting style in the boys' commercials when compared to girls or mixed gender commercials is considered to be a stereotypical feature relating to masculine gender. This fast pacing was not only used to attract children's attention according to Meyer 1983; Welch et al., 1984; Wright et al., 1984, but also build moods like excitement and tension. On the other hand, slower cutting rates develop calmness and relaxation.

With regard to specific types of shot, all the categories of commercials had more number of mid shots, then long shots, followed by close-ups, except in the case of neutral advertisements where the number of mid shots was equal to close-up shots. There was a highly significant difference (x2 = 33.7, p<.001 [df = 4],) between the boys' advertisements and girls' advertisements in terms of long shots. The former had a greater percentage of long shots (32%) than the latter (14%), that is, double the number of long shots when compared to girls' advertisements. The same difference was observed between neutral commercials (33%) and girls' only advertisements (14%).

Long shots are otherwise called as establishing shots meaning they establish the place of happening or activity. In any commercial, more use of long shots might suggest more space which was common in boys' advertisements. The boys' commercials were also significantly different from the mixed advertisements by making much less use of close-ups. In relation to the use of close-up shots of people, although the difference between the boys' advertisements and the girls' commercials was not very significant, the percentage in girls' advertisements was much closer to that in the mixed commercials than in the boys' advertisements.

There was significant statistical difference between the boys and the girls' advertisements in the use of mid shots also. (x2 = 28.21, p<.001,[df = 2]). Commercials positioned towards boys had 37% mid shots, while girls only commercials had 45% and mixed gender advertisements had 31% mid shots. There was again a difference between the two categories in their use of close-up shots. Boys' advertisements used 30% of close-up shots whereas the other gender used 40% of the same.

Camera angles

Analysis of camera angles revealed highly significant differences between the three categories of commercials, though level angle had been used more almost equally and overhead had been used the least by all the three different groups.

Comparison of Camera Angles

With regard to shot angles, the dominant angle in all the commercials was found to be the level shot. The differences in the use of high, low, and level shots in the advertisements aimed at boys and those aimed at girls emerged as extremely significant (x2 = 15.20, p<.001 [df = 4]). Boys' advertisements turned up as significantly not different from the neutral advertisements. Boys' commercials were different from girls' advertisements in relation to the use of low angles (6% and 2% respectively) and level angles but not in relation to high angles (boys' advertisements - 11%, girls' advertisements - 8%). Boys' advertisements used level shots slightly less than the girls' advertisements (87% in girls' advertisements and 76% in boys' advertisements). Low angle shots were used in even lesser numbers in both categories.

There was no significant difference between boys and neutral advertisements in relation to level shots (76% & 74% respectively) or low shots but only in relation to high angle shots. Boys' advertisements used high angle shots slightly less than mixed advertisements. Girls' advertisements were significantly different from neutral advertisements (x2 = 14.61, p<.001 [df= 4]) in relation to each of the three types. Level shots were used more often than high angle shots; low shots were used sparingly.

In addition to the normal camera angles, two special angles were also studied. 'Skew' camera angle was used equally in both boys and girls' advertisements. The obvious difference was in the usage of 'overhead' angle which was negligible in girls' advertisements (.007%) but was 4% in advertisements for boys. They were found more often in the advertisements aimed primarily at boys than in those for girls. These differences between the two single gender advertisements were significant with (x2 = 15.20, p<.001[df = 4]). But mixed gender advertisements had double the number (6%) of skew angles as that of boys (3%). A highly significant difference emerged between the boys' advertisements and the neutral advertisements.

Comparing the five types of transitions, cuts have been used widely in all categories of commercials. But 96% boys' advertisements have used cuts only. Use of other types of transition was negligible. Though cuts were common in commercials aimed at girls also (76%) it was not as high as in advertisements for boys. Only 1% of the boy's advertisements had used dissolves.

On the other hand, girl's advertisements had used dissolves for 20% which was very high compared to the advertisements of the other gender. Next to cuts, dissolves were used more in girl's advertisements where as swirls were used more in boy's advertisements: fades were used by commercials targeting girls and boys equally.

Comparing the transition effects used in boys' advertisements with that of boys and girls, revealed that cut was the major form of transition. Boys' commercials had 96% cuts and neutral advertisements had an even higher cutting rate that is 97%. The difference between the commercials for boys and girls was highly significant with x2 = 80.85 p<.001 [df = 3]. Dissolves were used very rarely in advertisements aimed at boys (1%) as well as in mixed gender (0.7%) commercials.

Millerson (1985), Huston et al., (1984), Welch et al., and Wurtzel and Rosenbaum (1995) suggested that the abrupt and direct instantaneousness of cuts denoted rapid action while softness, gentleness, predictability, and slow gradual changes of dissolves connoted passivity. Thus activity was associated with boys and passivity was associated with girls in commercials using the editing techniques.

Camera & Lens Movement

One of the significant findings regarding the camera movements and lens movements like panning, pedestalling, tilting and zooming was that in all the three categories of commercials, these were used very minimally and there was no significant difference between the commercials in this aspect.

Voice Over

Regarding the voice over in the commercials, it was obvious that male voice over was used invariably by all categories of advertisements. Commercials for boys did not use female voice over even in a single case. But 39% of advertisements positioned towards girls used male voice over. Neutral advertisements also predominantly used male voice over (74%). Welch et al. found that voices in boys' advertisements and mixed audience advertisements were largely male; female voices were largely limited to female commercials. They suggested 'that males are portrayed as the authorities in most content areas except in that small domain reserved solely for females' (Welch et al., 1979). Thus, male gender occupied a dominant position in terms of voice over in children's advertising too.

Focus Group Results

The results of the focus group clearly proved that children of the age group 5-6 liked to watch television and television commercials specifically. They regularly watched children's programs and they knew many of the advertisements even before the study. During conversation it was understood that they keenly watched television commercials with children in particular and often tried to imitate those characters they saw on screen. All of them were able to reinterpret the messages of television commercials (especially the promotional messages). They could differentiate between the commercials and the program. Though some of them were not able to understand the selling motive of advertisements, most of them could understand that the commercials were for selling things. Or in other words, commercials gave information about products so that children could buy. They were clear about what products were designed for whom. They were sure about commercials targeted at girls, those positioned towards boys and common advertisements.

With regard to gender, all the children were very particular about what they considered as proper gender behavior and they had definite ideas about what boys and girls really liked. Gender was judged based on the stereotyped portrayals they saw in the media, especially television. More importantly children accepted these stereotypes as natural and perceived the visual images also in the lines of the stereotypes. Girls believed that the portrayal of boys in commercials as active, naughty, mischievous and aggressive was true. Boys too accepted the depiction of girls as caring, gentle, dependent, and so on was correct.

However they were confused regarding the gender positioning of products, especially products used by both girls and boys. Since products like sweets, biscuits and health drinks were consumed by both genders, they didn't know why boys alone were shown eating/ /chewing /drinking them. Though girls definitely knew that the products were for them also, they did not object to boys alone being portrayed like that. At the same time, boys believed the products were for them and using those would make them stronger, taller, brighter, and so on. They believed in those commercials that showed boys and promising extra power for them. They were really interested in those kinds of commercials. In the case of products of personal hygiene, girls perceived certain products to be for them. Similarly, soaps like Dettol and Life buoy were perceived by both boys and girls to be only for boys.

With regard to the settings of the commercials, except for two girls, others believed home (indoor) was the place for them which was clean and tidy. They did not want to mess themselves up by playing outside like the boys and what they saw on television was correct. At the same time, they didn't mind playing with the boys outside once in a while. This response exactly coincided with the depiction of girls in the commercials in that girls play inside the house in girls only commercials and they were portrayed outside along with boys in mixed gender commercials. When it came to fantasizing, both were equally excited. Both the genders enjoyed fantasy settings. Their imagery was far more elaborate than what was there in those commercials. They wanted more of such commercials especially with animation. They were able to attribute gender to the animated characters they saw in the commercials spontaneously. They were able to justify their action based on the appearance, traits and activities of those characters which had clear distinction.

In terms of activities of children, they unanimously agreed that boys were associated with more activities and sound. They were associated with fighting, running, jumping etc. more than playing. Girls believed strongly that they should not/would not involve in activities like stealing whereas boys believed that it was a challenge, it needed bravery and only boys could do such things. They said that it would be thrilling to engage in such activities. It was thrilling even to just watch it. However there was a difference between the opinion of children and their portrayal with regard to 'eating' in commercials. Girls did not seem to be hesitant to eat or to be portrayed as eating. But no commercial for girls alone showed them eating. That was missing in mixed gender advertisements too. It was found to be the activity of boys alone.

With regard to interaction pattern, all the children strongly felt that their interaction would change according to the situation. Depending on whether it was boys alone, girls alone or boys and girls together situation, they could act independently, competitively or cooperatively irrespective of the gender. Always portraying boys alone as independent and competitive seemed not to be agreeable even to boys. They believed that the girls could act smart when the occasion deemed it.

However with regard to the production & technical aspects of the commercials like shot size & duration, camera angle, transition, voice over, etc., the children were not even aware of those terms. Some of the studies in developed countries which investigated these formal features of commercials had come up with results highlighting the knowledge of children in these variables. But in the present study they were completely in the dark, not able to continue and the conversation coming to an abrupt end. To sum up, we can conclude that children were aware of the production features of commercials and perceive them as being intended by the advertiser. They did not object to those kinds of portrayal. For them it was natural and common in day-to-day life. But they neither notice the technical features nor understand them.

To sum up, though television commercials alone could not be blamed for creating stereotyped image for each gender in the minds of children, they definitely reinforce stereotyped roles for girls and boys starting from a young age. Their influence on children was confirmed by the discussion with them who believed that commercials showed the reality in terms of gender. In addition, they accepted that they not only imitated the characters on screen, but asked or pestered their parents to buy those things which they see on television and in most cases they succeeded. This confirms with the notion of social learning theory which emphasizes the socialization through imitation and cultivation theory that is concerned with television as a powerful mass media.


The present study clearly shows stereotyping in children's television commercials. Advertisements on television seem to be insensitive and hold on to the traditional and stereotypical images of not only women but even girls. They still perpetuate the dominating male as the voice of authority and the invisibility of women in media and society. The findings clearly establish that stereotypical gender images and roles are predominant in children's television commercials. The domination of boys over girls is clearly established in several areas of these commercials. The message such commercials aimed at children carry, continue to be gender biased.

The data show that the media portrayal of the female child is limited in the view it presents to children. Taking into consideration, the quantity of time children spend watching television programmes, and the fact that their gender behaviors have been shown to be influenced by television, the absence of a 'total'


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