Women's portrayal in ads falls behind the times, study finds

Women portrayed in magazine advertising continue to lack clearly defined roles, while men are usually in occupational roles, a recent Cornell University study has found.

And while women have been entering the labor force in ever-increasing numbers during the past 50 years, advertising in general has not mirrored this trend, with women's magazines reflecting it the least and business magazines the most.

So says Edward Kain, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Cornell. He reported the findings of his study, done with graduate student Tom Luster, at a recent meeting of the National Council on Family Relations in Washington.

The researchers examined about 2,500 ads from general, women's, and business magazines from the past 50 years to ascertain how men and women have been shown in ads and to determine if those portrayals have changed to reflect modern trends.

''In the 1940s and 1950s, both sexes were shown doing worthwhile things, such as working in or away from home. In 1980, we see more models just looking pretty , doing nothing - particularly the women in women's magazines,'' Mr. Kain reports. ''This clearly doesn't reflect reality.''

In Time and The Saturday Evening Post, the general-readership magazines studied, men were in the ads more and more often each decade. In 1940, they were in slightly more than half the ads, but by 1980 they were in more than two-thirds.

And although men were most common in the business magazines (Fortune and Business Week), and women most common in women's magazines (Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal), the men were usually in occupational roles, while the women most often were in no clearly discernible role at all.

''In women's magazines, decade by decade, we see a decline of women in family roles, a rise in the category which portrays no clear role, and no change in occupational roles,'' Mr. Kain noted.

''Yet, in reality, less than 30 percent of American women worked in 1940, but by 1980, that figure rose to more than 50 percent.''

On the other hand, when men were portrayed in women's magazines (about 26 percent of the time), they were in family roles most often, and in occupational roles least often, though more frequently than women.

In the business magazines since 1975, the Cornell researchers found that men were rarely shown in family roles and overwhelmingly in occupational roles. Women were in travel or recreational activities most often, and then in occupational roles.

In 1940, women were shown in working roles in only about 10 percent of the ads; by 1980, that figure rose to almost 30 percent - more representative of women in society than other magazines, yet far from reflecting women's true role in the work force.

''But when women are shown in occupational roles, it's usually in upper management positions. This doesn't reflect reality either,'' Mr. Kain noted. ''Many ads portray a 'superwoman' image of an executive woman with a family.''

Mr. Kain points out that ads reflect our culture, and at the same time affect how we view the world. ''But,'' he mused, ''it's still not clear whether the ads influence our ideals and aspirations or whether they are just a reflection of them.''

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