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European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998 Pages 76-81

IMAGES OF WOMEN IN ADVERTISING: A CRITICAL-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE


Ozlem Sandikci, Pennsylvania State University, U.S.A.
ABSTRACT
A framework based on cultural advertising research is offered as an alternative approach to study images of women
in advertising. The notions of polysemic advertising texts, oppositional readings, and sexism and sexuality are
examined through consumer responses obtained by two focus group discussions. All four advertisements used were
interpreted in multiple ways, with common as well as distinct readings across two groups. Certain ads generated
oppositional readings which, in some instances led to total rejection of the message of the ad. Finally, the responses
indicate that whether an ad will be regarded as sexist or not depends not only on its formal characteristics but is an
outcome of the interaction between the ad, the product, the audience and the discursive context.
INTRODUCTION
Portrayals of women in advertising and their social and business implications continue to attract academic and
popular attention. Today, after more than two decades of research, there exists an extensive literature developed
within various disciplines including marketing, media studies, women studies, English, psychology, sociology, and
cultural studies that addresses various issues on images of women in advertising. Overall three major streams of
research characterize this broad literature: 1) content analyses, which examine and categorize how women are
depicted in magazine advertisements and television commercials through counting and coding of certain elements in
the ad (see Courtney and Whipple 1983 for a comprehensive review, and also Gilly 1988; Fox 1990; Craig 1992); 2)
surveys and experimental stdies which attempt to measure the impact of different role portrayals on various forms of
responses including attitudes towards the ad and/or brand, overall perception of the ad and/or the brand, company
image and purchase intention (see Courtney and Whipple 1983, and also Leigh et al 1987; Ford and LaTour 1993;
Jaffe and Berger 1994); 3) critical studies, which focus on the ideological content and consequences of advertising
representations of women (e.g. Williamson 1978; Winship 1980; Yanni 1990; Rakow 1992).
However, while portrayals of women in advertising have frequently been the target of academic discussion, the ways
researchers study the topic have been curiously neglected. A critical review of the literature indicates that, while
these studies differ extensively in their research interests, objectives, methodologies and recommendations, they
nevertheless share certain assumptions about women and advertising that are highly problematic but remain
unquestioned in most cases. For example, be it an experimental study published in a marketing journal that examines
the impact of womens role portrayals on purchase intentions or an article published in a womens studies journal
that offers a semiotic reading of a number of advertisements as an evidence of reproduction of patriarchy, there are
common presumptions that advertising operates as a one-way communication system and that audiences accept
these messages uniformly and uncritically. Such assumptions have been challenged both by the theoretical
developments in mass communication (see Jensen 1987; Radway 1988; Morley 1993; Schroder 1994 for reception
studies) and literary studies (see Fish 1980; Iser 1980 for reader-response theory), and the emerging cultural
advertising research paradigm within marketing discipline (e.g. McCracken 1987; Sherry 1987; Stern 1989; Mick
and Buhl 1992; Scott 1994a; Ritson and Elliott 1995; Holt and Mulvey forthcoming).
Moreover, there is the assumption that there is one single 'correct image of women that advertisements can either
achieve or fail to portray. This argument rests on a modernist foundation that conceives a dichotomy between 'bad
images of women in which women are shown either in 'traditional roles as happy housewives or as sexual objects,
and 'good images of women in which they are shown in 'modern roles such as the career woman. Not only such a
categorization is overly simplistic, it is very difficult to agree on what makes a woman traditional or modern to
begin with. As developments within postmodernism suggests gender identities, be it male or female, are highly
complex, multi-dimensional, contextual, and open to negotiation (see Firat and Venkatesh 1996 for a review of
postmodernism and its implications for marketing). Furthermore, by labeling certain images as good and others as
bad, and by recommending that the way to 'improve womens social positions is to portray them in 'important
settings such as doing business or buying cars, these studies end up obscuring the power relations in the society and
reproducing what usually are regarded as conservative, middle class and male values.

A third issue concerns the confusion between what counts as a sexist image and the notions of female sexuality and
beauty. Most of the existing studies are, at best, nave in their assumptions about what a 'sexist image refers to. In
many studies sexism is often equated to nudity and sexual suggestiveness, and either treated as a content variable or
simplified into scaled responses to structured questionnaires. Such an approach is limiting in two aspects. First,
focusing exclusively on the denotative elements of the images, i.e., presence or absence of a semi-nude female
model in the ad, is reductionist and isolates sexism from its cultural, social and contextual dimensions. As many
scholars argue (e.g., Cowie 1977; Tuchman 1979), sexism is a dynamic concept that exists in a web of cultural
meanings, and cannot simply be read off from the manifest content of the images. An image is not inherently sexist
but it is the conditions of its production and interpretation in relation to various cultural discourss that determine
whether it will be regarded as such or not. Second, single-handed categorization of sexual suggestiveness and
physical beauty as indicative of sexism, rests on a highly problematic assumption that has shaped feminist thinking
until recently: the notion that beauty and sexual attractiveness are the tools for male domination and female
oppression. This perspective has come under attack in recent years (e.g., Probyn 1987; Jacobus et al 1990; Davis
1991), and it has been argued that beauty and attractiveness cannot be explained strictly in terms of repression, but
their gratifying, empowering and pleasurable dimensions need to be taken into account as well. Allowing for a
theoretical space in which one can explore how these images are taken up by women and utilized in their daily lives
B the possibilities they open up and the pleasures they provide B may well explain why certain images are still so
pervasive in advertisements despite the criticism they get.
Hence, the purpose of this article is to propose an alternative framework to study images of women in advertising,
which, is hoped that will overcome some of the limitations of the existing literature. The framework draws from the
cultural theory of advertising and emphasizes 'what people do with advertising rather than 'what advertising does to
people (Lannon and Cooper 1983). It will be argued that such an approach can open up a new set of research
questions to be explored and provide new insights into the understanding of the relationship between advertising and
images of women. The results of an exploratory research involving focus group discussions will be offered as a
preliminary demonstration of the possible contributions of this alternative framework.
ACTIVE AUDIENCES AND POLYSEMIC MEDIA MESSAGES
A new stream of research that has recently emerged within marketing conceives of advertisements as polysemic, i.e.,
open to multiple readings, and the audiences as active agents in meaning formation (e.g., McCracken 1987; Sherry
1987; Stern 1989, 1993; Mick and Politi 1989; McQuarrie and Mick 1992; Scott 1994a, 1994b; Ritson and Elliot
1995; Holt and Mulvey forthcoming). The notions of active audience and polysemic media messages bear important
implications for studying images of women in advertising. First, it implies a break from the strong textual
determinacy inherent in most of the existing literature and points out the possibility of different interpretations made
by various audience groups. It warns us against researcher driven categorization of certain representations as
stereotypical and others as non-stereotypical based solely on their formal elements and manifest contents. Rather, it
calls for a research strategy that aims to examine how various images will be taken up and interpreted by different
groups B 'interpretive communities (see Jensen 1990) B of women under what social, cultural, and discursive
conditions.
The cultural perspective also necessitates an emphasis on the intertextual nature of advertising messages and their
interrelatedness to the broader social and cultural discourses on femininity and gender identities. While it has been
argued by literary and cultural theorists for a long time that ad meanings are intertextual, that is their meanings are
diachronically and synchronically related to other cultural texts (Williamson 1978; Goldman 1992; Scott 1994b),
this phenomenon has been mostly ignored in empirical studies of images of women in advertising. However women
are continuously exposed to various images and representations of femininity that are articulated by other media
genres and literary forms, and the cumulative effect of such exposure impacts how any particular image will be read.
Audiences transfer literacies and meanings that they gain in interpreting one media genre to other genres, and
intertextual knowledges pre-orient readers to exploit polysemy by activating the text in certain ways, that s by
making some meanings rather than others (Fiske 1987).
Finally, the cultural perspective opens up a theoretical space in which the nature and extent of oppositional readings
can be explored (see Scott 1994b on text rejection). In recent years some writers argued that the range of possible
reactions is much wider than we assume and women can actively resist or transform the meanings of media
messages (e.g., Wilson 1985; Davis and Fisher 1993). While these arguments require empirical support, they
nonetheless raise interesting questions: i.e., what types of representations motivate oppositional readings?; how
differential interpretive resources impact generation of oppositional readings?; to what extent oppositional readings
affect attitude towards the ad and consumption choices?
METHODOLOGY

In empirical studies that examine consumers interpretation of advertisements the most commonly used methods are
focus group discussions and in-depth interviewing using ads as stimuli (e.g., Mick and Politi 1989; McQuarrie and
Mick 1992; Mick and Buhl 1992; Elliot et al 1995). Given the theoretical perspective and exploratory nature of the
study, semi-structured focus group discussions which would allow for group interaction during interpretation
process and generate new questions and directions for future research were considered to be the ideal method for
data collection. Consequently two female-only focus group discussions were conducted by the same sex researcher.
The groups were selected under the guidance of cultural capital theory (see Bourdieu 1984) which suggests that
cultural capital is generally acquired unreflexively via socialization and its volume is influenced by individuals
material and social conditions including family, neighborhood, formal education, occupational location and social
class. The first group (will be referred as Group-1) is sought to correspond to a mid-level cultural capital. It
consisted of six females who were undergraduate students at a major research university in Eastern United States.
They were all single, with ages ranging from 20 to 22, and coming from middle/upper-middle income families with
parents having at least high school degrees. The second group (will be referred as Group-2) is sought to correspond
to a lower level cultural capital. It consisted of eight females who were studying at a local two-year proprietary
school. Their ages ranged from 19 to 34, and two of them were married. Most came from working class families
with parents who had at most high school degrees.
Four advertisements chosen from womens magazines Elle, Vogue and Womans World used as stimulus materials
(see Figures-1,2,3 and 4). Overall the selection aimed to achieve a set of ads that have different executional styles
and represent a range of products with different involvement levels, brand images and perceptions. Advertisements
were shown one-by-one with the same order in both groups. For each advertisement a number of pre-specified
questions were asked. This included questions such as: What story is this ad telling?; Can you describe the woman
(man) shown in the ad?; Can you relate to this woman? Why or why not?; Is this a sexist ad? Why or why not? Both
sessions were moderated with minimum intervention, and the participants proved very willing and open to discuss
the advertisements with very little encouragement required. At the end of the discussion the informants were asked
to fill out a short questionnaire asking for demographic data and briefed about the purpose of the study. Both
sessions lasted approximately eighty minutes. The discussions were audio-taped, fully transcribed and analyzed to
assess similarities as well as differences among the interpretations of two groups.
CONSUMERS INTERPRETATIONS OF ADS
Multiple Images, Multiple Readings
As suggested by the cultural theory of advertising, when asked to describe the overall story of the ad, respondents in
both groups offered more than one reading for all ads. In some instances readings were different but related to each
other suggesting a 'structured polysemy (Hall 1973); in other instances there were interpretations that were very
distinct or opposite to the ones that were offered by other members of the group. Furthermore, while some readings
were common across groups, there were also interpretations that were unique to each group, evidencing the impact
of varying life experiences and cultural resources that were utilized by members of different interpretive
communities. For example, when asked to describe the story of the Longing advertisement, respondents in the first
group offered two different but related readings. The dominant interpretation is that the female model is laying back,
dreaming and waiting for the man to come and get her, while the alternative reading is that the man is longing for a
woman like her:

G.1: Its basically saying you wear this perfume and you like her- youll make a
man remember you.
G.1: Well, shes wearing see-through lingerie and she is in a pose thats sayingcome and get meG.1: She looks like shes on a bed.
G.1: And the expression on her face, too, she just kind of looks like shes laying
back an dreaming.
G.1: Waiting for the man to come and get her.
G.1: But, you see, I also interpret it thatCbefore I read that everywhere he goes
the little print- longingC that it could be that like the guy is longing for a girl who

is like that- its more like incentive like hell always remember you- he wants
youByoure in his mind.
On the other hand respondents in the second group offered a wider range of interpretations with none of them being
agreed upon as the meaning of the ad. More significantly, the discussion on the story of the ad quickly moved away
from product related themes into a discussion about a different genre, soap operas, with some informants decoding
the meaning of the ad only by making references to story lines and characters that are generally associated with
those of soap operas:

G.2: That if you wear this perfume your man is going to remember you.
G.2: ..., its trying to say it has a sensation and smell that would draw somebody
to you.
G.2: ... she cant hold on to him so shes got to go buy this perfume to keep her in
his head for the rest of his life when he doesnt want anything to do with her. I
dont know, hes like looking off in the distance and shes like, I dont know...
G.2: ..., it looks like a soap opera. It has a story line like a soap opera.
G.2: ... I think in this ad it shows two people wanting to be back in a time when
they were really having a good time but theyre not anymore and theyre looking
back and theyre thinking about that time that maybe they were at the beach. So I
think that both of them are unhappy either because hes back with his wife and
hes thinking of her or shes just hoping that hell leave his wife and come back to
her.
G.2: Its like they both want to be together.
Not only the overall meanings of the ads, but the female models were epicted in multiple ways. For instance, when
asked to describe the woman shown in the Longing ad, respondents in Group-1 portray a picture of a woman who is
elite, aristocratic and has vintage quality:

G.1: She doesnt really do much of anythingG.1: The men do things for her- let me buy you this- let me buy you that- just so
you can be draped on my armG.1: Shes just there to look beautiful and thats what- shes not a real person type
thingG.1: I think it has a vintage quality to it- if its just like, I dont know, its like
there is some quality of the old- like its trying to rekindle this spirit of the
romantic past- like maybe- old fashioned-kind of- love- that maybe you dont see
in the 90s anymore. I mean, like, look at the model- shes very, like, what would
be like a typical- she typifies this Georgian, Southern belle kind of girl. Or she
typifies like maybe- a very elite- kind of- aristocratic, maybe European,Blike she
has some kind of a vintage qualityG.1: ... she kind of like reminds me of the French era of the Rococo- she is very,
like, a woman of the boudoir- she wants to partake in the pleasures of the flesh
like the earthly pleasures of just like the frolicking.

G.1: ... a woman who does nothing and that her sole purpose is just to be
desirable.
In a totally contrary way, respondents in the second group characterize the very same female model as a desperate,
trashy-looking tramp that is really insecure and has nothing better to do that laying around and waiting for some man
to come back to her:

G.2: I think she looks desperate.


G.2: Totally relaxed.
G.2: I think she looks desperate.
G.2: I think she looks like Marilyn Monroe.
G.2: Unreal.
G.2: Shes skinny, not an ounce of fat.
G.2: Shes too sexy, she looks too sexy for this ad.
G.2: I think she looks trashy.
G.2: She looks like a tramp.
G.2: The life of luxury.
G.2: She looks like she has money.
G.2: She has nothing better to do than lay around and wait for some man to come
back, because he cant forget the way she smells.
G.2: She doesnt look to be married.
G.2: Shes too relaxed.
G.2: She looks available.
G.2: She just looks trashy.
Oppositional Readings
Certain portrayals of female models generated oppositional readings, and in some instances led to total rejection of
the overall message of the ad. As Scott (1994b) suggests text rejection occurs not because the persuasive act fails,
but because the reader who is actively screening out the message decides to reject the proposition. Whether the
message of an ad will be rejected or not depends both on the formal characteristics of the ad and the cultural,
interpretive, and discursive repertoire of the reader. Hence, while some advertisements generate similar oppositional
readings among a number of different interpretive communities, some others can be rejected only by members of
certain interpretive groups. For instance, in both groups, respondents regarded Virginia Slims ad as 'fake mainly
because of the inconsistency between the female model who is shown wearing high heels and tight pants and the
idea of her riding the motorcycle shown. Not only they rejected the ads attempt to convey an image of a woman
who 'has come a long way and able to do whatever she wats to do, but they characterized the model as 'cheap@,
'unreal and 'looking like a bitch.
On the other hand, the reactions against Betty Barclay ad were different between two groups. Respondents in Group1 quickly recognized that the ad was portraying a woman who looked confident and powerful but only at the
expense of wearing the right clothes and looking attractive. That is, while they feel favorable about the notion of a
woman who is confident and can stand on her own, they, nonetheless, deconstruct the overall message of the ad and

oppose to the implicit suggestion that to be such a woman requires certain physical attributes and what Goldman
(1992) refers as 'management of beauty assets:

G.1: Shes confident in herself.


G.1: I think shes the kind of woman that every woman would want to be or like
to be.
G.1: But since this is a clothes ad- is saying that you have to wear the right clothes
or be in that brand to be that woman that you want to be- to be your own womanG.1: To be your own woman yet wear Betty Barclays!
G.1: I dont really like that part of the message.
G.1: Well, OK, Im just gonna compare this with the other ads- we all want to
look good, we want to look feminine and we want to look like these other girls in
the other dress- when it comes down to this adBwe want to have our individuality
of being a woman- and this ad depicts that- shes standing on her ground and shes
a woman.
G.1: Shes also wearing these clothes, though.
G.1: and shes beautiful...
G.1: But she also has to be wearing those clothes, though. Shes wearing those
nice, fancy, clothes and shes looking good.
Group-2 respondents also conceived the female model as a powerful woman. However their interpretations fell short
from deconstructing the ads message in the way Group-1 respondents did. Rather than drawing the attention to the
link between the physical attributes of the woman and the power she gains thereafter, they focus on the male
character and speculate that he should be a sensitive man who understands 'her womans need to be her own
woman. Since confidence and power of the woman portrayed in the ad are read as deriving from a particular kind of
relationship between the man and the woman and a particular type of male character, let alone opposing to the ads
implicit requirement of an attractive and good-looking figure to achieve power and independence, this message is
not even recognized:

Q: Do you think this ad is different than the other ones?


G.2: (multiple) Yes
Q: How different is it?
G.2: This one is focused only on women
G.2: Its realistic.
G.2: Its focused on women, it doesnt have a specific age group to it.
G.2: Its not trying to lure men into buying these clothes, it might make men not
want to.
G.2: I think it gives the man, the man seems like hes in a better light, like theyre
not putting the man down and making him look like a figure or anything. Theyre

almost making him look sensitive like hes that kind of man that understands that
his woman needs to be her own woman and hes not going to fight with her hes
not going to argue with her. Hes going to let her do her own thing, hes not going
to try to hold on to her, hes confident too.
G.2: Well I agree with you that hes confident and all that, but he just seems like
hes rich and hes like a powerful man.
Q: Is he more powerful than the woman?
G.2: (multiple) No. Not more powerful.
Q: Who is more powerful in this ad?
G.2: (multiple) The woman.
Sexism and Sexuality
One particular instance that multiple interpretations and oppositional readings frequently occur is during the
discussions around sexism and sexuality. Overall, the responses given put into question the very meaning of 'sexism
and suggest that whether an ad will be regarded as sexist or not depends not only on its formal characteristics but is
an outcome of the interaction between the ad, the product, the audience and the discursive context. For instance,
shortly after viewing the Wonderbra ad respondents in both groups characterized it as a sexist advertisement.
However this early and reactionary interpretation has been later discounted: First, it was an ad for a bra. That is,
because the product was a bra, the advertiser had no choice but to show the model while wearing it. Second, there
was a tacit acceptance that the ad was using what is known to be an effective selling ploy, sexual attraction, and they
as the consumers of this ad were aware of this textual game. Third, and most significantly, the ad was sexist yet
acceptable as long as the product could do any good for the person wearing it. The 'sexist, but attitude that
frequently articulated by respondents in both groups, echoes de Certeaus (1984) notion of the 'tactics of the
subordinate, and may well point out the possibility of and pleasure in appropriating the patriarchal meanings
commonly associated with the female body.
The meaning of sexism also varies across different interpretive communities. The range of interpretations that the
tag-line 'Youve come a long way, baby in the Virginia Slims ad received well illustrates the limitation of a priori
classification of ads as sexist or not without due emphasis to their modes of reception. Virginia Slims had been using
this tag-line for a very long period of time, and it had been the target of many criticisms (see for a recent example
Kellner 1995). When exposed to this ad, respondents in Group-1 expressed their discontent, and similar to what
many scholars argued before, regarded the expression, and especially the word 'baby, as explicitly sexist:

G.1: Ive never liked their slogan-youve come a long way, baby.
G.1: I dont like the baby, thing.
G.1: It is sexist.
G.1: Exactly- theyre trying to say something nice about women- youve come
along way- since whats happened- but I dont think 'youve come a long wayjust say 'weve come a long way. And then the baby- they put a baby on the end
of it. I mean I like Virginia Slims, I guess, not to boycott the product- but Im just
saying Ive never liked the 'baby thing.
However, contrary to what has been argued in the literature and also articulated by the informants in the first group,
second group respondents did not regard the tag-line as sexist at all and interpreted the phrase in many different
ways. Some informants conceive it as a positive comment suggesting that women now have the freedom and ability
to do whatever they want to do. In similar lines, some others read it as an empowering statement that celebrates
womens progress. And yet, two other respondents interpret the expression as referring to cigarettes not the women;
that is now cigarettes come in all shapes and sizes:

G.2: They have come a long way.


Q: What do they mean by that?
G.2: That now women if you smoke Virginia Slims that youre going to have
more confidence, that before we were like little, we had to liste to men and do
what they say and you know clean the house.
G.2: Like now you can get some class or something.
G.2: Now you can be your own self. If you want to ride a motorcycle you can ride
a motorcycle. If you want to smoke a cigarette you can smoke a cigarette.
Q: Whos telling that AYouve come a long way baby@?
G.2: A woman telling another woman. Be confident, be yourself.
G.2: I think in a way the advertisers telling women, youve come a long way
baby.
G.2: I think they are trying to tie in the women with the cigarette itself because up
until Virginia Slims all cigarettes were the same size, the same roundness, then
they come out with this extra long cigarette thats real slim. Theyre not even
saying women have come a long way. Theyre saying that cigarettes have come a
long way.
G.2: There are special cigarettes made just for women.
DISCUSSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
This study is a first step toward developing a cultural and reception analysis based understanding of images of
women in advertising. It should be noted that present study is only of exploratory nature and is intended to point out
certain problematic assumptions in the existing literature and not to prescribe how advertisers 'should portray
women in advertisements. While present data are limited by weaknesses in focus group design, the results,
nonetheless, illustrate the problematic nature of many assumptions that characterize the epistemological and
methodological status of much of the existing studies. First of all, a comprehensive analysis of advertising portrayals
of women requires adapting a polysemic view of advertising texts. Polysemy does not mean indeterminacy and
interpretive anarchy; rather it admits a variety of readings delimited by the structure of the text and activated at the
moment of reading by a socially and historically situated reader (Fiske 1987). The finding that the same
advertisements generated multiple readings including similar as well as different ones across two groups illustrates
this point. Furthermore, the fact that not only the female models portrayed in the ads but the overall stories of the ads
can be decoded differently by various interpretive communities puts into question the validity of a priori
categorization and labeling of certain images as representing the 'traditional or 'modern woman, and raises
significant questions regarding the control over brand images and meanings that advertisers try to communicate to
their target markets.
Another promising research area that the analyses point out is the notions of oppositional readings and text rejection.
Contrary to the implicit assumption held in many studies that women accept 'stereotypical images uncritically and
are manipulated by advertising, certain ads motivated and generated resistive readings on the part of audiences.
While it was not the case that all informants always attempted to deconstruct the meanings of ads, the occurrence of
such instances implies an audience that is capable of actively screening out the message and, if necessary, resist the
proposition made by the ad (Scott 1994b). Further studies need to examine formal characteristics of advertisements
that motivate oppositional readings and those that do not, as well as the impact of differential interpretive resources
and audience characteristics on text rejection.
The notions of sexism and female sexuality also need to be reconsidered. The responses to advertisements illustrate
the complex and product, audience, and context specific nature of whether an image will be regarded as a sexist

portrayal of women or not. The analysis suggests that while certain denotative elements, i.e, a semi-nude model,
work to provoke sexism, they alone can not stabilize and determine the meaning of sexism. A shift from
conceptualizing sexist representations at their moments of production to that of at their moments of reception may
provide additional insights on understanding why and what type of images become regarded as sexist among
different groups of audiences, and open up a theoretical space from which the notions of female sexuality and
pleasure can be studied without resorting to the language of patriarchal domination.
Future studies with other interpretive communities are hoped to further our understanding of the complex
relationship between advertising and images of women, and explore in depth several other themes that have been
brought up by respondents during the focus group discussions: e.g., the notion of realism as pertaining to female
models portrayed in the ads; the impact of various assumptions viewers make about men, women, and their
relationship with each other while interpreting advertisements; the influence of various cultural and social discourses
on female body including advertising on consumption choices.
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