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14.05.2007 General News

Advertising And Sex Roles

Ghanaians are showered with so many adverts (ads) on a daily basis through television, radio, newspapers, billboards and so on, all in an attempt to draw attention to or describe favourably goods and services to sell, promote patronage or just to create awareness.

Both males and females feature in adverts, but the type of product or service and intended message usually determine who plays what role.

It is a largely held view that advertising greatly influences society's opinion of what the appropriate sex roles and responsibilities are or should be.

It is, therefore, necessary to carefully analyse the content of ads in relation to how women and men are portrayed. There is therefore a growing concern about the role women play in ads in general.

This is so because women are often seen and heard playing narrowly defined roles, which only reinforce the idea that those roles are appropriate, ideal and even “natural”.

Women are dominantly found in adverts on personal hygiene products, or are being used for products meant for bathrooms and kitchens.

On the Ghanaian advertising scene, women normally play the role of domestic housewives who do all the cooking, cleaning and care-giving, often without any support from their partners.

With this, advertising is prescribing the role of a woman as being very much a family and home-orientated one, doing domestic chores or even worse, serving as a sex or decorative piece.

In contrast, men are often portrayed as strong, smart, professionals, leaders and decision makers who are solely responsible for paying all bills at home.

In these ads women are sometimes portrayed as “dumb” and unintelligent because they usually do not have the slightest idea what products out there can help make “their work” easier. Their “smarter partners” who are usually professionals in different fields are the ones who again introduce the wives/women to the new and effective products.

One of such ads on television is about a detergent (washing soap); a “diligent wife” gracefully irons her husband's clothes as he angrily storms out of his room and reprimands her quite nastily for not washing his shirt well.

After delivering his message in the rudest manner, he informs her of the new washing soap on the market. This is one of the adverts that portray women as nothing but objects. I wonder if ads makers and product sellers really believe that women are only good for errands and nothing else.

The issue of portraying women as sex objects in ads needs to be discussed. This is important because the ads only reinforce the idea of women being worth nothing beyond their physical looks.

These ads prescribe what the “ideal beauty” is. They further put a lot of pressure on women, especially young girls, and they may want to want to look and carry themselves in a certain way.

In such ads the woman's only attribute is conventional beauty; sometimes tall and slim, with long legs, perfect hair, and skin without a blemish in sight. She is used to advertise cosmetics, health products and anything that works to improve the appearance of the body but even more disappointing, she is used to advertise products that have nothing to do with the physical human body such as cars, alcoholic beverages, etc.

For example, in a popular alcoholic beverage being advertised now on television: two men proudly enumerate the product's attributes and within seconds a very beautiful girl passes by. As one of the men salivates upon seeing her, the smoothness of her skin and looks is compared to that of the drink.

Most disgustingly, the conclusion is that the drink is even “smoother” than the human being! The mere idea of comparing the smoothness of a drink to whatever part of a woman/human being gives reasons for serious worry. Issues of human dignity are at stake here.

The argument here is that adverts in general do not reflect the changing trends in women's roles in society, particularly with regard to educational advancement and the professional and career choices of women.

Considering the huge impact adverts have on the mindsets and attitudes of consumers, it would be a smart and very influential approach to clearly reflect the growing trend in the lives of Ghanaians today; where more women are in formal employment and key decision-making positions and more men are also involved in supporting their families and actively participating in household activities such as caring for the children at home, cooking and washing. But rarely are such things depicted in ads.

We usually see the opposite where men make attempts at doing such things but proudly fail. An example is the famous advert on cheaper calling rates of one of our communication networks, where a young man attempts to cook for his date and cannot even light up the gas cooker.

He makes an absolute mess of the kitchen, probably as a punishment for his sister who was not around to do the cooking. He finally gives up and proudly orders food.

Another example is a rice advert where another young man expecting his date cannot cook even rice! He had his sister-in-law do the cooking and she was supposed to hide when his guest arrives so she does not find out that he did not cook the food.

These ads clearly tell the world especially young men that it is all right if they cannot find their way around in the kitchen, not even to light up the gas stove! Will men always be dependent on women for their meals and basic survival? I think our men do better than they are being portrayed. Men can cook and do cook (over 80 per cent of those who operate “check-check” food joints are men).

Let us all do some fair thinking and call on producers and clientele of adverts to re-examine the roles and characters they put in their adverts to catch up with the growing trend; where women are increasingly occupying decision-making and leadership positions, are bread winners and professionals who are outstanding in their different fields, rather than always portraying them as sex objects, good only for domestic chores and as decorative pieces. Or better still, use ads as a medium of educating the public on breaking away from stereotypical roles of men and women.

Adverts are very influential in the fight for gender balance and equality; let us use them wisely.

Article by Dinah Kpodo