Images of Woman Now
2012 / 2018
A follow up study
IMAGES OF WOMAN 2012
A follow up study was conducted in 2012 analysing 243 advertisements in five magazines: Red, Woman and Home, Woman, Woman’s Own and Good Housekeeping, together with a sideways look at Company, Hello and Heat to see if there were any significant differences. There weren’t.
The magazine market has changed considerably. Firstly, readership has plummeted since the 1960s/70s when publications such as Woman had a readership in the millions. (Current figures can be seen on-line in a number of places, for example www.pressgazette.co.uk) Secondly, some of the new market leaders such as Take a Break, carry little or no advertising. The content of some magazines, notably Woman and Woman’s Own had changed significantly: a vast increase in celebrity gossip and the disappearance of fiction being the most striking features. The magazines themselves were smaller and the amount of advertising less. In the glossier publications, advertising was still a major component, however.
1970 – 2012: the comparison
Over the years, the type and range of products advertised in women’s magazines have changed, though not substantially. There are fewer household goods, fewer adverts for underclothes and for careers. There has been a big increase in products for dieting/slimming. There are some adverts for new products, mobile phone companies and apps, for example, but not many. Advertisements for books make an appearance, which is interesting given that fiction in the magazines has all but disappeared.
Advertisements have become glossier and more colourful but fundamentally remain very similar. The correlations between form and product are still strong. For example, close-up and sharp focus in food advertisements, close-up and softer focus in cosmetic adverts. The use of colour is striking but very often from an interestingly restricted palette.
Props still work in the same way and offer pretty much the same kinds of associations, often to indicate a high degree of sophistication, glamour or cool.
There are fewer advertisements placed in a recognizable setting. Most adverts take place in nowhere-land. There are very few familiar settings, especially indoor domestic settings. As earlier in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you never see a workplace. There are no offices, let alone a call-centre or a factory.
The earlier study showed the prevalence of five character types: wife & mother, hostess, mannequin, free spirit and self-involved female (narcissist for short). There have been fewer changes over time than might have been expected. Comparing the earlier study with that of 2012:
The role of the hostess shows a sharp decline and the wife/mother role is also less prevalent. The mannequin and free spirit remain fairly steady and the narcissistic mode (woman alone / sultry / self-involved etc) is even more dominant. Typically, in this role, she is not being looked at, nor does she give the impression that she actually wants to relate to anyone. Her pose and expression say ‘admire me but don’t get to know me’. She doesn’t do anything. (One cannot imagine her cooking, cleaning or child-rearing - and engaging in any kind of work, menial or managerial, is unthinkable!)
It seems that the actor in this role is playing at being sexy and alluring: but is it the admiration of men or of women she courts? For whom do these women dress, apply make-up, arrange their hair? These adverts give an impression of personalities which are sealed off, hardly engaging with the real world. It is surely worth asking (though we can only hypothesize answers) why such portrayals are so pervasive in our culture?
From the point of view of method, the conclusion from Images of Woman still stands. ‘The communication of meanings, even when the means of communication is visual, can be studied and can be studied in a way which is not merely selective and intuitive.’ There are patterns of meaning in the illustrations which can only be revealed by assembling a mass of data and examining the correlations and consistencies within it. These patterns show that the vocabulary of advertising imagery is quite restricted – by the mechanics of the business, the existence of traditions and stereotypes and received modes of behaviour – and that it is possible to establish the nature of that vocabulary.
In spite of a greater ethnic diversity, the images of women presented in advertisements in women’s magazines have changed little over the last forty years. This in itself is surprising. There has been an increased awareness of the part the mass media play in defining (or attempting to define) the roles of women in contemporary society, but this is not reflected in advertising images (or, to any great extent, in editorial content).
In any debate about the 'essential' or 'socially constructed' nature of gender we might see advertising images working towards the same end. They present a world in which the images show either 'this is what it is like to be female' or, coming from another direction, 'this is what you should be like to be female'.
What we have seen is a shift away from woman as wife and mother and as hostess. However, the move away from the domestic has not resulted in the increased portrayal of women as equals, as workers or as creative individuals. What has become dominant are the roles of mannequin and narcissist, roles which often merge. Whether this shift reflects changes in society or merely in the world-view of advertisers and their creative directors is hard to assess. What, for example, is the connection between the increasing editorial space given to celebrity as well as articles on body image and the increase in adverts for diets and slimming? Here is some interesting territory to be explored by other researchers who can bring other disciplines to bear upon it.
Some thoughts from 2018
As one might expect, there are no dramatic changes from 2012 in the magazines I have examined. The gradual decline in magazine readership has meant a greater focus on digital advertising, much of which employs still images, though short video clips are increasingly common. However, in monthly magazines such as Red, Woman and Home and Elle, adverts remain a powerful component.
A brief survey (August 2018) shows how dominant the mannequin role is, especially in Elle. The hostess has disappeared and wife and mother is rare. The carefree active woman is relatively more common, especially in Red. Given the nature of the magazines it's not surprising that both the wife/mother and hostess roles are rare or that food and household goods figure only in Woman and Home. What we still notice, though, is the continuing absence of any woman involved in work.
There are noticeable echoes of 1970 images in the adverts which appear nearly 50 years later. (See below) Perhaps this is not surprising, given that there are only so many ways of portraying women within the stereotypical constraints within which the advertisers are working. (See Conclusions from the original study.) Throughout, women are looking at women, comparing themselves with idealisations which rarely coincide with lived reality. Who benefits?
I recently came across a 1950 edition of Woman. The images presented there do throw up some interesting comparisons with those appearing a decade or so later, suggesting a greater cultural shift in those years than any that has taken place between the 1960s and the present. The focus shifts from woman as homemaker to woman herself. From 'How am I performing as a wife / mother / hostess?' to 'How am I presenting my face and body to the world (or more precisely, to myself and other women?'
See Woman 1950