Thursday, November 26, 2009

Engrossing, stimulating Mad Men

One of my extended family members who enjoys Mad Men, a favorite show chez nous, wrote me:
I watched the DVD's special features Part 1 on the 2nd wave of feminism or "humanism" as Gloria Stein aptly puts it. The last point that is made by a California professor (forget name) she says that women need to support each others' choices, a philosophy I've always loved being a mostly "stay at home." Here's the thing that's sticking in my craw, literally everyone interviewed speaks as if current commercial advertising is any different. On commercial TV today do you ever see a guy doing laundry? The man is only viewed as a landscaper, SUV driver, beer drinker or a buyer of jewelry. For sure business women are included, but they're still shopping for mops on the weekends. Look at all the male cooking shows on the Food Network, yet you never see a man cooking on a commercial unless he's barbecuing. They only man who cleans up on TV is the Sham-Wow guy.
This email made me realize: Yes, social roles and gender customs have changed immensely; and the content of TV shows has changed also; but ads have changed less than has society -- why?

Back in the mid-90s my psych undergrads did a content analysis (for a course project) of ads shown during a prime-time TV show (Beverly Hils 90210). They documented with precise counts that ads depicted  women house cleaning and grooming, and almost never showed women in a traditionally male occupations. Ads for men were more career-related (the one grooming product for men concerned grey hair and balding).

So why are ads behind-the-times? Why aren't ads keeping up with dynamically changing gender roles? It seems that advertising is inherently "conservative" in the sense of needing to uphold the values of a prior generation, but why? I've read or thought about two explanations:

1. When ads try something more socially progressive, they don't appeal to as large a percentage of the population, because they strongly turn off whatever segment is actually socially conservative (say 20%).  When socially conservative ads are aired, there are fewer negative responses to the ads, because these ads showing older social roles are at least familiar to the rest of the population. So pushing the progressive message is a larger net cost. The example of this that I've read is a somewhat distinct issue, but let me refer to it:  Mainstream magazines,  such as Cosmopolitan, have specific monetary concerns about featuring an African American woman on the cover. Supposedly, these covers lead to a drop in magazine purchases for that issue.   One analysis of this drop is that a cover model of the dominant ethnicity stands for all women, but a cover model of a minority ethnicity is understood (by everyone) as primarily referencing the minority ethnicity.  The analogy I'm making is:  an ad which incorporates traditional gender roles can be understood as applying to everyone (even those who embrace modern gender roles), but an add for contemporary gender roles only applies to the population subset who embrace the contemporary roles.

2. Displaying traditional gender roles creates more anxiety and feelings of low self-worth in viewers, and these feelings drive viewers to buy the advertised products to remediate anxiety about dirty houses, wrinkles, not keeping up with the Jones, owning low-status products, etc. Displaying progressive role models in non-gender stereotypical activities sgnals "I'm okay you're okay" and reduces the need to buy products.

Other ideas?

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