Stereotypical Gender Roles Portrayed in Children's Television Commercials
Jacquelyn S. Bradway
Western Connecticut State University


Research performed since the 1970's on children's television commercials and gender stereotypes has consistently shown females circumscribed by limited roles and opportunities, while males are portrayed as having a diverse spectrum of roles and activities in which they partake. Although the numbers of females shown in diverse roles and activities has increased in the children's TV commercials over the past twenty years, it is still not accurate or indicative of the number of females, or roles, actually held by females in society. Children's TV commercials were viewed, while evidence of stereotypes associated with roles, traits, and activities, for both males and females were documented. Evidence of females engaging in stereotypical male behaviors, and males engaging in stereotypical female behaviors is documented. Results correspond to past research performed in the realm of gender stereotypes in children's television.

Gender Stereotypes Portrayed in Children's Television Commercials

One area of research in the study of communications has been how media portray and encode gender roles. One of the most significant media for the transmission of these messages is television. Neil Postman (1985) refers to television as a curriculum, " a specially constructed information system whose purpose is to influence, teach, train or cultivate the mind and character of youth" (145). Like a curriculum, television contains information about the world we live in and acts as a vehicle of socialization, where knowledge about gender roles and expectations is acquired. Children are encountering information about these roles on television, and even more specifically, in television commercials, where it has been found that gender stereo- typing may be even stronger than in regular television programming. Stereotypes are evident in the disproportionate number of males to females portrayed, the limited behavioral roles that females hold compared to males, the smaller number of occupations and activities in which the females are found, and the gender specificity of traits displayed by individuals in each sex (Unger, 1979).

Michael Parenti (1985) suggests that television be considered a significant influence upon children since they spend more time viewing TV than reading their textbooks. He states that "except for friends, the media are the primary influence in shaping children's sense of sex roles and future aspirations" (163). It has been estimated that the average child currently watches approximately 4 hours of television per day, and with nearly 30 advertisements per hour, the typical child is being exposed to over 30,000 product commercials each year (Condry, Bence & Scheibe, 1988). With the number of children's television programs continually growing, there has been an increase in advertising which is targeted primarily towards children (Hillyer, 1992). The content of these commercials, and the form in which they are presented, are important when the amount of time children spend viewing commercials is consider- ed. The message which is being sent to children has not changed dramatically since the 1970's, when the majority of television commercials portrayed males and females in traditional, stereotypical roles (Lovdal, 1989).

While commercials and their depiction of females and males are often thought to be a reflection of the culture, it has also been suggested that they may be creating the culture (Geis, Brown, Jennings & Porter, 1984). Boys' commercials depict boys with vehicles and building equipment, constructing models, taking apart and re- assembling objects, and working with science and math based toys. These types of toys may help a child to learn about manipulating movement, which develops mathematics and spatial skills. Girls' commercials, on the other hand, depict girls with dolls, housekeeping equipment and products relating to vanity, which develop nurturing skills (Miller, 1987). Sex role information which is provided to children during this period of socialization may have long lasting implications (Ruble, Balaban, & Cooper, 1981). The kinds of toys, and activities, which are appropriate for girls, and for boys, are conveyed through television commercials. If children are exposed to this information during a period of gender identity formation, a stage of development in which children actively seek information about what is appropriate for their sex, there may be a tendency to hold stereotypical views about what types of roles and activities boys and girls should identify with. In a study by Ruble, Balaban, & Cooper (1981), children were more likely to avoid a toy if they are shown a child of the opposite sex playing with it on a TV toy commercial. Greenfield (1984) has concluded that children who are heavy television viewers have a more stereotypical view of sex roles than do light viewers, predict stereotypical adult jobs for themselves, and give more stereotypical answers to questions.

Males and females in children's television commercials are present in dramatically different numbers (Sternglanz & Serbin, 1974). Although females make up 51% of the population, the world of television commercials is made up of 39% females (Riffe, Goldson, Saxton & Yu, 1987). When women are portrayed, they are most often talking to someone, such as a child, or something, such as a pet, in a subordinate position (Lovdal, 1989). Even greater differences appear when analyzing the use of male or female spokespersons and voice-overs in commercials. Hillyer (1992) found that nearly 81% of the non program spots used male voices, while commercials utilizing female voices were mostly for dolls, accessories, and stuffed animals. Similar results are shown by O'Donnell & O'Donnell (1978) in a study which showed that when a female is speaking, she is speaking to pets, babies, children and women dieters. Women, once again, spoke to those in inferior status and spoke to other women about feminine hygiene, headaches, and dieting. This study also found in 1978, 93% of the commercials used male voice-overs. These data suggest that although the presence of females in television commercials has increased since 1970, children's television advertising still remains predominantly male. The roles that females and males portray; however, have stayed pretty consistent over the past twenty years.

Another area of interest to be considered is difference in the form utilized between commercials aimed at boys and girls. In a study by Welch, Huston-Stein, Wright and Plehal (1979) on the different production techniques for both boys' and girls' ads, it was found that boys' commercials had higher level of inanimate action and more variability in the form of changes to new scenes than the girls' or neutral commercials, in which boys and girls were present. Boys' and neutral commercials had higher rates of cuts, while the girls' contained more fades and dissolves. Female characters did very little talking in the neutral commercials; however, talked a lot in the girls' commercials. Welch (1979) suggests that females are deferent and do not speak when males are around; however, they are talkative and authoritative when males are absent. Boys' commercials also contained more noise: vocalization, sound effects and foreground music, while girls' commercials contained more background music, which conveys images of softness, gentleness, and slow gradual change. Stereotypes associated with masculinity: high action, aggression, variation, quick shifts of scenes, and more noise, and those associated with femininity: inactivity, passivity and gentleness, are supported in this study.

Various studies concerning males and females in the media consistently show that females are circumscribed by limited roles and ambitions, while males hold significantly greater social prestige and mobility in their media presentations (Busby, 1975). Advertisements do not present an accurate view of the spectrum of roles that females actually hold in American society, or the variety of opportunities which are available and attainable by females.

One theory which is considered important to the learning of gender identity is Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory. According to this theory, gender typing is explained as being neither biologically determined or inevitable, but a result of day to day interactions between the developing child and his or her immediate social environment (Unger & Crawford, 1992). Through social learning, children learn behaviors which are considered appropriate for their sex through observations of others, such as a same sex parent; as well as, through messages communicated by the media. Research on social learning theory, and the learning of sex roles, supports the view that children learn by imitation, as children learn what behaviors and roles are expected of them by observing others' behavior being reinforced or punished. Seeing someone reinforced for a behavior, such as a girl playing with a doll being reinforced for being nurturant, may be expressed as being what is appropriate, reinforcing behavior for a female. Therefore, a girl may associate reinforcement with that behavior, which may make that behavior appear positive for a female. Also, a male may be seen being reinforced for being aggressive on a TV commercial, which may create an association between aggression and reinforcement for a male.

The following study has expanded on past research in the area of gender stereotypes and children's television. Evidence of stereotypes associated with masculinity: high action, aggression, autonomy, leadership, variation, and noise, and those associated with femininity: inactivity, compliance, nurturance, domesticity, and dependence were looked for. The research included viewing current children's TV commercials, observing the number of females to males, the roles and occupations held by females and males, the traits associated with each sex and differences in the form in which the commercials were communicated. This research differed from traditional research in that instances of females engaging in stereotypical male play or roles; as well as, instances of males engaging in stereo- typical female activities was looked for and documented.


The population utilized to answer the questions concerning gender stereo- types and children's television consisted of 80 children's TV commercials, which were taped during Saturday morning cartoons. The networks included in the sample were NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox. The types of commercials included were: dolls/ stuffed animals; restaurants/ food; action figures/ weapons; and sports/ games.

A data sheet was created which included, along with the four types of commercials, the sex of the individuals in the commercials: female, male, or if there were both females and males present, combination. If there were either no children in the commercials, or the characters were animated, that particular commercial was labeled neutral. The numbers of females and males in the commercials were also included, as the proportion of the two was relevant to the study. Variations in the form were also included on the data sheet, whether a particular commercial exhibited slow, gradual change of scenes, and background music, or high activity, frequent transition of scenes, and substantial noise. The next section of the data sheet included groups of traits portrayed in the commercials: violence/ aggression, nurturance/ domesticity, vanity, and inactivity/ passivity. The last section of the data sheet included instances of females engaging in stereotypical male behaviors or roles, and instances of males engaging in stereotypical female behaviors or roles.

Each commercial was viewed, while the sex and number of individuals, form of message, and roles and traits associated with individuals were documented. The commercials were observed closely to try to identify any instances of females or males engaging in behaviors or roles that were stereotypical of the opposite sex. The viewing of the television commercials was essential to answer the following questions regarding sex and the number of females and males actually portrayed, "What is the number of females and males represented in the commercials? Is this number representative of the number of females to males in society, or does the world of television differ?"

Questions regarding the roles, traits, and form associated with each sex were also dependent on the research, "What are the roles and occupations most often held by females in the commercials? Males? Do these roles accurately represent females and males in society? What are the traits most often associated with females in commercials? Males? Do these traits correspond with traits held by females and males in society, or are they disparate to those actually held? Are there differences in the form in which the female, male, and neutral commercials are communicated?" Lastly, the following questions were dependent upon the present research, as they convey information which make this particular study significant and original, "Are there instances of females engaging in stereotypical male play or roles? Instances of males engaging in stereotypical female play or roles?"


There were 140 individuals included in the 80 children's TV commercials that were viewed. Of the 140, 41% (58) of the individuals were female, while 59% (82) were male. Included in the sample were 12 neutral commercials, which contained animated characters that were not considered representative of females or males. Of the 80 commercials in the sample, 16% (13) were doll/ stuffed animals commercials, 45% (36) were restaurant/ food commercials, 18% (14) were action figures/ weapons commercials, and 21% (17) were sports/ vehicles commercials.

Of the 13 doll/ stuffed animal commercials, 85% (11) of them were exclusively female, while 15% (2) of the doll commercials showed boys 2% (2) of boys shown playing with a doll in the presence of a girl. Of the 58 females in the sample, 38% (22) were found in the doll/ stuffed animal section. Of the 82 males, 46% (38) males were found in the restaurant/ food commercials, while 43% (25) of the females were found in this section. Of the males, 30% (24) were found in the action figures/ weapons section, while 2% (1) female was present here. In the last section, sports/ vehicles, 22% (18) of males were found, while 17% (10) of the females were found here.

Of the 80 commercials, 16% (18) contained background music and gradual changes of scenes. Of the 18 commercials, 83% (15) of them were exclusively female, while 6% (1) contained a female and a male, and 11% (2) were neutral. In the category containing noise, frequent change of scenes, and high activity, 63% (50) were present. Of the 50 instances, 56% (28) were exclusively male commercials, 8% (4) were exclusively female, 18% (9) contained females and males, and 18% (9) were neutral. Under the category, violence/ aggression, 18% (14) of the commercials were represented. Exclusively male commercials comprised 86% (12) of this category, while 14% (2) neutral commercials contained aggression. In the category nurturance/ domesticity, 11% (9) commercials were represented. Of the 9 commercials, 100% (9) were exclusively female. Vanity was exhibited in 13% (10) of the commercials, and 100% (10) of these were exclusively female. In the last category concerning traits was inactivity/ passivity, which was found in 18% (14) of the commercials. Of the 18, 86% (12) were exclusively female, 7% (1) was exclusively male, and 7% (1) contained females and males.

The last section of the data collection included instances of females engaging in stereotypical male behavior, or males engaging in stereotypical female behavior. Females engaging in stereotypical male behavior, or being portrayed in occupations associated with masculinity, was identified in 13% (10) of the 80 commercials. A female was shown building, and later, riding, a go-cart that she built herself. Nearly half of the commercials in this category portrayed girls in occupations that are associated with males. For example, females were portrayed as working in a mine, extracting minerals; in a lab, working as scientists; as astronauts on a spaceship; in a rock band; as a chef in a restaurant; and laying bricks, while building a barbecue in the backyard. Also, females were shown in highly zealous activities, such as riding mountain bikes, surfing, and playing volleyball on the beach. There were fewer instances of males engaging in stereotypical female activities or occupations, with 3% (3) of the commercials falling into this category. There were two commercials in which males were playing with dolls or stuffed animals; and one which showed a male playing a violin, while choir boys sang and danced.

The results gathered from this data collection correspond with the previous research performed in the domain of gender stereotypes and children's TV commercials. Prior research by Riffe, Goldson, Saxton & Yu (1987) found that the world of television was made up of 39% females, while society is actually comprised of 51% females. The research performed in this analysis shows the world of children's advertising as being made up of 41% female, which although it is slightly larger than 39%, still does not reach the actual percentage of women in society, 51%.

Research by Miller (1987) has shown that girls commercials most often depict females as playing with dolls, housekeeping equipment and with products associated with vanity, while males commercials contain vehicles, building equipment, objects that can be taken apart and reassembled, and science and math based toys. The results found here correspond with past research, as nearly half of the females in the sample were found in the doll/ stuffed animal category, which portrayed females most often as mothers or caretakers in a home setting. Even when present in a food/ restaurant commercial, females were often shown waiting on others or as compliant guests. Nearly one-third of the males were found in the action figures/ weapons section, which portrayed males as the aggressors, who, were highly combative and autonomous. They were not in the presence of adults or others, as the females quite often were. The roles and occupations in which the individuals were portrayed in the TV commercials were not accurate and indicative of those actually held in society. Although there were a few instances of females in occupations that may be stereotypical of males, overall, the number of females who actually held positions such as these, or who were shown as independent and enterprising, were quite low. A great portion of the research performed on gender stereotypes and children's television was performed in the 1970's, when roles and occupations portrayed by females in commercials were even more limited than the results found today. Since the 1970's, research has shown the number of females in commercials who are independent and venturesome has grown; however, considering the numbers of females who actually hold careers outside the home, the present commercials are quite inaccurate. They do not show females as autonomous, aspiring, and career bound as they actually are in society. However, portrayals of males in this research have exhibited more accurate results of roles that males actually hold in society. Males are often shown outside the home, not under any supervision, partaking in activities which require independence and leadership. The action figures/ weapons commercials portray males as highly combative and war-like. Since more males are involved in military positions than females, this portrayal of males engaging in these types of drills and activities may be more accurate of expectations of males.  Females consistently shown as being caretakers and homemakers also says a lot about expectations of females in society.

More than three quarters of the commercials containing background music and gradual changes of scenes were exclusively female. The form in which these commercials are depicted communicates a strong message. The stereotypes of females as being gentle, serene and inactive are all present here. The slow jingles that accompany the girls playing with their dolls in their bedrooms, and the either lack of change, or slow change of scenes shows, along with the enchantment with a doll or with making oneself beautiful, appears very fulfilling to the females in the commercials. Also, the time females spent trying to enchant their prince or preparing for their wedding day was quite substantial. Males' commercials, on the other hand, showed substantially more noise, frequent change of scenes, and high activity. Males were almost never portrayed indoors, and when they were, they were working on some ingenious science experiment or fueling up for the exciting day ahead of them. Males commercials exhibited frequent violence and/ or aggression, while female commercials exhibited nurturance, domesticity, inactivity and passivity.

In the final category of the research, where instances of females engaging in stereotypical male behavior, or males engaging in stereotypical female behavior, there were quite a few instances of females partaking in highly zealous and self-governing activities. They were shown as active participants in many different types of sports and activities, and although infrequent, highly prestigious positions, such as astronauts and scientists. These roles are often associated with males; however, they are growing in the frequency of women who are pursuing these types of careers. Although the numbers of females in these types of careers are growing, the portrayal of females in these positions in the commercials is quite pristine. There were only two instances of males being portrayed in stereotypical female roles, when boys were playing with stuffed toys, with a female present, and in the commercial where a male was playing a violin, while choir boys were singing and dancing. This commercial was not necessarily stereotypical of female behavior or roles; however, it was also not stereotypical of male behavior or roles. Although it is evident this diversity of males and females is growing, it still is far from the actual roles held by males and females in society.

These results were expected, as research performed in the past in this area has consistently shown evidence of stereotypes in children's TV commercials. Although it is promising that the variety of roles and occupations actually held by females in commercials is widening, there is still a long way to go in children's advertising before these roles and occupations are accurately portrayed. The evidence found in this research that the females are being portrayed in prestigious positions, and in very competitive sports, although the numbers are small, is the most important implications of this study. Although it was expected that females would appear occasionally in different roles and activities, it was assumed that these roles would not be as diverse as those actually found. Advertising has taken a step towards portraying females as autonomous, career interested, individuals, who have many opportunities open to them, and who are not limited to the home setting. The portrayal of females in sports, also, shows females as being multi-faceted individuals, who enjoy exhilarating and competitive activities. The portrayal of males playing dolls, although in the presence of a female, also shows the diversity of roles males can play, as it is permissible for them to be nurturing as well.

In the future, if faced with the opportunity or interest to perform this study again, it would be beneficial to use a larger sample size. Perhaps twice as many commercials would produce the same overall results; however, it may widen the spectrum of roles held by females and males. After finding the diversity of roles which were found in this sample size, it would be interesting and exciting to discover more roles and activities performed by both males and females. Also, collecting commercials over a longer period of time, perhaps a year, might be beneficial as well. It may help to avoid the problem of getting two or three of the same commercial, and it would be interesting to see the different types of advertising which are available at different times of the year. It would be interesting to see if the commercials change depending on the change in seasons, or around the different holidays. The sports commercials in this study focused on activities related to summer, such as surfing, mountain biking, and volleyball.

Although this research exhibited many of the stereotypes associated with femininity and masculinity, it is promising to the future of advertising and children's television that these roles and traits are apparently changing. The numbers of females who actually engage in sports, and who aspire to have careers and occupations, are growing quite dramatically; however, it may take the advertising world time to catch up. It is important for young girls; as well as, young boys to look beyond the stereotypes associated with what is appropriate for males and for females, and explore the many diverse choices that are available; as well as, accessible to anyone who is determined to reach their personal goal.


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