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Magazine advertising and gender

Magazine advertising and gender
Helen Macdonald looks at representations of gender in magazine advertising.

Before any discussion of gender in lifestyle magazines can be considered, it is important to be clear on the difference between sex, gender and sexuality.

• Sex refers to a person’s biological sex: whether they are male or female.
• Gender refers to the role or behaviours a person has been socialised into according to their sex, whether they are masculine or feminine.
• Sexuality refers to a person’s sexual preference: whether they are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.

The issue of gender is not static. Acceptable behaviour for each sex changes over time. Contemporary ideas of masculinity and femininity will be different to those of previous generations. For example, your grandmother would probably not, enter a pub alone and order a pint of beer, whereas young women today may well do just that.
In our society there are certain attributes and behaviours which are seen to be more appropriate for one sex than the other. The following opposing lists illustrate how men and women are seen to be different:

MEN are / should be:

WOMEN are / should be:













active (do things)

communicative (talk about things)



Men and women are also seen to like different things. For example:

MEN like

WOMEN like

cars / technology

shopping / make up

getting drunk

social drinking with friends

casual sex with many partners

committed relationships

There are several other likes and attributes you can probably think of that are stereotypically male or female. However, it is also clear that these neat lists are not truly representative of what men and women are really like. You all probably know a woman who likes cars and can be aggressive or a man who doesn’t drink and cries at weepy romantic comedies.
These stereotypes exist, to a certain extent, because they are easier than getting to know every man and women in the world personally. Advertisers are especially prone to using stereotypes to sell products for the same reason. They assume that all women or men are similar to make targeting audiences a simpler process.
We can use advertising as a starting point when considering representations of gender in lifestyle magazines. By looking at how alcohol, cigarettes and food are sold to male and female audiences it is clear to see how gender stereotypes are employed and perpetuated by advertisers.


Using our neat stereotypes of men and women, men should guzzle beer followed by spirit chasers whilst women lightly sip on wine or liqueurs. Following the notion that men are ‘hard’ and women are ‘soft’ it can be seen that the alcohol adverts in certain lifestyle magazines use this to advertise their products.
FHM, Loaded and Maxim all feature an advert for Jack Daniels whiskey with the tag line “the invite said bring a friend”. The image features no people, just a close up of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a glass of ice. The “friend” in this case is an alcoholic drink. Is the advert suggesting that men see alcohol as a replacement for real people? Or that men prefer drinking to socialising?
In comparison, the women’s magazines focus on the potential for alcoholic drinks to bring people together and ease social interactions. Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan both feature an advert for the liqueur Disaronno which includes the tag line “share the square” and an image of an attractive man and women both holding the same glass tumbler, their fingers touching. This emphasises the idea that feminine gender roles require friendliness, closeness and the ability to communicate.
The men’s magazines looked at here advertised spirits and beer almost exclusively, whereas the women’s magazines advertised spirits, beer, liqueurs and wine. This would seem to suggest that women are ‘allowed’ to drink a wider range of alcoholic beverages within their gender stereotypes. The target audience of the men’s magazines could not maintain credibility whilst drinking a nice glass of Black Tower wine (“For when you want to be you”, featuring images of bubble baths and evenings in front of the television) but women can feasibly drink pints and knock back vodka shots.
Dooley’s Toffee Vodka (“Not for the sweet and innocent”) was featured in FHM, Front, Loaded, Maxim and Marie Claire (with a similar product, ‘Russian Vodka Shots’, appearing in Cosmopolitan). The adverts featured either a man licking a woman’s foot or a women licking a man’s neck, but there was no sense that the adverts had been gendered or placed in specific magazines according to the sex of the main person in the image.
In much the same way, the Stella Artois campaign that appeared in FHM, Maxim and Marie Claire was the same regardless of the target audience’s sex.
What conclusions can be draw from these stark differences and similarities in the alcohol advertising in lifestyle magazines? At first it seems that women and men are targeted – as far as alcohol sales go – according to their supposed gender. In the magazines, men drink in excess, frequently and to get drunk; a lifestyle that is often reaffirmed by the magazine’s editorial. In opposition, women drink in moderation, to be sociable and to enjoy relaxed time with friends and partners.
However, a ‘new breed’ of woman seems to be emerging through the women’s lifestyle magazines, particularly Marie Claire and to a lesser extent Cosmopolitan. This young woman can drink with the best of them and has probably been obscenely drunk as a result. She drinks pints of beer and follows them with flavoured vodka shots, just as her male counterpart has been doing all along. The advertising of ‘men’s’ drinks in women’s magazines blurs our neat gender boundaries and the supposedly feminine readers take on certain masculine attributes. The term ‘ladette’ has often been used to describe celebrities who fulfil this masculine-female role, for example Zoe Ball or Sara Cox. This reiterates the previous point that gender is not static and woman are permitted to take on certain masculine behaviours in certain situations.
The issue of sexuality arises here: if the new ‘ladette’ takes on too many masculine traits, or takes her masculine behaviours a step too far, she is likely to be labelled a lesbian. Though men’s magazines often focus upon lesbianism as a heterosexual male fantasy, the women featured in these articles are overly feminine rather than ‘butch’ or in any way masculine. Similarly, if the male target audience were to take on feminine traits they are likely to be derided as homosexual. The current WKD television campaign focuses heavily upon the young men tricking each other into behaving in a ‘gay’ way. Though sexuality and gender are closely linked in such cases it is important to maintain the distinction.


A much clearer and less confused image of gender can be drawn by looking at tobacco advertising in lifestyle magazines. Though women are seemingly permitted to drink with the boys they are certainly not allowed to smoke with them.
FHM and Loaded both included Marlboro adverts with the tag line “Welcome to Marlboro country”. The FHM adverts featured an image of a deserted, outdated petrol station in the middle of an expansive flat landscape whilst the Loaded advert showed a man sitting alone at a picnic table under a bright spot light seemingly high above a city. Both adverts, like the Jack Daniels campaign, show masculinity to be about solitude.
In direct and stark comparison there are no adverts for cigarettes in any of the women’s magazines I looked at. In fact, both Glamour and Cosmopolitan included adverts for Nicorette showing a woman in a bathroom attacking an oversized cigarette with her scales. This advert is clearly intended solely for a female audience and focuses upon things seen as important to the target audience, namely their weight.
Smoking in women’s magazines is universally seen to be unfeminine, and if readers do smoke they are encouraged to stop. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, are told that smoking in isolation is desperately manly! None of the men’s magazines featured Nicorette or any products to help readers stop smoking.

So far we have seen that gender stereotypes for men and women can be directly opposing (in cigarette advertising) or somewhat similar (in some alcohol adverts). The differences already seen are further emphasised when adverts for food in lifestyle magazines are considered. It is through the food adverts that we can recognise the stereotypical gender assumptions made about men and women.
The number of adverts for food in the men’s magazines was few whereas a wide range of food products appeared in the women’s magazines. Already the notion that women are more involved in food purchasing and preparation is introduced. The adverts in the men’s magazines were for Big D Nuts (“grab your nuts!” – Front), Pot Noodle (Loaded) and Mars bars (Loaded and FHM). These foods can be associated with pubs and men’s supposed inability to cook proper meals.
The only food that appeared in both men’s and women’s magazines was the Mars campaign. However, the adverts themselves had been gendered according to the target audience. Along with the tagline “Pleasure you can’t measure” the men¹s adverts proclaimed “DD” and “threesomes” whereas the women’s adverts opted for “weekends” and “retail therapy”. It is clear to see that each gender is assumed to derive pleasure from very different things.
In addition, the women’s magazines featured adverts for food items including Linda McCartney ready meals, Campbell’s soup, Anchor butter and Le Roule cheese (Cosmopolitan); Pink Lady apples, Bonne Maman Conserves and President Brie (Marie Claire) and Little Rolo and Mullerice in Glamour.
The suggestion is that women are more inclined to prepare elaborate meals for themselves and others whereas men rely upon those women to provide any meal more substantial than a Pot Noodle or a chocolate bar.
Women’s problematic relationship with food is evident in these adverts too. More often that not, the editorial of women’s glossy magazines more often than not contains either a diet plan or some advice on how to get and maintain a slim figure for the purpose of obtaining then securing a man. However, the thin ideal in Western society runs contrary to the idea that all women love chocolate and desserts. The adverts for ‘bad’ foods have an underlying subtext which emphasises the guilt women feel when ‘indulging’ in such food.
The advert for Little Rolo in Glamour features the tagline “Wickedly smoother chocolate” with images of cartoon mini Rolos depicted as an angel and a devil. Though the women are encouraged to enjoy chocolate it is still “wicked” because it will make them fat (which is seen by the women’s lifestyle magazines as the biggest sin of all). The After Eight adverts in both Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan declare that “anything goes” and the accompanying images suggest complete reckless abandonment within the home. However, Cosmopolitan also features a piece of editorial about how to read a man’s mind to reveal “hidden clues that reveal he’s noticed you” and Marie Claire asks “How do men rate your looks?”. In such magazines women are told that ‘anything goes’ as long as you still look young, slim and attractive.
Though the men’s magazines feature fewer adverts for food there is no sense that the target audience are assumed to think too much about what they eat. The Big D Nuts and Mars adverts use sexual references to sell their product but their is no suggestion that sex or chocolate are wicked or unfair temptations.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the gender stereotypes used in magazine of advertising make assumptions about men and women that may or may not be true. They are likely to be true of some men and some women but there will be very few people who fully conform to the magazine’s neatly packaged feminine woman and masculine man.
Readers today are more sophisticated than ever before and are likely to be aware that not all of a magazine’s content does relates to their lives and likes. ‘Postmodern’ readers may well take parts from several magazines to create a mix and match magazine that is perfect for them. For example, a young man may choose whether to read Loaded or Maxim according to the cover star, subscribe to Four Four Two and sneak a look at his mum’s Women’s Own; a young women may enjoy the serious articles in Marie Claire but ignore the fashion, subscribe to Total Film and sneak a look at her brother’s Bizarre. Both readers are conforming to parts of the gender stereotypes presented to them but are also moving outside of them.
In order to effectively study gender or any other demographic such as race or class, generalisations need to be made about people who are all different individuals. In the case of gender in lifestyle magazines we can conclude that magazines target their audience according to gender in order to appeal to a specific audience that is still broad enough to ensure high sales, to ensure continued readership and to attract certain advertisers by being able to guarantees a certain ‘type’ of reader.
In doing this the magazines are using gender stereotypes but also perpetuating them. Consider the following questions:
• Does nature or nurture make young women want to wear make-up and young men want to drink and fight?
• To what extent does the content of magazines like those mentioned here encourage men and women in their choices?

Magazines used

FHM – January 2003
Front – January 2003
Loaded – December 2002
Maxim – January 2003
Marie Claire – January 2003
Cosmopolitan – December 2002
Glamour – December 2002
B – January 2003

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