Looking in from Beyond: Gender Stereotyping in South African Advertising

Part Two of a Three Part Series by: Naa Amponsah Dodoo, Graduate Student

South Africa is one of the countries on my lifetime travel list. When I think of South Africa, I think of beautiful landscapes and scenery. All what I’ve seen of South Africa is through advertisements, which call out to me every single time. Suffice to say, I look forward to matching my visualizations with the reality that is South Africa.

South Africa is probably the most developed African nation and is certainly a very popular tourist destination. South Africa occupies the southernmost part of the African continent and is the 25th largest country in the world by area and the 24th most populous country with over 51 million people. It’s the one place in Africa that you’ll find the biggest European, Asian and racially mixed ancestry in Africa.

South Africa CarSimilar to Ghana, the advertising industry in South Africa is dynamic with vast growth in the past few years. As such, there is often international recognition of local advertising brilliance. However, gender representations in South African advertising is unfortunately not breaking the mold of gender stereotyping. Women are usually depicted in manners that buttress barefaced and subtler gender stereotypes. In the 11th March 2011 issue of Sowetan, a South African newspaper,  a car advert uses a woman – as a mermaid – to sell a car. That is one blatant use of a woman as a sex object. On the research side, a study conducted by Holtzhausen, Jordaan and North examined the current role portrayals of women in advertising in South Africa. They analyzed 245 advertisements and found that women were most typically depicted as product users (household and personal items) and least often as sex objects. Even though half of the work force in South Africa is women, women in work related roles were not prevalent in the study. These authors suggest that women were not stereotyped in South African advertising because traditional stereotypes (domesticated or overly sexualized) were not prevalent. If that is the reality in South Africa, then they deserve a Bravo! Is it possible that they are paving a path that other countries could tread in advertising. Yet, no prevalence does not mean stereotyping is nonexistent.

It’s completely possible of course that a when asked a South African would have a totally different view, one that might not be supported by this research. Their view might suggest that gender stereotyping still exists and is widespread. In fact, findings of a 2007 study by Gender Links in Southern Africa suggest that men in advertisements are portrayed as inherently strong, leaders, politicians, independent and sports inclined among other traditionally masculine expectations; while women are shown in roles such as parent/caregiver, sex objects, model/beauty contestants or domestic workers.

To get a feel of the gender distribution of creatives in advertising agencies in South Africa, I turned to Redbooks as a source. Of approximately 97 creatives in different agencies, 27 were women. Does that mean anything when you look at the types of advertisements that are produced? Maybe and maybe not. There is no underplaying the importance of perspectives of those at the helm of producing advertisements because what is produced would be a reflection of the ideas of those in charge.

South Africa BBThe importance of the portrayal of women in positive ways is evident in transformative power of advertising with regard to gender relations. Biases that exist over time in advertising could lead to a numbing of awareness or perhaps significance of gender equality. What is even worse is that audiences become accustomed to the negative portrayal of women and to the biases that exist and therefore do nothing about empowering women. That is but one of the dangers in stereotyped advertising.

I have my fingers crossed that if true gender stereotyping in South African advertising is not prevalent, the gender balanced feet of the South African advertisements will keep walking away from gender stereotypes and nearer to gender equality.



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