Driving gender: An analysis of U.S. auto ad visuals 1925-2005

Document Type


Publication Date

February 2009


Advertising has been found to be not only a reflection of society, but also the basis for living amongst a group of people. The images in advertisements especially provide ideas and standards for acceptable behavior, social norms and values specific to men and women. Studying advertisement visuals can illuminate power relations in culture. This approach to feminist theory takes a look at how women and others are used to sell products and how these depictions illuminate power.

A framework using cultural, communication and feminist theories is constructed to build an approach for reviewing advertising messages. Focus is on visuals of people and their appearances and situations. A content analysis is the method of investigation.

This study focuses on the automobile industry, a powerful dynamic in shaping both the economy and society. Ads from Time magazine, one of the longest running U.S. publications that grew along with the auto market are used from 1925 to 2005. The publication provides a consistent platform to look at messages.

A sample of 277 advertisements featuring men and women from 99 issues, spanning 90 years and including 60 auto brands, was analyzed from Time magazine. Gender was reviewed in cultural contrasts: mind/body, cultural/natural, public/private and white male/others. Among the key findings: men and women’s roles reflect the period, women are strategically used based on marketing needs, such as for positioning, brand equity and segment opportunities, and gender roles have not changed as much as popular perception may lead one to believe.

The study is important to show how advertising can be used as cultural artifacts to study society and review gender relations at a moment in time as well as throughout time. The representations have important implications for the learning of gender roles from exposure to advertising.

Included in

Communication Commons