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Consumer Behavior

Does Advertising Content Reflect or Shape Societal Values?

A new study provides little support for “mirror” or “mold" hypotheses.

Earlier this year, two Italian researchers examined the content of a month’s worth of advertisements in Dutch and Italian newspapers. They were curious to see how men and women were portrayed in the ads. Were women, for example, more likely to be depicted as sexual objects? Were men more likely to be depicted in a professional role like doctor or police officer? And did Dutch ads depict men and women differently than Italian ads?

To answer these questions, psychologists Stefano Tartaglia and Chiara Rollero examined every issue published in June 2014 by the three largest newspapers in Italy and the three largest newspapers in the Netherlands. For their analysis, they included every large picture ad that portrayed at least one man or woman.

In this way, Tartaglia and Rollero collected 1,164 ads. Most of the ads appeared in Italian newspapers. (Newspapers in Italy publish every day. Dutch newspapers publish 6 days a week.) The ads contained a total of 1,666 human characters—740 men and 488 women in the Italian ads and 236 men and 202 women in the Dutch ads.

Why Italy and the Netherlands? Well, Tartaglia lives in Italy and Rollero lives in the Netherlands. But more importantly, Italy and the Netherlands are interesting test cases. Within the context of Europe, the two countries differ considerably in terms of their gender-related values. Italy is said to be a masculine nation that values achievement, heroism, and material rewards for success. The Netherlands is said to be a feminine nation that values cooperation, modesty, and caring for the less fortunate.

Social indicators—workforce participation and parliamentary representation, for example—paint a similar picture. According to the Gender Equality Index, the Netherlands is one of the most gender-equal nations in Europe, whereas Italy is one of the least.

Working separately, Tartaglia and Rollero classified every person in every ad in terms of two variables—the role depicted and degree of sexualization. When they compared their classification judgments, they discovered that they agreed in almost all cases.

Tartaglia and Rollero knew from earlier studies that, in newspaper ads, men are usually featured in occupational roles and women are usually featured in decorative roles. So they expected to find the same thing in the Italian ads.

And they did. Italian men were more likely to be depicted in a working or professional role, and Italian women were more likely to be depicted in a non-functional, decorative role or a leisure activity like jogging.

But what about the ads in gender-equal Netherlands? Surprisingly, the pattern in the Dutch ads was almost identical to the pattern in the Italian ads. More men than women were shown at work, while more women than men were shown at play or in a passive decorative role.

The next surprise came when Tartaglia and Rollero examined their judgments about sexualization. In both Italian and Dutch newspapers, women were more likely than men to be depicted in a sexualized manner, that is, to be physically attractive and seductively dressed or positioned. The gender difference in the Italian ads was especially large, but even in the Dutch ads, women were sexualized more than men.

Tartaglia and Rollero hoped their findings could contribute to a long-standing debate among social scientists about the relationship between advertising and cultural values.

Hypothesis A, the mirroring hypothesis. Does advertising content duplicate and reflect a society’s values, norms, and beliefs?

According to Tartaglia and Rollero’s data, the answer appears to be YES in Italy but NO in the Netherlands. Most Dutch citizens endorse gender equality, but that value is not reflected in their newspapers ads. The women in their ads are often portrayed as sexualized, decorative objects.

Hypothesis B, the molding hypothesis. Does advertising content actively shape a society’s values, norms, and beliefs?

In the case of Italy, the answer is a definite … maybe. As in, maybe Italian women prefer to stay at home because of what they’ve seen in newspaper ads. But maybe they stay at home for other reasons. One cannot say more than that because content analyses are notoriously unable to determine if the positive association between two variables is the result of a causal relationship or something else.

In the case of the Netherlands, however, the data clearly challenge the viability of the “molding” hypothesis. Dutch men and women work outside the home in nearly equal numbers, despite what is depicted in their newspaper ads.

The point can be made even more starkly. According to Dutch government statistics, 56% of judges in the Netherlands are women. Tartaglia and Rollero didn’t find any judges depicted in Dutch ads, but they did count the number of female police officers and soldiers. That number was zero.

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes an ad is just an ad. It doesn’t mirror anything and it doesn’t mold anything. It’s just trying to sell you something.


Tartaglia, S., & Rollero, C. (2015). Gender stereotyping in newspaper advertisements: A cross-cultural study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 46(8), 1103-1109.

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