Commercials Are Sexist, Treat Women As Voiceless, New Study Finds. So That's Great

ALBION, MI - FEBRUARY 27: A microphone sits on the edge of the stage during a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at Caster Concepts on February 27, 2012 in Albion, Michigan. With one day to go before the Michigan and Arizona primaries, Mitt Romney continues to campaign throughout Michigan. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When was the last time you heard a woman doing a voice over for a commercial? I'm going to guess it's not something you come across very often; in fact, based on a new study about women in commercials, women are much more likely to be seen than heard in television ads. And that's reason for concern.

The study, which was published in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studieslooked at more than 1,000 television commercials, analyzing the ways in which women and men's presence or voices were utilized. It found that men overall are not only much more likely to be included in commercials in all forms — either speaking on screen, acting as a spokesperson, or acting without speaking at all — but that they were even more disproportionately likely to be used for voice overs. Apparently women can speak in commercials — but only if their bodies are also present on the screen. 

"There's still this sense that the voiceover, the disembodied voice, is one of reason and objectivity. Because of sexism in our society, that is still seen as a masculine domain," said Mark Pedelty, one of the researchers behind the study. He added that this probably reflects "sexist expectation of who speaks and who gets to speak authoritatively."

In other words, women aren't valued for their voices (which I guess are somehow more unreliable than men's); women are valued for how they appear. Which has a lot of troubling implications, ones that probably won't surprise anyone who's been paying attention to the ways in which women are objectified and generally treated in ads (over and over and over and over and over and over again). After all, making it so that women must be physically present in an ad reinforces the notion that women are not valuable or useful without their bodies. We can't have women just speaking! Everyone knows women's words and thoughts and stuff aren't why they matter!

Like I said, this really shouldn't be surprising — after all, the "Killing Us Softly" series has been outlining this stuff since the 1970s. But now there's science to provide us with quantitative data. And once I started looking for this phenomenon in ads, I was surprised by how often I found it. 

For instance here are three ads that I had to watch approximately 3 billion times apiece on Hulu in the past week (Hulu, could you get more ads, please?). The first, a Verizon ad about Internet speed, features all sorts of voices in its candid-camera style spot, including a voice over, a Verizon-appointed person, and numerous people who supposedly are just at the mall when Verizon decides to monkey with the elevators. The person who appears on camera is a woman. The voice providing the voice over is male.

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Was there some super important reason why the woman couldn't do the voice over, I wonder?

In the latest Old Navy ad featuring Amy Poehler, on the other hand, the only people with speaking parts are women, making it one of the few ads featuring a non-speaking male character. But all of the women also appear on screen — no voice overs for the ladies.

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And finally, we have an ad for the Mini Cooper, which features only men. A male actor (who speaks), a male voice doing the voice over, and even a presumably male dog (though maybe Spike could be a girl's name?)

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Once you start noticing this pattern, it gets ridiculous how often it holds. In fact, it's so obvious once you're paying attention, they even made a movie about it. Which I now definitely want to see, and not just because they cleverly (hokey-ly?) titled it In a World.

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Ah, sexism. Why are you everywhere?


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