Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context: Public Lecture, Tuesday March 8th 7:30pm, Royal Asiatic Society, Seoul

(Sources: SeoulBeats & personal scan)

See here for the details. Alas, with just 1 hour available then there’ll be little opportunity to do more than summarize what I’ve already written in my “Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context” posts unfortunately (see the right sidebar), but hopefully my very visual presentation will be a much more fun introduction to the topic then reading those tens of thousands of words would be. And it’ll be great to finally meet Seoul-based readers, and to hear your own opinions face to face.

What’s more, it’ll also be my birthday next Tuesday. So you have to come!


Vintage Gender Socialization?

What was the first thing that went through your mind when you saw the above advertisement?

Me? Why Nazi-occupied Colorado of course.

No, really. Specifically, the end of the following segment from Chapter 6 of Philip K. Dick’s classic alternative-history book, The Man in the High Castle (1962):

…Her shift at the judo parlor did not begin until noon; this was her free time, today. Seating herself on a stool at the counter she put down her shopping bags and began to go over the different magazines.

The new Life, she saw, had a big article called: TELEVISION IN EUROPE: GLIMPSE OF TOMORROW. Turning to it, interested, she saw a picture of a German family watching television in their living room. Already, the article said, there was four hours of image broadcast during the day from Berlin. Someday there would be television stations in all the major European cities. And, by 1970, one would be built in New York.

The article showed Reich electronic engineers at the New York site, helping the local personnel with their problems. It was easy to tell which were the Germans. They had that healthy, clean, energetic, assured look. The Americans, on the other hand — they just looked like people. They could have been anybody.

One of the German technicians could be seen pointing off somewhere, and the Americans were trying to make out what he was pointing at. I guess their eyesight is better than ours, she decided. Better diet over the last twenty years. As we’ve been told; they can see things no one else can. Vitamin A, perhaps? (source, right)

Of course, regardless of hierarchy and relationship, people do need to point things out in the distance to each other sometimes. But in advertisements featuring both sexes in Phil K. Dick’s time however, somehow it always seemed to be the men that were pointing things out to then women, as noted by sociologist Erving Goffman in Gender Advertisements in 1979:

On the positive side though, the second thing the advertisement reminded me of was a social studies textbook that I read in my final year of high school (back in 1993), which noted how rife such imagery was in earlier editions of a science textbook that I also happened to be using. But which had long since been removed, and indeed subsequent studies based on Goffman’s work – Belknap, P., & Leonard, W. M. (1991), “A conceptual replication and extension of Erving Goffman’s study of gender advertisements,” Sex Roles, 25(3/4), 103-118  for instance – confirmed that examples in advertisements were (by then) also so rare that it was not even worth looking for them. And much more recent studies of Korean advertisements (listed here) have come to much the same conclusions of them too.

But still, they do occur occasionally. Anybody remember this commercial I analyzed last September for instance, of which even just the visuals alone convey the message that only men are serious and thoughtful enough to be put in charge of your finances?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

To which now can be added the ad I saw on the subway this morning, which feels like it’s at least 30 years out of date. Or is that just me?

p.s. Yes, I’m aware that, technically speaking, Colorado isn’t occupied by Nazis in the book, but is rather in a buffer zone between the Japanese “Pacific States of America” and the Nazi “United States of America.” Alas, that wouldn’t have had quite the same impact as an opening line however!


Women’s Typical Poses in Advertisements: A Pain in the Neck?


Something about Kong Hyo-jin (공효진) got me all hot and bothered last week. And no, I don’t mean her lingerie photoshoot for Calvin Klein.

Rather, it was her ads for Uniqlo (유니클로), all over Busan at the moment. Surely, I thought, the creative team could have anticipated how their ads would look on the side of buses, and designed something that didn’t look like she was literally squashed into them?

But then I caught a subway train on Line 2, every carriage of which was decked out like this:

And suddenly I realized that her squashed appearance wasn’t an accident:

Still, what’s the big deal?

Well, just try it for yourself. Assuming that you have, and that your neck no longer hurts, then now you too may be wondering why her head was placed so awkwardly. Moreover, why is it overwhelmingly women that have this “head cant” in advertisements too, albeit not usually tilted quite so much?

(Sources: unknown)

Sociologist Erving Goffman believed it made women look subordinate, and hence that the disparity was evidence of sexism. But as I already discussed that back in February, my original aim here was just to pass on further evidence of the sociological pattern.

Yet the more I looked at the ad, the more I liked it despite myself. And I wanted to know why.

One possible reason, I thought, was Kong Hyo-jin’s luxuriant, flowing hair, another recurring theme of advertisements. Combined with her hands on her hips, it reminded of this ad with Kim Ah-joong (김아중) especially:

(Source: unknown)

And in particular, the wind effect:

…makes it look as though whatever she is looking at (presumably a male viewer) is powerful enough to nearly blow her away while she marvels at him and waits for his approach. She doesn’t look like she intends to act, but rather like she hopes to be acted upon–sexual but still submissive.

As discussed in detail here. But of course that wouldn’t apply to all cases of women with windswept hair in advertisements, and so I did a little investigating. And just guess what I found was #1 in “The 13 Most Common Female Courtship Signals and Gestures” in my Korean edition of The Definitive Book of Body Language (p. 290)?

Basically, that says that when women see a man they are interested in, the first thing they tend to do is start touching their hair, as raising their arms allows them to more easily give off pheromones via their armpits. I’m surprised that it doesn’t also mention that it would also serve to thrust their chests out a little too, and that as women tend to have longer hair than men then touching it also shows off that secondary sexual characteristic; but it does note that even women with short hair do it, so that latter may not be all that important really.

The head cant though? It’s more complicated, and for a little while I confused it with number 7 on that list (pp. 293-4):

But which is not actually referring to the head cant, but rather how women will raise their shoulders and look at the object of their affection while he’s preoccupied, suddenly looking away when he looks at them (which in turn makes him secretly look at them afterward, according to the book). Apparently, the round shape of their shoulders is suggestive of breasts also, which is not as ludicrous as it sounds considering breasts themselves likely evolved (to such a disproportionately large size for primates) through looking similar to buttocks.

Still, I did know that a tilted head showed interest in something or someone though (sexual or otherwise), and sure enough I soon found this (pp. 231-2):

Apologies for lacking the time to properly translate all of the above scans; if anyone would like me to, I’m quite happy to later in the week. In the meantime, it basically says that in addition being an expression of interest, tilting the head also serves to expose the neck, the obvious submissiveness of which is exaggerated by also having the effect of making the person shorter and/or smaller, which is quite the opposite of standing up straight to emphasize our height when we want to compete or fight with others in some sense.

Finally, it notes that it is often seen on women in advertisements, although it doesn’t say why. Upon reading that though, I finally realized what many of you probably knew all along: Kong Hyo-jin is in that pose because it’s sexually appealing to men, as easily confirmed by this, this, and this article on dating advice, and that’s why I was drawn to it I guess.

Hell, even knowing all that, I still like it!

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic. Or rather, that seeing that pose so often on women in advertisements isn’t. After all, there are many many other ways to appeal to heterosexual men, some quite the opposite of looking submissive, so it’s strange that that particular one would be so common (and, related, that you find women taller than accompanying men in ads much less than in real life). Moreover, why is the ad designed for a male gaze too, when presumably the intended consumers of the women’s clothes advertised are women?

But I started this post because Kong Hyo-jin’s pose looked so strange, and just because it did ultimately prove to have a logic is not to say that women in advertisements aren’t still frequently placed in some bizarre, awkward poses nevertheless. Consider the other Uniqlo advertisement in the series on the bus for instance:


Next, on the subway:

And finally, the full length version:

Now, despite deconstructing advertisements for over 3 years, just like everyone else in a developed country I too am exposed to 500-1000 advertising messages a day. So some common advertising themes I just simply get used to, a sure sign of which is that I originally thought that this was the more normal and natural-looking of the 2 advertisements, and hence had no intention of writing about it.

But in fact, it’s anything but “natural”. Again, I invite you to adopt Kong Hyo-jin’s pose for yourself just to see how strange it really is.

The crucial thing is her arms: one folded over the other, it reminds me most of a gesture that you’ll frequently see on new students and colleagues and so on on their first days at schools and workplaces. Just like on the woman below on page 103 of The Definitive Book of Body Language:

As I first mentioned here, the logic behind it is that when someone is nervous, then their instinctive reaction is to protect their exposed fronts using whatever comes to hand, be they bags, books, folders…or of course their own arms. Meeting people with folded arms doesn’t exactly create a warm and open first impression though, and so with the other partially open, hanging arm, they try to express that at the same time.

Yes, it is indeed an awkward compromise, but even having read the 1989 edition of Body Language above at the age of 13, and being perfectly aware of what I was doing (and why) thereafter, nevertheless I still couldn’t stop putting my arms like that on my first days at all 6 of my high schools (in 3 years in 3 countries). For those lacking self-confidence, as I did back then, it is an amazingly powerful instinct.

In Kong Hyo-jin’s case however, while I guess the expression of nervousness does accentuate an image of submissiveness, it’s just too much of a compromise to expose one part of the body – the neck – while protecting others with the arms. It also contradicts her “bashful knee bend” too, which I discuss here.

But why? I confess I simply don’t know, being a little mentally subdued after having to reconsider my original opinions about the first ad so much. Now seems as good a time as any then, to throw the floor open to readers, who may see something that I’ve missed and/or have alternative explanations!^^

Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context: The Mile High Club

( Source )

Quick question: for want of a better word, what vibe do you get from the above image? How does it make you feel?

Part of this Korean Air advertisement, how about with the caption:

From departure to arrival, only dignified services for our dignified guests.

Or with the fine print:

When you land, you should be in the same delicate condition as you were during take-off. That’s why our delicate service with a smile remains constant throughout the flight until you reach your destination.

In particular, do you find it demeaning to the steward in any way, or women in general?

Does the fact that only 11% of Korean Air stewards are men influence you in any way, Korean Air only hiring men from within its own ground staff since 1997, but women also from the general public?

And finally, do you get the same vibe from this Gucci advertisement? Why or why not?

( Source: the Fashion Spot {NSFW})

Alas, I have no information about the Gucci advertisement unfortunately (I would be grateful if any readers could enlighten me), but the Korean Air advertisement at least ran in magazines and newspapers worldwide in March 2008, and I recall finding it vaguely disturbing when I saw it in the Asian edition of The Economist at the time, but not quite being able to put my finger on why exactly.

And as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one, commentators from Singapore to London either baffled by it, finding it “hilarious that Korean Air published it in a Western magazine,” thinking it demeaning to women, and/or hoping that in Korea itself “it’s some kind of image of empowerment.” But I didn’t personally see anything sexual in it however, and so – forgive my naivety – originally didn’t quite get this unspecified newspaper author who commented that they were “glad that she is wearing a scarf, which is part of her uniform, and not something else.” Moreover, I certainly didn’t think it looked like she was about to perform fellatio either, unlike the author of Copyranter:

KOREAN AIR: How May We Service You?

Korean Air: You think our turbines have suction power…

The ad copy (click image) reads, in part: “That’s why our delicate service (no teeth!) with a smile remains constant throughout the flight…” Now, the ad was scanned from the March 31st Asian edition of Newsweek. And as tipster Juditha wrote, there certainly is a cultural difference with how female flight attendants (and really, all females) are perceived in Asian culture. But. Still. If the airline keeps running ads in this vein (sorry!), their male passengers are not going to stop at unbuckling just their seat belts.

But hey, we all make mistakes, and it’s not like there weren’t some distinctly sexual overtones to the advertising campaign as a whole; with thanks to fellow blogger Logan Row for pointing it out, note the symbolism at 0:19 in the commercial below for instance (and quite a common theme in wine advertisements!):

What is the logic of the Korean Air advertisement then? Well, as commentators in those above links pointed out, what Korean Air is trying to say in it is:

…that their attendants will go the extra mile for their guests. The pose that the flight attendant is striking is how traditional Korean hostesses would serve guests in their own homes. It is a traditional Korean (and to an extent Japanese) form of humility and hospitality

And that it’s a reference to the:

…Korean (and Asian) custom of bowing in front of your elders, parents, to people you respect, or in general to show deference to someone and submission. (ie students serve their teachers drinks/food on their knees) Its a position of servitude not necessarily the same ‘on your knees’ sexual connotation we have in the US. Obviously all of this still is problematic as far as the the female subjugation at the will of the Korean Air clients and basically almost just as offensive. But I thought that cultural reference was probably really important as well, as Korean, and other Asian cultures would read it with that in mind.

And finally that:

it conjures up being treated like royalty – in the old days the servants of royalty had to kneel and bow at all times when presenting the king with food/drinks/documents and then scoot out the door, never showing their backs. it is a sign of respect. with that said, this should not run anywhere outside East Asia as it can be misconstrued by everyone else.

( Source: the Fashion Spot {NSFW})

However, unfortunately it was. And unlike in Korea where cultural factors mean that the advertisement is not necessarily demeaning to women, a person’s social status usually trumping factors like how (literally) highly they are placed in an advertisement (see here, here, and here), having any group regularly placed lower than another in advertisements tends to be problematic in Western culture, for reasons the late sociologist Erving Goffman outlined in Gender Advertisements (1979):

Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)

And also:

Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)

Granted, the Gucci and Calvin Klein examples of this above are particularly provocative, but you can see more normal ones in this “Ritualization of Subordination” category of Goffman’s framework at The Gender Ads Project if you’re interested. Moreover, in light of those, I’m no longer entirely convinced that the Korean Air advertisement isn’t still problematic despite its cultural context: after all, with the proviso that men usually look rather awkward in poses that are sexually appealing on women (as hilariously demonstrated here), I personally find it very difficult to imagine a man in place of a woman in the Korean Air advertisement, although I fully concede that that may be due to my own socialization process leading me to believe that it is more “natural” with a woman, or even simply my familiarity with the advertisement, that happened to feature a woman rather than a man. Or is it not just me?

( Source: WallyWorld )

Regardless, this is by no means the first time that Korean advertisers or advertising agencies have produced advertisements that are appropriate for and/or logical to Koreans, but completely confusing and even offensive overseas. Not that only Korean companies are guilty of doing so of course, but they are the focus here, so let me leave you with 2 examples, the most notorious of which is probably Korean cosmetic maker Coreana’s (코리아나) use of Nazi imagery in 2008, about which you can read more at Brian in Jeollanam-do here, here, and then here (and the video is still available at Adland.TV).

Next, slightly more benign, there is that for the Samsung Sens notebook computer from September last year:

The logic of those with other, non-Sens notebooks having pig noses is that Korean 2-plug electrical sockets do indeed look a little similar, and I’ve heard that that’s traditionally what they were called too (but perhaps only by children?).  Regardless however, one wonders why they act like bafoons, and particularly why they’re all Caucasian when the commercial was filmed in a city as racially diverse as Sydney?

But a crucial difference between those and the Korean Air advertisement was that only the latter was intended for a global audience, and so the advertiser or advertising agency responsible should really should have known better. And now I’m curious: can anyone think of other cases where Korean advertisers or advertising agencies have made similar mistakes overseas? Alas, given the insular nature of the Korean advertising industry, probably not!

Update: Compare this advertisement for ANA airlines’ flights to Japan, from the February 2010 Hemisphere magazine (the in-flight United Airlines mag).

(For more posts in the “Gender Advertisements in the Korean Context” series, see here, here, here, here, and here)


“Gender Advertisements” in the Korean Context: Part 1

(Source: SeoulBeats)

Be warned: Gender Advertisements, by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, is one of those books that changes your life forever.

Well, not life-changing like reading The Communist Manifesto inspired an Argentine ex-lecturer of mine to start shooting police officers. But you will pay much more attention to advertising messages, of which you already receive between 500 and 1000 every day. (Yes, it’s really that many.)

Of course, advertisements have changed considerably since the book was published in 1979, and are much less sexist overall. But indeed that’s precisely because of the attention given to them. Moreover, some elements have actually gotten worse, advertising to children for instance now an embarrassment compared to the relatively gender-neutral tone of the early-1980s (compare these to this, this, and this), and also there is now so much partial nudity in advertisements that several researchers argue that a new category has had to be added to Goffman’s framework to analyze it.

However, partial nudity isn’t objectifying or sexist per se: rather, it is the manner and context in which it is applied. And if that is the case, then you can imagine how problematic applying Goffman’s framework as a whole to Korean advertisements is, in which such different cultural codes operate.

Or do they? In at least one case, yes: social status usually trumps all other considerations in Korea, and so having one person (usually a man) elevated above another (usually a woman) in an advertisement, perhaps by him sitting and her reclining on the floor in front of him, by no means implies superiority, rendering that subcategory of Goffman’s “Ritualization of Subordination” category problematic (see here and here for examples). Still others, such as cute and/or childlike depictions of women, or having them staring off into the distance rather than directly back at the viewer (a subcategory of “Licensed Withdrawal”), are not necessarily sexist in light of East Asian notions of metrosexuality and politeness respectively, as helpfully pointed out by reader Melissa. And in point of fact the only analysis (Nam et al, 2007) that has looked at men as well as women in Korean magazine advertisements did find that Korean men were depicted much more childishly and “withdrawn” than Western men in them.

Still, while this point is easy to miss in posts that necessarily give only a few illustrative examples, surveys of depictions of men and women in advertisements using Goffman’s framework are made to determine if there are statistically significant differences between them as a whole. And, if those are found, then there are a number of different cultural and anthropological explanations that can be suggested in addition to feminist ones: Occidentalism, for instance, may have played a role in the above result, or the fact that it is quite acceptable for Korean 20-somethings of both sexes to behave in a manner that many Westerners might consider childish (see here for possible reasons for this). Alternatively, Nam et al (2007) found that Western women were much more likely than Korean women to be depicted in a lower physical position than men, such as by him standing and her reclining in a chair on on the floor, but while this could be interpreted positively (for Korean women), much more likely is the fact that status trumps all other considerations in Korea, and so to be physically lower than someone else by no means implies that one is the inferior. Accordingly, there were no statistical differences between Korean men and women in this regard.

Other differences however, like the fact that regardless of the social norms I’ve discussed, Korean women are still depicted childishly or withdrawn more often than Korean men for instance, are extremely difficult to account for other than in terms of their inferior social and economic status in Korea. Or in other words, while an individual advertisement depicting a woman like a child isn’t necessarily sexist in itself, that there’s more of them than there are of men is certainly evidence of sexism. Moreover, I fail to see how noticing discrepancies like this is somehow Eurocentric of me, or “looking at Korean society through Western eyes.” Which is not at all to say that Melissa argued that, but others have.

Update: Specifically, aegyo is often claimed as a form of empowerment that Westerners fail to appreciate. In which case, guilty as charged: when (usually) women act like children to manipulate (usually older, higher-ranked, and/or richer) men, how is that anything but wholly accommodating to a patriarchal system?

(Source: Unknown)

In response, in what was originally intended to be a single post here I wanted to discuss the problems Kang (1997), Hovland et al (2005), and Nam et al (2007) had with Goffman’s framework, the alterations they made to it, and the latter two’s discussion of how appropriate various categories of it were to the Korean context.

In particular, the last found that Western men and women were more likely to be depicted as partially nude than their Korean counterparts, but with allowances again for Occidentalism, and the fact that Korean female models will rarely appear in lingerie advertisements (of which the authors were unaware, and so didn’t account for), they argue that this is again evidence of sexism because in fact “many scantily garbed women [emit] a sense of independence and confidence.” While I’d be a bit more circumspect than that myself, fortunately having long since on moved on from the days when I automatically equated bikinis with feminist liberation, they do have a point, particularly in a society where the majority of women were too scared to wear them 5-10 years ago.

Also, I wanted to discuss the “female-stereotypical” depictions of Korean men in advertisements like Melissa identified, posing a challenge as they do to especially Western men’s notions of masculinity. Unfortunately however, for reasons of space and ease of reading those will have to wait for Part 2 and perhaps even a Part 3. Instead, having provided a grounding in this post, let me devote the rest of it to a practical example of another discrepancy in the ways men and women are portrayed in advertisements, one that I stumbled onto by accident in the process of investigating the Evisu (에비수) advertisement at the beginning of the post.

Featuring Jung Yun-ho (정윤호; also know as “U-know”) of the boy band TVXQ (I don’t know who the woman is sorry), the first thing it reminded me of was this:

(Source: Shine So Cold)

Of which I wrote this back in November 2008 (update: since edited out sorry):

Personally, it took me a few moments to figure out what this advertisement is supposed to represent exactly: were the couple prisoners? No…why would their sunglasses be tied up too? How apart parts from a model kit then? No…then they’d be disassembled, and besides which the man appears to be raised from the white background a little, a rather awkward position for a model component. And then I realized that he’s actually standing, which would mean that the woman is too, although I can surely be forgiven for thinking that she’s lying down.

So probably they’re supposed to be like a Barbie and Ken doll set in a box, like you find in a toy store. But then why is the women tied down so helplessly, whereas the man, ostensibly also tied down, looks – as the photographer points out – firmly grounded and in control? I haven’t been looking (sorry!), but I dare say that Barbie and Ken dolls don’t leave the Mattel factory like that in real life. So why would the advertisers choose to depict them like that?

Granted, it’s a much more extreme example than the own with Yun-ho. But while I don’t mean to equate the two, that is indeed what it reminded me of, and the final question I pose is just as relevant.

But in terms of Goffman’s framework itself, probably this is more similar:

(Source: Tech Fatale)

And with that, let me add “participation shields,” a subcategory of Licensed Withdrawal, to add to all those others I’ve already elaborated on here, here, here, and here as well as those in this post. This is what Goffman (1979) had to say about it:

It is possible to look in on a social situation from a distance or from a one-way panel—a “participation shield”—and be little seen oneself, in which case one can, in effect, partake of the the events but not be exposed to scrutiny or address. A splitting up this results between some of the gains and some of the costs of face-to-face interaction. I might note that when one’s participation is thus shielded, simultaneous maintenance of dissociated side involvements would seem to be facilitated, since these could hardly intrude between oneself and one’s availability to the others in the situation – one not being available at all.

A ritualization of participation shielding occurs when one presents oneself as if on the edge of the situation or otherwise shielded from it physically, when in fact one is quite accessible to those in it. Still further ritualization is found in commercial posings. (p.70)

Then he gives examples of using walls as shields, then window frames, then various objects, then animals, and finally people:

…with the consequent opportunity to overlay distance with a differentiating expression, in the extreme, collusive betrayal of one’s shield. (p. 72)

Here are some examples he provides, from my scan of page 73:

And I think the Evisu advertisement is a good example of that last point, as Jung Yun-ho’s aggressive, confrontational stance is betrayed by that of the inquisitive, unconcerned expression of the woman partially hiding behind him. But lest I contradict myself and read too much into one image (and I’ll grant that those above are deliberately much more extreme cases), again let’s consider the discrepancies among the advertisements currently on the Evisu website. In particular, when the woman and Jung Yun-ho are by themselves, both have strong, confident stances, good examples of the “Independence/Self-Assurance” category first suggested by Kang (1997) and expanded on Nam (2007) which I’ll be discussing in Part 2:

(Source, all remaining images: Evisu)

So why then, in most of the few Evisu advertisements that have a man and a woman together, are the women relegated so to speak? But don’t just take my word for it. Instead, see all of them for yourself, starting from the most glaring example to the least:

Note also that only the woman has the “head cant” in each, which I discuss here.

But here is one example that is the complete opposite to all the above:

And I include this one also as it’s the only other one with two people, although strictly speaking it shouldn’t be counted:

Personally I think that the woman on the right above is not quite as “out of it” as she in her advertisements with a man, but I’ll grant that that’s open to debate, as is how much she is using the man as a participation shield in that second advertisement in which she is wearing black gloves. But that’s precisely the point: again, those are all the advertisements with more than one person in them on the Evisu website as a I type this (please note that the first one with Jung Yun-ho isn’t on the website though), and so please make your own minds up about whether there is a discrepancy in the way the men and women are depicted in them. Naturally, I think it’s obvious that there is, but if you agree and yet have a non-feminist, culturally-based argument for its existence however, then I’m all ears.

Meanwhile, a note on the sources for this post: if they look very familiar to regular readers, then that’s because there have been so few surveys of Korean advertisements made using Goffman’s framework. Moreover, even Nam et al’s (2007) is based on magazines from 2002 and 2003, hopelessly out of date for a society as fast-changing as Korea, and so I’ve long wanted to conduct my own survey(s) to compensate. That would involve far too much work for just one person unfortunately, and so if any readers are interested in co-authoring a conference paper and/or journal article on the topic, please let me know!^^

Goffman, E. (1979), Gender Advertisements.

Hovland, R. (2005) ‘Gender Role Portrayals in American and Korean Advertisements’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 2005, pp. 887-899 (although I have a physical copy, unfortunately this is no longer downloadable; I’d appreciate it if anyone with library access could email a PDF).

Kang, M. (1997) ‘The Portrayal of Women’s Images in Magazine Advertisements: Goffman’s Gender Analysis Revisited’, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research December 1997 (ditto on downloading)

Nam, K. et. al. (2007)  ‘Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines‘, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA Online (2007), pp. 1-31.

Update: If you’ve enjoyed this post, then you may also be interested in this one at Sociological Images that describes how even the “physiology and anatomy” theme of a university website also genders the stances of the physiological representation of both sexes, the man standing straight, looking ahead, and having even weight distribution, but the female form being “almost classically passive, hands held behind her back, weight distribution uneven” in contrast.

Beauties and the Beast? Understanding and Subverting the Male Gaze through Soju Advertisements

It’s not often that I laugh at soju advertisements.

Flying in the face of decades-old traditions that they should feature demure and virginal-looking women though, this one with singer Baek Ji-young (백지영) for Yipsejoo (잎새주) literally had me in tears.

Indeed, if it’s not a deliberate satire, then it at least prompted me to reexamine those traditions, making me realize just how ridiculous many are. And being exclusively designed for a “male gaze” too, they also prove to be a very good guide to it, giving pointers to the ways in which a wide range of advertisements seem to be based on the assumption that their audience are entirely heterosexual men, especially by focusing on and sexualizing women’s bodies.

Even when the products are aimed at women.

But first, the humor of this one, which is on several levels. First there is the caption, which reads “In autumn, rather than your lips (kiss), please give me some strong-tasting Yipsejoo!,” (가을, 입술보다 진한 잎술주세요!), and is a pun based on the fact that yibsool (입술), or lips, sounds very similar to yipsool (잎술), shorthand for Yipsejoo.

And as an added inside-joke for fans, a popular song on Baek Ji-young’s 7th album Sensibility, released five months before she was hired by Yipsejoo’s parent company Bohae (보해양조), even had the name Give Me Your Lips (입술을 주고) too.

But context is everything.

Previously on a fast track to stardom, Baek Ji-young was the innocent victim of a sex-scandal in 2000, and had to fight hard against Korea’s double-standards in order to revive her career. But while this severely limited her advertising options, perhaps one silver lining was the ability to disregard the high moral standards Koreans usually apply to their celebrities (especially women), and indeed it is very difficult to imagine anyone else appearing in advertisements like those she has so far for Yipsejoo.

For instance, recall that when she was chosen in an online poll to model for Yipsejoo in March last year, I remarked that her first advertisement for the company below was:

…not to put too fine a point on it, literally the sluttiest soju ad I’ve ever seen….

With apologies for sounding crass (then), but I still can’t think of a better way to describe it:

I also discussed the fact that while she did mention how happy she was to have been chosen to appear in soju advertisements like top stars Lee Hyori and Song Hye-gyo, one still sensed that they wouldn’t have consented to appearing bra-less and with an open zipper in them, which smacked of desperation. Judging by the soju advertisements that emerged that summer however, I was quite wrong, but then I’d already concluded of Beak Ji-young that:

however unfair or unwarranted, she’ll always be stuck with her promiscuous image, so she may as well play into it.

Still, I didn’t realize that she would take my advice quite so literally!

To be precise, I laughed so hard when I saw the opening image because I thought she looked like a prostitute who’d been plying her trade for rather too long now, and which were quite a contrast to, say, these earlier ones for Yipsejoo featuring Jeong Ryeo-won (정려원), for whom her evening of drinking soju with her male partner will be her first time in more ways than one:

But this post is not about that shift, which I’ve more than adequately covered elsewhere, although I do want to stress 2 things about it here before moving on: that however impressed I was by the changes when I first noticed them back in 2007, it was still extremely naive of me to have ever equated it with (female) sexual liberation(!); and that while an empirical study would undoubtedly demonstrate an increase in soju advertisements with – in the sociological framework that I’ll be using below – “body display” – in recent years, there is by no means an linear progression of racier advertisements over time.

Even just Yipseejo itself for instance, makes both forms of advertisements with the same models, and/or seems to alternate which ones it primarily makes with them, such as traditional, virginal ones with Jeong Ryeo-won and Han Ji-min (한지민) in 2006 and 2008 respectively, but then racier ones with Kim Ok-bin in 2007 and Baek Ji-young in 2009.

Regardless, both types are still designed for the male gaze. In the interests of full disclosure however, I have never studied that formally, and so here I shall be quoting liberally from the excellent A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose, part of the Semiotics and Advertising Web Site of the University of Vermont, and I also highly recommend this post by Michael Hurt at the Scribblings of the Metropolitician after that for an analysis of Korean women’s body images using that perspective.

But it does dovetail nicely with the work done by the late sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1979 work Gender Advertisements, still very much the framework by which sociologists study how gender roles are perpetuated in advertising (and indeed referred to repeatedly in A Web Essay). In earlier posts, I’ve already analyzed Korean advertisements using one motif of that: “Relative Size”, or how and why it is extremely rare to see women taller than men in advertisements despite being women being taller than men in 1 out of 6 randomly matched pairs. It’s high time to start using others, beginning with “Ritualization of Subordination”:

Under this broad category, Goffman actually described a great number of symbolic ways in which the women’s behavior in advertisements displays the subordination of females to males, many of which involve women acting like children. Why this is more problematic than it may sound is because:

Given the subordinated and indulged position of children in regard to adults, it would appear that to present oneself in puckish styling is to encourage the corresponding treatment. How much of this guise is found in real life is an open question; but found it is in advertisements. (Goffman, p. 48)

And indeed Korean society strongly encourages grown women to act like children, so it is probably not surprising to hear that in Korean adolescent girl’s magazines for instance, Korean female models are portrayed in such ways much more often than Western ones. From Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines by Nam, Kyoungtae., Lee, Guiohk. and Hwang, Jang-Sun (2007):

Korean women were more likely to be portrayed in smiling, pouting and childlike or cute expressions than Western women. This result is similar to the findings of [this 1999 study] in which many Japanese girls in magazine advertising were portrayed as happy, playful and childlike. Understanding that gender displays in advertising reflect cultural orientation in a society, these findings indicate that in Korea and Japan, cuteness is an important virtue for women. (p. 18)

And yet to complain about those advertisements with Yoo In-young (유인영) and Shin Min-a (신민아) above, especially when they’re aimed at men, might still seem a little excessive. But then consider the following images from A Web Essay, which poses the questions “What do they suggest to you about these men? Do they seem silly?”

“What about these images?”

And as you probably expected:

Most viewers find the images of the men odd or laughable. But the images of the women seem charming and attractive…Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?

Not childlike per se, but as the next part points out, such expressions are often done with a head cant, for instance by Chae Yeon (채연) and Han Hyo-Joo (한효주) below:

The effect of the head cant is to lower the level of the head:

“…relative to that of others, including, indirectly, the viewer of the picture. The resulting configuration can be read as an acceptance of subordination, and expression of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement.” (Goffman, p. 46)

And A Web Essay adds that it is often combined with putting a finger in the mouth or otherwise touching the face in a childlike way, and so common in advertising as to be barely noticed:

The difference between those and the soju advertisements however, is that they’re all from women’s magazines and presumably aimed at women, and so what is actually going on in those is:

…not that the viewer is looking at a woman who is actually subordinate or childish. Rather, the models are posed so as to show that they know that they are being looked at — belying the otherwise childlike pose — and they are controlling or mastering this act of being looked at. The childish, submissive postures are represented as strategic, as a sign of control of the gaze.

This mastery and control over the gaze might explain why the highly accomplished and wealthy women you see above would strike submissive, deferential poses for the camera that no accomplished man would strike. For in so doing:

…[they are] not at all signaling to others that [they are] actually subordinate; on the contrary, [they are] showing that [they], too, can be successful in this arena, the arena where the goal is to attract and control the power of the gaze by striking a subordinate pose. And were this an occasional event, if we regularly saw images of women that were of a different sort, the effect might be innocuous.

The problem is, however, that most women make less money and have less power than most men, and the message that goes out to women without power is that to get some, you need to gain control of a male view of women — which means to get power through male power, rather than on your own.

This is where the theory of the male gaze becomes important…

A Web Essay also briefly mentions women’s typical advertising poses in much the same vein. But I think that that’s a little misguided, as a distinction needs to be made between those that are sexually appealing to heterosexual men and others, the basic physiology of sexual reproduction ensuring that men will almost always look ridiculous in the former. Hilariously demonstrated by these pictures from English Russia for instance:

See Sociological Images for a wider discussion of those. Of course, by no means are women (or men) always placed in sexually appealing poses in advertisements, but for some reason women in particular frequently are placed in completely bizarre, often comical ones instead. Goffman notes of them that:

The note of unseriousness struck by a childlike guise is struck by another styling of the self, this one perhaps entirely restricted to advertisements, namely, the use of the entire body as a playful gesticulative device, a sort of body clowning. (Goffman p. 50)

With the possible exception of that with Kim Ok-bin, admittedly these following examples from soju advertisements can not really be described as “childlike.” But however natural they may appear though (again because of our frequent exposure to them), in fact some are extremely awkward to perform: just try them and see!

Starting with Kim Ah-joong (김아중) and Song Hye-gyo (송혜교):

Then Chae Yeon and Kim Ok-bin:

And finally Shin Min-a and Lee Hyori (이효리):

Those with Chae Yeon, Kim Ok-bin, and particularly Shin Min-a also display the “bashful knee bend,” which women frequently but men only infrequently are posed in a display of. Whatever else, it:

…can be read as a forgoing of full effort to be prepared and on the ready in the current social situation, for the position adds a moment to any effort to fight or flee. Once again one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm. (Goffman, p. 45)

But I’ll wisely move on to the second and last motif for this post, that of “Licensed Withdrawal.” In the words of Images of Women in Advertising:


[One] way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others.  This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands….

….Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth….

….In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state;  they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire.  Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation.  They are not so much objects for others’ to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions….

But I’d never given it much thought until I saw this composite of four soju advertisements with Jang Yun-jeong (장윤정), which I also laughed out loud at. What on Earth is she looking at?

More examples with Kim Tae-hee (김태희), and Ku Hye-sun (구혜선):

And to which can be added Han Hyo-joo’s from earlier. Arguably Ku Hye-sun is merely lost in her enjoyment of her drink though, and in that sense the advertisement could even be used to appeal to women(?). But then with the possible exception of the second one of Baek Ji-young’s, no advertisement featured here is particularly objectionable in itself; rather, this post has been about noting recurring features of soju advertisements that – if I may be so presumptuous – now that you’re more aware of, are likely to see across the entire Korean (and Western) media.

It is the pervasiveness of these features that is objectionable, and so rarely countered by alternative images of women.

But on that note, I should point out that I notice and pay attention to soju advertisements with skin just as much as the next guy; actually probably more so (call it an occupational hazard). Still, based on the opinions of the men and women in my classes at least, this one with Song Hye-gyo has the greatest universal appeal, although that is probably simply because of her attractiveness:

And after writing this post, in fact this one with Kim Yoon-ah (김윤아; not the skater) of the rock band Jaurim (자우림) is my favorite: it’s the only one I’ve seen in which the woman depicted is actually doing something of her own accord and enjoying herself, rather than waiting to be seduced by a man. Baek Ji-young’s does come close of course, but then it’s even more unflattering, and all she is doing is drinking!

Finally, while it’s technically out of place, I would be remiss in not providing the one which, well, literally had my female students squealing in delight when they saw it. Featuring Kang Dong-won (강동원) for Bom Bom (봄봄; “Spring Spring”), that will be music to the ears of manufacturer Daesun (대선주조), creators of one of the first ever soju brands aimed at women:

See here for more information on the consequences of that for soju advertisements so far; given all the above, it is perhaps no surprise that most soju advertisers still can’t restrain themselves from using womens’ bodies!

(Soju advertisement sources:, or directly from manufacturers’ websites)