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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Communication and culture professor Fern Johnson and student Jennifer Clark explore how gender stereotypes are used to sell products on television and in print.

Meet the researchers: Finding out for yourself

Interview with Jennifer Clark
With the guidance of professors Fern Johnson, Michael Bamberg, and Ellie Crocker, senior Jennifer Clark is examining issues of gender identity through the lenses of art, psychology, and communications. In a recent conversation, summarized below, she discussed her work.

Did you know what you wanted to study when you came to Clark?

I thought originally that I wanted to go into medicine. But I found psychology and art really fascinating, and they're two aspects of communication that I can integrate through the communication and culture major.

I'm looking at gender issues from several perspectives-art, psychology, and communication and culture. For my senior thesis I'm examining gender stereotypes in advertising and in my art classes I'm exploring gender by creating huge drawings of body parts. I want to show how even something as seemingly gender-neutral as an arm can be male or female.

Can you describe your thesis project in more detail?

Advertising agencies and their clients spend millions of dollars creating ads that feature gender stereotypes, and I don't think stereotypes would be used if they didn't sell products. What does it say about us when we react favorably to these stereotypes by purchasing the products? In my paper I'm exploring whether these ads create society's conception of gender, or if they simply mirror ideas of gender that are innate to us as humans. I'm leaning towards the mirror effect, because I don't think that gender-stereotyped ads would be affective if those conceptions weren't innate. I've read a lot of psychology studies that suggest that certain types of behavior and interests that tend to be gender-related start at an early age.

How did you go about exploring your question?

I composed a series of nine print advertisements selling toothpaste, a gender-neutral product, and showed them to students. I used text from three actual toothpaste ads. I manipulated the visual images that accompanied the text.

The ads fell into three groups, based on differences in the visual images. One group of ads incorporated gender stereotypes, one group challenged gender stereotypes, and one was neutral. There were three ads in each category. One would feature a female, one a male, and one a female and a male.

The gender-stereotype ads included one showing a cowboy in a desert scene and another with a woman leaning over showing her cleavage, doing an obviously sexual sell. The third ad showed a man leaning over the woman, with his arms around her.

The three gender-neutral ads just featured mouths, one male, one female and one with a male and a female mouth.

There were three gender-challenging ads. One showed a female construction worker. The second ad showed a man standing in a position that--according to research--is a female stance. The third ad featured a man and a woman. The man was lying down and the woman had her arms around him in a way that would constrict his movement.

Who viewed your ads and what questions did you ask?

I showed them to 95 Clark students, approximately half male and half female.

For each ad, each participant read a series of statements and rated them on a scale of 1-7 according to the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement. Examples of these statements include 'I like the ad,' 'the ad gives me positive feelings,' and 'if I saw this product in a store I would buy it.'

These statements are from a marketing survey that had already been used in a number of advertising studies. Marketing surveys like these are often designed by psychologists.

Have you reached any conclusions yet?

The majority of respondents, both male and female, preferred ads that showed gender stereotypes. The only difference between male and female perceptions was that the women liked the gender-neutral ads more than the men.

Is this the first time you've participated in research at Clark?

The first time I've done an experiment of my own. I did participate in research in psychology professor Elaine Reese's laboratory class in developmental pyschology (Psych 202). She researches language development in children.

For my capstone in psychology I wrote a research paper exploring how colors affect emotion, a topic that I find really interesting. I wrote a theory of color and how it relates to emotion, based on psychology professor Joe DeRivera's theory of emotion. He theorizes that emotion is related to movement. For example, anger is moving out, and fear is moving back. I argued that colors have movement as well; for example, red (often associated with anger) seems to advance while blue recedes. I examined how differences in hues, lightness or darkness, and saturation affect emotion. At one point I took a physics class, and it was interesting to explore color from a physics perspective, as opposed to an art or psychology perspective.

I really like research. I find it interesting to actually find out for myself what something is, rather than just reading and accepting what somebody wrote.

Can you comment more on that, especially in comparison to more traditional classroom learning?

In doing research I think you learn more. In classroom learning, you get the teacher's perspective and you get the book's perspective. But when you're doing your own research, you have to know all the different theories and you have to be critical about them and ask what their flaws are. You're not just passively accepting what you read. I think it helps the way you think. It helps you come to your own conclusions. And it's more interesting, because you're active.

What do you hope to do when you graduate?

I'm considering going into either advertising or teaching. In advertising they value psychologists a lot, so my psychology background should be helpful. I'm thinking of entering Clark's 5th year free master's degree program, either in professional communication or teaching, and then continuing for a Ph.D.


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