Literature Review

The True Meaning behind Image Advertisements:

A Closer Look at Calvin Klein



According to Ellis (2000), popular culture offers ‘frameworks of explanation’ that help us ‘work through major public and private concerns’ of society. This intricate set of frameworks is often developed and maintained by a set group of individuals.  Celebrities, models, and athletes often lead the way when determining basic guidelines for acceptable practices in society.  The influence of these individuals, specifically celebrities, can be seen most often in younger generations.  As young adults mature, they begin to develop a strong sense of independence.  With this new found self-identity, many adolescents look to media outlets for guidance in establishing social norms and behaviors. 

            It is extremely evident that media outlets have the power to create meaning. Image advertisements in particular have the power to create a set of frames that perpetuate ideological hegemony. Ideology is a culmination of social beliefs and values that are upheld by members of society.  Hegemony is the power or dominance that one social group holds over others (Lull, 1995).   Ideological hegemony is a concept that describes an intertwined system of everyday realities that are created by dominant individuals.  As a result, ideological hegemony can often go undetected by common members of society.

            For example, ideological hegemony can be detected in image advertisements. Gender stereotypes and dominant norms are often perpetuated in daily advertisements. Clothing advertisers often feature young women and men and exaggerate potential sexual relationships. This could indicate the importance of heterosexuality, and the importance of beauty in our society.  Due to the amount of messages an individual sees on a daily basis, these common stereotypes are not as obvious to the American consumer.   As active consumers, it is our responsibility to challenge the existing system of ideological hegemony to help eliminate existing ignorance.

            By analyzing the way media outlets portray males and females in image advertisements, researchers can help determine the presence of bias’ and ideological frameworks.

Image Advertising

 Print advertising has been an area of concern for many decades.  Businesses have realized that advertising is an effective way to draw in consumers and dramatically increase profits. Advertising images are used as a means to create sensation and provide information about services or products that a specific company offers to its consumers. The prominence of advertisements in our everyday interaction with media raises many critical concerns for scholars.  The popularity of mediated resources such as fashion magazines, television and the Internet has made it easier for agencies to project advertisements.  The consumers of these resources are often young women or adolescents.     

Researchers have debated on the number of advertisements consumers view on a daily basis; however, the average is most likely in the thousands.  Due to this staggering statistic it is extremely important that scholars critically evaluate advertisement campaigns. Advertisements often include idealized body images and a skewed depiction of gender.  According to Shields (1997), the persuasive images that are presented in advertisements have a direct correlation to how social identities are constructed and maintained in our society.

 One of the most controversial producers of advertisements is fashionable clothing designer, Calvin Klein. Primarily recognized for racy underwear and jean advertisements, Calvin Klein has tested the ethical boundaries in print media.  Klein is one of the top American designers that has benefited from the use of sexuality in print advertisements. He has featured advertisements ranging from models representing group sex and to young children posing in white underwear. He has shocked the American culture with references to eroticism and sexual pleasure.

However, Calvin Klein may have overlooked the cumulative impact of his ethically strapped advertisements. After relevant research is presented, Calvin Klein advertisements will be critically evaluated in an effort to expose the true meaning behind each image.  Although many may only see an advertisement for clothing, many subliminal messages are presented.  


Body Image

According to Kellner (1995), media images often help shape our view of the world and provide a foundation for creating values and morals. For example, mediated sources often influence the acceptance or disapproval of a behavior or ideology. Themes of right and wrong, moral or evil, are often created and sustained in media stories or images.  Therefore, young women or adolescents often look to mediated sources to help them construct their own identity. Relying on advertisement agencies to create identities for America’s youth is a very dangerous and risky decision made by our society.   

When looking at media images, many ideologies come to the forefront.  The importance of an attractive physical appearance and sexual identity are two visible themes that repeatedly appear in media images of women. According to research conducted by Goffman (1976) magazine advertisements influenced the creation of cultural values and the distinction in gender roles. 

The presentation of unrealistic skinny women has been a frequent critique of communication scholars.  Women depicted in image advertisements are often a misrepresentation of the average sized woman in our society. According to the Media Awareness Network (2008), the standard model twenty years ago weighed 8 percent less than the average woman. Currently, female models represented in the media weigh 23 percent less than the average woman. This saddening statistic displays the ideological shift of the definition of beauty over the decades. 

This shift can be seen not only in women, but those who are exceedingly young.   According to findings conducted by Muller (1998), 40% of 6-year-old girls wished that they were thinner.  This can be attributed to society’s obsession with beauty and to be categorized as beautiful, one must be thin.  Muller also found that these negative ideologies were correlated with the act of dieting.  The popularity of dieting in our society is intertwined with the distorted body image presented by the media.

  Another study that supports this notion of a negative body image was conducted by Park (2005). This study confirmed that female college students received pressure to be thin directly from the media.  It also noted that women applied unnecessary pressure on themselves by assuming that those around them valued a thinner body type. 

 According to Stern (2004), advertisements geared towards women emphasize the importance of physical appearance.  These advertisements also urge consumers to buy specific products and conduct certain behaviors to look as young and thin as the models represented in the image.  For example, if a consumer purchases Calvin Klein jeans, they will be able to portray a sexual, thin image.  However, those who purchase these products are most likely going to be let down by the results. They are not going to be as thin or beautiful as the model pictured in the advertisement, causing them to constantly pay attention to negative physical attributes.

Due to the overwhelming presence of unrealistic images of women in the media, many average women critically evaluate themselves. According to Wolszon (1998), women who are dissatisfied with themselves are more likely to experience self-esteem problems, depression, and a higher risk of eating disorders. These negative consequences of false mediated stereotypes should be taken seriously.  According to Garner and Garfinkel (1985), body image and self-esteem have been proven to play important roles in the creation of eating disorders. Eating disorders are extremely popular among adolescents and young women. 


Social Comparison Theory

            Due to constant exposure to image advertisements, women in society often become acutely aware of their own body image.  The social comparison theory developed by Festinger (1954) helps to explain the process of self comparison.  Festinger proposed that individuals tend to evaluate themselves by looking at other social groups around them. There are two types of social comparison that were later developed. Downward social comparison, is the comparison to others that are not as fortunate ultimately increasing your self-worth and self-image. (Wills, 1991). Upward social comparison is the more negative side to the social comparison theory. This type of comparison includes judgements placed on those who are better than our personal self-image. Constant upward judgement can be very threatening to a positive self-esteem and can contribute to negative behaviors (Higgins, 1987). 

  This theory can be directly applied to the social comparison processes of consumers.  If a young woman is subjected to unrealistic body images on a daily basis, she is most likely going to take part in a social comparison process.  Further research conducted by Wood (1989) suggested that social comparison can affect self-feelings and self-concept. After the young woman is overexposed to image advertisements, she may choose to evaluate herself in a negative manner.


The advertisers for these images do not randomly select gender, race and body type for their promotional material.  They choose each person according to skin color, weight, hair and eye color for a reason;   this reason often perpetuates false stereotypes and creates idealistic representations of gender.  As a society that is constantly surrounded by these image advertisements on a daily basis, it is important to realize what they are really selling.  Advertising agencies, such as Klein’s in-house team, should closely evaluate the societal impacts of risqué , sexual image advertisements.  Critical analysis of these images should lead scholars to help eliminate ignorance about gender stereotypes



Ellis, J. (2000) Seeing things: Television in the age of uncertainty. London: Tauris.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.

Frith, K., Shaw, P., Cheng, H. (2005). The construction of beauty: A cross-cultural analysis of women’s magazine advertising.  Journal of Communication. 55(1),  p. 56.

Garner, D.M., Garfinkel, P.E. (1985). Handbook of psychotherapy for anorexia nervosa and bulimia. New York. Guilford Press.

Goffman, E. (1976). Gender Advertisments. Cambridge; Harvard University Press. 84.

Higgins, E.T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94, 319-340.

Kellner, D. (1995). Cultural studies, multiculturalism and media culture. In G. Dines & J.M.Humez, Gender, Race, and Class in Media (p.5-17). Sage.

Kilbourne, J.(2005). What else does sex sell? International Journal of Advertising. 24 (1). pp.119-122.

Lull, J. (1995). Hegemony. Media, communication, culture: A global approach.New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press.

Muller, M.A.(1998). Getting what you want from your body image.Chestnut Hills, MA:ETR.

Park, S. (2005). The influence of presumed media influence on women’s desire to be thin. Communication Research. Beverly Hills: 32, (5).

Shields, V. (1997). Selling the sex that sells: Mapping the evolution of gender advertising research across three decades. Communication Yearbook, p.71-109.   

Stern, S. (2004). All I really needed to know (about beauty) I learned by kindergarten: A cultivation analysis. In Lind, R.A, Race, Gender, Media. Pearson.

Williamson, J. (1986). Woman is an island: Femininity and colonization. In T.Modleski (Ed.), Studies in entertainment: Critical approaches to mass culture(p. 99-118). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wills, T. A. (1991). Similarity and self-esteem in downward comparison. In J.Suls & T.A. WIlls. Social comparison: Contemporary theory and research.Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wood, J. (1989). Theory and research concerning social comparisons of personal attributes. Psychological Bulletin, 106 (September), 231-248.

Women and Advertising. Retrieved May 2008 from


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