Catherine Coleman investigates the link between marketing campaigns and inequalities women experience in economic markets.
by Caroline Love
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Topics: Research & Discovery, Schieffer College of Communication
by Caroline Love
Before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Adidas designed a shirt depicting a bikini-clad cartoon woman with Barbie-doll proportions. Underneath the grinning woman were the words “Lookin’ to Score.” Fearing the design exploited the nation’s reputation for prostitution, Brazil’s tourism board campaigned successfully to have the shirt removed from stores.
Presenting women as sexual objects in advertisements is nothing new, said Catherine Coleman, associate professor of strategic communication. Her research includes how marketing and advertising influence consumer notions of gender roles.
Coleman is part of a team studying the link between marketing campaigns and inequalities that women, as both consumers and producers, experience in economic markets. The team’s 2016 paper, “Gender Justice and the Market: A Transformative Consumer Research Perspective,” published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, led to the creation of the gender justice framework. The new approach is a lens for examining complex problems and solutions to imbalances between men and women.
Catherine Coleman, associate professor of strategic communication, followed a research approach “intended to focus on improving the lives and well-being of people around the world.” Photo by Mark Graham
The researchers’ framework draws from or applies three prominent theories to examine what might cause and perpetuate gender inequalities. The professor said approaching policy or research through a single lens can address problems in one place but could lead to others elsewhere. For example, legalizing and regulating prostitution might empower women financially but consequently increase the objectification of women’s bodies.
After developing the gender justice framework, Coleman and her team applied it to sex tourism to demonstrate how the approach can analyze a global issue. Sex tourism typically involves impoverished women with few employment options and is prevalent in Thailand, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Kenya.
Coleman was the advertising specialist on a team of marketing scholars. Linda Tuncay Zayer, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago and one of Coleman’s co-authors, said the perspective that Coleman provides is “invaluable. … We can look at the same problem and approach it from different angles, which ultimately makes the work stronger.”
The team’s paper concludes with a call for policymakers and academic researchers to apply the wide perspective proposed in the gender justice framework when attempting to make women more equitable consumers and producers in the marketplace.
The study cites the Avancemos project in the Dominican Republic as a real-world example of the lens in action. The project used marketing and other methods to educate sex workers about preventing sexually transmitted diseases. When combined with government policy, the number of documented sexually transmitted infections decreased by 40 percent.
Coleman and her co-authors followed a transformative consumer research approach, which she said “is specifically intended to focus on improving the lives and well-being of people around the world.”
She said her research style mixes data with options to enact practical change. Her approach translates into the classroom, where she conveys how the advertising industry impacts social climates.
Coleman said she tries to teach her students to consider the broader effects of their work. “These are culture-formulating industries in many ways,” she said. “That matters, because that’s the water we swim in.”
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