Korean Sociological Image #19: Gee, Gee, Gee…Using Girls’ Generation to Study Gender Roles in Korean Advertising

Girls' Generation Shinhan Card Commercial

As pointed out by Gwen at Sociological Images, pretty and/or sexually-available women are often presented as the faces of political viewpoints or causes, presumably to make them more popular among heterosexual men. One feels somewhat manipulative with the choice of the following commercial featuring the photogenic girl band Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) as a subject of examination here then, let alone with those of other recent topics on the blog, but I’d be hard-pressed to find something else which demonstrates quite so many aspects of contemporary Korean gender issues in a mere 15 seconds. It’s really quite bizarre.

And in more ways than one: the more I watch it, the more unnatural, almost disturbing I find this commercial, and I’m not being facetious when I say that that it may make you squirm in your seat a little:

An exaggeration? If you think so, then you’re in good company, for I’ve shown the commercial to a number of my students this week to elicit their own first impressions and opinions of it, only to receive blank looks from most. But while I don’t mean to sound patronizing, one might surmise that in their case that is because most of their adult lives have been spent in an environment in which both doumi (도우미) or female “assistants” and scantily-clad “narrator models” (나레이터 머델) have become ubiquitous, and gender issues as an academic discipline still somewhat lagging its development in Western countries, let alone as a subject of popular discourse. So it’s natural that – yes – the mini-shorts in particular wouldn’t have triggered the same reaction that they would have in most Western viewers. Or to put it more simply, while your average Western viewer may well disagree that the advertisement is sexist, he or she is probably more likely to be aware of why others might think so.

Readers may well acknowledge the tendency towards exhibitionism and objectification inherent to the use of mini-shorts in advertising though, and yet still that feel my description of this particular commercial is an exaggeration. Moreover, members of Girls’ Generation are actually notorious for wearing them (as they are of jeans that are several sizes too small), and in so doing have played no small part in popularizing them among young Korean women this summer, albeit very much building on the preexisting popularity of mini-skirts in the process. So it may seem misguided, almost disingenuous of me to single out this commercial in this regard.

Sooyoung Girls' Generation Viliv( Source: Naver )

But then, I’m not. Forgive me for acknowledging my own male gaze here (I’ll try to keep it to a minimum), but not only do I happen to like mini-shorts on women, I also find most members of Girl’s Generation sexually attractive too, so by no means am I categorically against the use of either by advertisers. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t still much that is objectionable about this commercial though: the mini-shorts were merely a good starting-point because I feel confident that that’s where the majority of readers literally did start, and expected that I would also. But let’s move on from those by considering them as parts of entire outfits rather than in isolation.

Looked at from that perspective, what they are wearing strikes me as much more reminiscent of the hypersexual representations of women and girls prevailing in Japanese manga more than anything that you’d find ever in real life. Alternatively, perhaps women’s Vaudeville costumes of the 1880s to 1930s would be more appropriate, and I think it’s telling that the most similar costume I could find via a Google Image search was this one from aSexyCostume.com. True, this is the media we’re talking about, to which the public standards of fashion don’t (and usually shouldn’t) apply. But having established their novelty and their suggestiveness, what purposes do such outfits serve?

Rare Objectification of Korean MenWell, consider what impression the commercial would have given if the men in it had also been wearing mini-shorts, assuming that they also had legs that the opposite sex would find attractive (well-muscled ones say). Intellectually, this probably sounds perfectly fine, but I suspect that if we were all to actually see such a commercial, that regardless of our feminist beliefs we’d probably find the result somewhat comical.

And yet it would not necessarily be a betrayal of those beliefs to do so: partially because, even in the US, “shorts suits” are still only on the fringes of respectability, and hence we’re unused to them, but primarily because men and women use different criteria for judging sexual attractiveness, so it’s to be expected that men often look absurd in similar clothes and poses to what advertisers place women in. On top of that, recall that this is a commercial for a bank, so something akin to a curious blend of a traditional Vaudeville show and the Chippendales wouldn’t exactly have conveyed the level-headiness consumers desire in such an institution.

But then, does just having the women in mini-shorts either? Well, that’s the strange thing: in this particular commercial, it does. Let me explain, using what is actually being said in the commercial to do so:

First, the text in blue box: “끝없이 ‘고객만족’을 생각하는 카드”.

“The card that unceasingly thinks about customer satisfaction”.

Then what the men are saying while that is visible: “생각, 생각, 생각, 생각”.

“Think, think, think, think.”

Next Girls’ Generation, dancing with their shoulders while sitting on a bench: “어떡하면, 원하는걸, 다 이뤄줄수 있으까?”.

“How shall [the card] achieve everything [the customer] wishes?”.

Girls' Generation Shinhan Card Screenshot( Source: Paranzui )

Then the men again, while the girls are do their leggy dance, then stand in a line with the men and supposedly sing along with them (but we only hear the men’s voices): “손잡고 힘을 모아 다 함께 생각 생각”.

“Let’s cooperate [with the customer] and collect our energy together and think about all that”.

Finally in the voiceover, with the men sitting in contemplative poses and the girls standing behind them clapping : “카드의 길을 생각하다”.

“What is a card’s purpose? Let’s think about that”.

With this text in the blue box above them: “끝없는 제휴혜택으로 더 큰 고객만족을”.

“The card that can be used anywhere in order to increase customer satisfaction!”.

Easy to miss on a single viewing, it emerges that it is only the men that do the thinking in this commercial, and by default, for the bank also. Yes, really: even when they all say “How shall [the card] achieve everything [the customer] wishes?,” if you look closely at roughly 0:08 into the commercial when the girls actually finish saying that (see above), they clearly turn to the men for an answer. Rest assured then, that if you invest your money in this bank, that it will be in the hands of those that take your concerns very seriously. They just won’t be women, that’s all.

Again, exaggeration? Hardly. Consider the facts: according to a recent report in the Korea Times, there are no female CEOs in the entire financial industry here; there are only 2 women out of a total of 220 team managers in the Financial Supervisory Service (and no executives); there are no women with either position in the Bank of Korea. Moreover, one anonymous (male) government official in finance argued that this is somehow justified by “the country’s financial bureaucrats [having] been overwhelmed with too “serious tasks” to pay attention to gender equality” (but referring to the period since the early 1960’s, not just recent events), and it’s telling that even Rep. Lee Sung-nam (이성남) of the Democratic Party, a woman and former worker at the FSS, feels that women’s weak point in finance is their “competitive edge.”

gender-advertisements-erving-goffmanGranted, given that Korea has one of the lowest women’s workforce participation rates in the OECD, and that Korea has a surprisingly low “Gender Empowerment Measure” relative to its level of development, which is based on “factors such as the number of female legislators, the percentage of women in senior official and managerial positions, the percentage of women in professional and technical positions, and the income differential between men and women,” then it might seem unfair to single out the financial sector for criticism in this regard. But then if I’d wanted to highlight the lack of women there in particular, then I couldn’t have selected a better commercial to illustrate why that might be so.

Nor for explaining “function ranking” either, a common sexist motif in advertisements. A quick summary:

Activities can also be expressive and symbolic – who is shown doing what in the image?  For example which gender is most likely to shown caring for children? Very commonly when persons in the image have functions, these functions are ranked, with the male carrying out the senior functions, the female the junior functions.  Men act, and women help men act.  Males are more likely to be shown in the executive or leadership role, with females in the supportive, assistant, or decorative accessory role (source).

That and other motifs were first outlined by the late sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1979 work Gender Advertisements, and which is still very much the framework by which sociologists study how gender roles are perpetuated in advertising; I offer it in the remainder of this post for those of you interested in a more systematic way of analyzing the commercial, and advertising in general. For instance, consider how poignant the following sounds in light of all the above:

In our society where a man and a woman collaborate face to face in an undertaking, the man – it would seem – is likely to perform the executive role, providing only that one can be fashioned. This arrangement seems widely represented in advertisements, in part, no doubt, to facilitate interpretability at a glance (p.32).

And the next also, albeit if we reverse the sexes and the locations:

….Which raises the questions of how males are pictured when in the domains of the traditional authority and competence of females – the kitchen, the nursery, and the living room when it is being cleaned. One answer, borrowed from life and possibly underrepresented, is to picture the male engaged in no contributing role at all, in this way avoiding either subordination or contamination with a “female” task (p.36).

Another answer, I think, it so present the man as ludicrous or childlike, unrealistically so, as if perhaps in making him candidly unreal the competency image of real makes could be preserved (p. 36).

And to introduce the next relevant motif, consider how a similarly strong gender binary is created by the following advertisement I came across last November, which also happened to be for a bank:


Here, it is largely the “relative sizes” of the sexes that makes it so problematic. See here for an in-depth discussion of this motif, but in sum:

…when females and males are shown together, males are mostly shown as taller than females, even though if females and males were randomly paired together, in one in six pairs the woman would be taller.  However the tall female with the short male displays a relationship in which the female has power, according to conventional indicative codes, and so the reverse is preferred, since the cultural ideal is the the male “should wear the pants”.  Therefore the most common image is the taller male, and the shorter female. Exceptions occur where the male is weakened by sickness or old age, or is of lower social status (such as a servant) than the female. Height routinely symbolizes social rank (source).

In light of this, one might point out that in opening image of the Shinhan Bank commercial the men and women are actually the same size – indeed, hilariously so because in fact many of the women are standing on wooden blocks – but I argue that this just makes the difference in their outfits all the more glaring.

Finally, the commercial doesn’t quite render irrelevant one of Goffman’s other motifs, that entitled “Ritualization of Subordination,” but it certainly qualifies it in the Korean context, as while he:

…read that lying or sitting conveys a sense of sexual availability and lowering oneself physically indicates deference or admittance of inferiority.

And which made sense given his full arguments and examples, as Nam Kyoungtae, Lee, Guiohk & Hwang, Jang-Sunin in their 2007 paper “Gender Role Stereotypes Depicted by Western and Korean Advertising Models in Korean Adolescent Girls’ Magazines“ (downloadable here) explain, this:

…may not be an accurate interpretation of Korean advertising. In a Korean culture which is accustomed to sitting on the floor, a seated person might have a higher status than people who are standing nearby because he takes a more relaxed and comfortable position.

Shinhan Bank Shinhan Credit Card Girl's GenerationTrue, the men posed at 0:12 on the right (source) are hardly “relaxed and comfortable,” but they’re easily of a more higher status than the women clapping behind them. Against that interpretation, there is the fact that in Korea, one often claps oneself or one’s group for achieving some feat, but there is little else in the commercial to suggest that the women are any more than passive members of the team that is thinking about “a card’s purpose” and so on. Or indeed, that overall, that any enhancement in the bank’s reputation gained by the commercial isn’t very much at the expense of women’s as a whole.

…And upon writing that note, my original intention was to move on to the 3 or 4 other “aspects of contemporary Korean gender issues” that I felt that the commercial demonstrated, but I’ll wisely stop there, hopefully having providing readers a new means by which to critically look at commercials and advertisements in the process, and not just Korean ones. But by all means feel free to point out anything you feel that I missed, or alternatively overemphasized: with having watched the commercial at least 50 times now, and now a raging flu to boot, then I concede that I may well have started missing the forest for the trees quite some time ago now!

Girls' Generation Girls' Dreams Come True( Source: Naver)

Update: See here for another recent commercial from Shinhan Bank with just the men for comparison.

(For all posts in my “Korean Sociological Images” series, see here)

Activities can also be expressive and symbolic – who is shown doing what in the image?  For example which gender is most likely to shown caring for children?  Very commonly when persons in the image have functions, these functions are ranked, with the male carrying out the senior functions, the female the junior functions.  Men act, and women help men act.  Males are more likely to be shown in the executive or leadership role, with females in the supportive, assistant, or decorative accessory role.


Posted in Korean Advertisements, Korean Men's Body Images, Korean Sexism, Korean Sociological Images, Korean Women's Body Images Tagged: Erving Goffman, Gender Advertisments, Girls' Generation, Goffman, 소녀시대, 신한은행, 신한카드, Shinhan Bank, Shinhan Card