One of my university professors once told me that if I wanted to see society as it truly was, I should look at ads. Because advertisers have twenty seconds to make their point, they have to play off current stereotypes and expectations. There's no time to build up unique characters and personalities.
If we see a woman walking into a house with children, we assume she's a mother. She might tell us whether or not she's a stay at home mom or if she has a job, but we don't wonder if she is babysitting her sister's children or if she has opened her house to the neighbourhood children. It's simple and basic. We then can put further assumptions on her, that she cares about her home, her appearance, her children's health and safety, that she's pressed for time, working on a budget.
It's interesting to consciously look at the implied roles in these little twenty second dramas. A lot has to be conveyed and it's best done by using our own prejudices and beliefs. I can always tell at a first glance whether it's a Pepsi or Coke commercial, even though both logos are displayed. Whichever side has the most attractive people is the one which paid for the commercial. There's one running right now in which the pudgy and poorly-groomed middle-aged man (Coke) is rescued by the young and interesting crew of the Pepsi truck. It's all laid out very clearly: only boring, unattractive people like Coke; the vibrant and young choose Pepsi. Laid out consciously, the silliness of the parallel becomes clear. No one ever became cool exclusively because of their soft drink choice. Yet that is exactly what the commercial tries to suggest to us.
I have noticed some worrying trends over the last few years. If a man and a woman appear together in a commercial, the woman will be the one to correctly use the product or service, often with amusement at the man's befuddled confusion. It's part of the trend of the "harmless but useless" man character being used. You'll see it often in sitcoms, where the women manage the situation while the men muddle through. As the mother of two boys, this worries me. I don't like the idea of their prevalent role model being the butt of the joke.
I've also noticed that overweight people are being put into the "loser" spot in ads. Again, it bothers me because it firmly ties appearance to intelligence and competence.
Advertisers aren't going to change their ads to encourage self-esteem or make the world a friendlier place. They're paying money to get business. But I think it's important to think critically about the type of world we're being shown and the implied promises made.