Sylvan Learning, c/o Educate, Inc.
1400 Fleet Street
Baltimore MD 21212
re: Television advertising for Sylvan Learning Centers
Your commercials on broadcast television over the past few
years have increased in frequency -- if this indicates an
increase in your business, my congratulations! Unfortunately,
I have noticed that there is something quite important that is
apparently completely missing: there are no men in them!
All actors playing Sylvan tutors/teachers are women, and
all parents depicted are (apparently) mothers. I do remember
one father shown in a spot a couple of years ago, but it was
the mother who saw the improved report card and showed the
appreciation to the child.
Before I describe why I think this is significant and negative,
let me briefly outline my general position. In the 1980s I taught
Women's Studies (now generally referred to as Gender Studies) at
two universities, and I consider myself a conscientious feminist
scholar and teacher. As I develop the ideas below, I trust it
will be clear that the goal is balance, and certainly not a return
to male dominance.
Advertising has two major effects on those who consume (view)
it. One, of course, is your primary reason for buying it in
the first place -- to inform the public of your company and
encourage them to buy your services. For this purpose, your
ad agency seems to be doing quite well. Another effect, much
more important in my view and unavoidable in a mass-media
society such as ours, is the contribution any advertising
makes to the image viewers have of society itself. Many
people even adopt the tenets they see in the mass media as
a guide for their own lives.
Your advertising does have some ethical content, of course.
It promotes education and conveys a fair and balanced picture
of the ethnic diversity of our society. By failing to include
men in the educational process and home life of the children
you portray as clients, however, you are furthering an already-
too-frequent stereotype that only women can and should be
teachers and caregivers for people who have not yet reached
Research is clear that both boys and girls benefit from having
positive men as well as women in their home and school
environments. There is even evidence that men are actually
discouraged from entering education and caregiving professions
because of a perception that the society would not sustain them
in those roles. Children are the losers in this process.
The situation today with regard to anti-male bias in advertising
(not my term, by the way; many other writers have used it before
me) is not unlike the situation I myself witnessed in advertising
in the 1950s and early 1960s in which virtually all the people used
to sell products were white. The inclusion of other racial
groups in advertising and television shows was worth fighting
for then, and a reversal of the all-female bias in commercials
such as yours (and many others) is worth fighting for today.
I trust your business will continue to grow as a result of your
effective advertising. I also strongly urge you to adjust the
content of your commercials to reflect more accurately the society
which supports your enterprise. It may not benefit your business
directly and measurably, but you will be contributing to a
healthier developmental process for all children.
Gerald Jones, Ph.D.
University of Southern California
cc: Office for Civil Rights
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20202-1100
The Advertising Council
1203 19th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20036