“Male” and “Female” Ads: Gender Expression in the Language of Recent Polish and Russian Advertising

The spread of consumerism in the markets of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union during the last decade of transition to post-socialism has brought commercial advertising to a new Slavic context. As a culture-sensitive discourse genre that both reflects and shapes socio-cultural perceptions, commercial advertising presents Slavists with a relatively unexplored corpus of new texts for linguistic, literary, and cultural analysis with real-world implications. This paper will expand on gender-linguistic studies of Polish and Russian to explore whether such formal characteristics as grammatical gender and agreement phenomena, genderlect and male/female lexicon in the language of advertising shape perceptions of real-world gender and contribute to the creation of “male” and “female” advertisements. Jaworski 1986 (“A Linguistic Picture of Women’s Position in Society”) has presented evidence suggesting that Polish speakers cognitively link the expression of grammatical gender with natural gender. Zemskaja and others have identified Russian genderlect phenomena and male/female lexicon and semantic-associative fields that also correlate with a perception of the natural gender of discourse participants. Drawing from their work, I will present analysis of actual advertising texts to show that, if such gender-marked language phenomena are interpreted as referencing real-world gender, they may be used in advertising discourse to create the perception of a gendered persona with whom the targeted reader-consumer of an ad makes a connection. That the gender of the target consumer is encoded in the surface structure of the advertising text can be accounted for in the framework of Yokoyama’s Transactional Discourse Model, in which gender-marked language forms serve as encoded expressions of the proposition [[I am a (wo)man]] comprising a key aspect of the advertiser’s referential knowledge of the “ideal,” or target, consumer and transferred to the current concern of the reader-consumer who will identify with that proposition.

Drawing from a corpus of over five hundred advertisements taken from recent general-interest media in Poland and Russia, I will present evidence from fieldwork just completed in Moscow and Kraków that shows whether native Polish and Russian informants identify certain advertisements as being “male” or “female” by means of linguistic cues. Based on my work with informants, I will identify which linguistic elements are operational in conveying the perception of real-world gender. On the basis of fieldwork results, I will present the case that assumptions made about the gender of the ideal consumer influence the form of the advertising text. Furthermore, there may be an implicational relationship between the advertiser’s imposition of an awareness of gender into the current concern of the reader-consumer and the degree of formality encoded in the advertising text. Yokoyama 1993 has suggested that Russian speakers typically allow themselves to express awareness of personal features, such as gender, only in the informal language of the svoj, or close, mode of communication. If analysis of recent Russian advertisements reveals that gender is regularly encoded to target male or female addressees, the claim of Yokoyama 1993 would need to be amended to allow for the fact that all Russian advertisements default to the svoj mode, where gender expression is permitted, or that there is an implicational hierarchy unique to advertising that bypasses the restriction of gender expression to the svoj mode.