Naureen Aqueel

Archive for December 2008


Our conceptions and ideas about life and the things that make up what we call life are shaped not only by our first-hand experiences, but also by the images and ideas we receive through other sources like the media. These media can vary from newspapers and magazines to television, radio, billboards etc. The media play a central role in shaping our conceptions about things. Advertisements are a crucial part of today’s media messages as no form of media is free of their presence.

This paper aims to explore one major area of advertisement portrayals, those of families and family life. The family is an important target market, one of the basic market units. It is due to its strategic importance that marketing management strategy suggests analysing and adapting marketing communications to the family lifecycle, household decision making, consumer socialization, and gender roles in domestic groups, households or families (Arnould, Price and Zinkhan; 2004 as cited in Borgerson et al.; 2007). However, despite the family’s strategic importance, very few studies are found that look explicitly at family as portrayed in marketing communication (Borgerson et al.; 2007) as compared to the exhaustive amount of research into gender and children portrayals.  References to the family are often found within studies into the aforementioned topics.

Advertisements aim to inculcate meanings and according to Fowles (1996), since “meaning exists only in a human context, it makes sense that the majority of advertisements contain images of people…Because advertisements are messages designed to instigate sales, a visitor from another planet might well ask if they are selling people, since images of people typically occupy more of the purchased time and space than do images of commodities.”  In fact, Fowles (1996) cites research by Bretl and Cantor (1988) which shows that an analysis of both morning and evening network commercials determined that 87% contained human beings.

The primary grouping of these human beings is the family, and indeed family is the setting in many advertisements, especially in Pakistan. There are trends, however, in Pakistan and more pronounced in Western societies, of ads being increasingly devoid of any signs of family or family life, with an emphasis on individualism or other reference groups. The non-commodity material or symbolic elements that constitute the appeal in the advertisement, make an ad a compound ad (Fowles; 1996). “The task of the advertisement is to get consumers to transfer the positive associations of the non-commodity material onto the commodity, so that freedom and ruggedness equal Marlboro cigarettes, and friendship equals Bud Light.” Fowles (1996) says that the imagery should thus be congenial as its “meanings are intended to glide over onto the product. Unpleasant imagery is risky and hence rare.” Most often the images therefore, represent idealized depictions.

Sociologist Erving Goffman argued that families are “well adapted to the requirements of pictorial representation. All of the members of almost any actual family can be contained easily within the same close picture, and, properly positioned, a visual representation of the members can nicely serve as a symbolization of the family’s social structure” (Goffman; 1979 as cited in Borgerson et al.; 2007). He suggested that the presence of at least one girl and one boy enables the symbolization of the full set of intra-family relations, including the presumed special bonds between the mother and the daughter as well as between the father and the son (Borgerson et al.; 2007). This description is that of a more conventional family, which is often used in advertisements. However, there are non-conventional families that exist in society and whether or not they are portrayed in advertisements and how, are important questions that will be explored in this paper.

Portrayals of families, family types, the roles and relationships in families, the activities and sense of happiness and bonding in advertisements all affect the perceptions, expectations, relationships and sense of happiness of the viewers and thus, it becomes ever more important to analyse and check what kind of images are used.

Literature Review

Theoretical groundings

Much has been written about family life, its forms and structures, and its representations in the media.  I will first examine some theories that come closest to my study, and then explore the research into portrayals and representations of family life in the media and advertising in particular.

Family forms and images

The family is considered the bedrock of society. In all types of societies, the family has been seen as the most basic unit of social organization and one which carries out vital tasks such as that of socializing children (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). Although the family is a dynamic social phenomenon varying historically, geographically and culturally, in market societies we tend to be bombarded with images of a particular type of family (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler; 2005).

“Edmund Leach (1967) called this the ‘cereal packet image of the family’ (Leach; 1967 as cited in Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). The image of the happily married couple with two children is prominent in advertising, and the ‘family-sized’ packets of cereals and other types of product are aimed at just this type of grouping. It tends to be taken for granted that this type of family has its needs met by the male breadwinner, while the wife has a predominantly domestic role.” (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000)

Describing the image of a typical or conventional family, Ann Oakley says “conventional families are nuclear families composed of legally married couples, voluntarily choosing the parenthood of one or more (but not too many) children” (Oakely; 1982 as cited in Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). This sort of nuclear family is considered a ‘basic structural unit of the society’ (Rosser and Harris; 1965 as cited in Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). In such families, “far fewer children are permanently looked after by relatives other than their own parents” (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). Other family types mentioned by Haralambos, Herald and Holborn (2000) are modified extended family, which is a coalition of nuclear families in a state of partial dependence; the modified elementary family, in which an inner ‘elementary’ family consisting of wives and husbands, their parents, children, brothers and sisters often help each other in difficult times; and the dispersed extended family,  consisting of two or more related families cooperating with each other even though they live some distance apart.

These basic forms of families are considered the typical families, but recent research has suggested that modern industrial societies are characterized by a plurality of household and family types, and the idea of a typical family is misleading (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). The other forms of families like single-parent families, same-sex families, couple-without-children households and extended families, although increasingly common in different parts of the world are not seen as normal or desirable (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler; 2005).

A number of changes have also been seen in the structure of the family, including increases in age at marriage, decreases in number of children, and increases in divorce (Kaufman; 1999). By the mid 1980s, only 10% of families in the US were traditional families in which the father worked while the mother stayed home to take care of the children (Levitan, Belous, and Gallo; 1988 as cited in Kaufman; 1999). Women have been expanding their roles to include working outside the home as well as being wives and mothers. At the same time, men’s involvement in more domestic roles has increased (Gershuny and Robinson; 1988 as cited in Kaufman; 1999).

The definition of family thus, as we can see, is relative. What an individual perceives as family may vary depending on his or her ideological and cultural background. Lived experience typically demonstrates more diversity than a ‘traditional family’ definition (Borgerson et al.; 2007).

Media Framing and Social Expectations Theory

“Goffman (1974) proposed that humans make sense of the world using cognitive filters, or frames, and that commercial typifications literally construct popular meanings” (Coltrane and Adams; 1997).  Media analysts use the word “frame” to explain the importance of television imagery. “Generally speaking, a frame acts much the same way in media analysis that a schema does in cognitive psychology by selecting out certain aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient than others” (Coltrane and Adams; 1997).

Research has shown that media frames help to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements, and suggest specific remedies (Snow & Benford; 1988 as cited in Coltrane and Adams; 1997). The extended and repeated exposure to the patterned media framing of events contributes to the perception that what we are viewing is ‘natural and inevitable’. This is how these frames become a part of our taken-for-granted assumptions about how to conduct our lives. (Coltrane and Adams; 1997)

“The mass media are a major source of patterned social expectations about the social organization of specific groups in modern society. That is, in their content they describe and portray the norms, roles, ranking, and sanctions of virtually every kind of group known in contemporary social life”. These portrayals of stable patterns of group life in mass communications, define what people are expected to do when they relate to each other in families, interact with fellow workers, worship, study, purchase consumer goods, and in many other ways take part in community life.  (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989)

Portrayals of things like mother-child relationships to those of things like social observances of death help define the expectations that potential members of groups have prior to participation in organized social activities (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989). The media frequently portray patterns of social organization in the form of norms, roles, ranking, and sanctions pertaining to specific types of groups. Whether these portrayals are trustworthy or misleading, accurate or distorted, members of the audiences assimilate such definitions and they become their learned sets of social expectations of how members of such groups are expected to behave, they provide guides to action as to how individuals should personally behave towards others playing roles in specific groups, and how others will act towards them in a variety of social circumstances (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989).

Social expectations theory is also close to socialization theory in that it accounts for the long-range and indirect influences of the media, and portrays the media as an agent of (unwitting and unplanned) instruction. Put short, social expectations theory is “based on the idea that (1) the media convey information regarding the rules of social conduct that the individual remembers and (2) that directly shapes overt behavior” (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989).

Cultivation Analysis

Although relatively few media advertisements have the explicit purpose of teaching values, values are being taught implicitly, particularly by television commercials. The Cultivation Theory of George Gerbner is most useful with respect to answering how media affect social values. “As certain consistent values are repeated in a variety of specific instances, they then cultivate those values in the consumer. How strongly those values are cultivated may sometimes depend on the consumer’s particular uses of the media and what gratifications they are obtaining from that use” (Harris; 2004)

The central argument of this theory is that television ‘cultivates’ or creates a world view that, although possibly inaccurate, becomes the reality simply because people believe it to be the reality and base their judgments about their own everyday worlds on that ‘reality’ (Baran and Davis; 2003).

The ideologies offered in advertisements may not be real, but through constant exposure to them, they become a natural experience for us and we begin to accept them as real (Wilkinson; 2002). Television influences audience perceptions of social reality thereby shaping the audiences culture in terms of how individuals reason and relate with others. These effects include family communication among viewers (Rashid, Spahic and Wok; 2007). “Television contributes to people’s conceptions about family and family life” (Signorielli and Morgan, 2001). In one study, children who frequently viewed family shows were more likely to believe that real life families are supportive and compliant (Beurkel-Rothfuss et al.; 1982 as cited in Vangelisti; 2004).

“Television viewing and conceptions about the world are mutually reinforcing; certain cultural, social and ideological lifestyles and outlooks lead people to watch more television, and the messages they absorb tend to help sustain these outlooks. In short, media portrayals reflect and reinforce (i.e. cultivate) but do not cause changes in views about the nature of family in society” (Signorielli and Morgan, 2001)

Portrayals of Family in ads

The theoretical frameworks just examined offer different insights into how media—and advertising in particular—can portray certain things, lend different meanings to them and ultimately shape audience conceptions, attitudes and expectations. Let’s now take a look at research findings into the different portrayals of family life in advertisements.

Image of the complete and ideal nuclear family

Many advertisements tend to show a traditional or conventional nuclear family. This is especially true for ads in Western societies, where nuclear families are considered to be the ‘conventional’ type of family. Here in Pakistan, and societies like it as India, the more traditional or conventional family set-up is the traditional extended family with two or more families living together (Ejaz, 2008) I will discuss local ads later, let’s take a look first at how the conventional families of Western societies are shown in Western ads.

Most ads that show families in Western societies often picture ‘happy nuclear white middle class families’, with traditionally conventional representations of parents and their gender role divisions where the mother takes care of the house and children while the father works and relaxes at home on holidays. “They have romanticised family life to a point where any child watching could wonder, ‘Why does mummy not buy me that?’ or ‘where is my daddy?’ The truth is that there are no two families the same. The ideal image projected does not exist in such a way. So these representations are not reproducing reality, but representing a global ideal image of family” (Lloyd-Davis, 2002).

In another research, Watson (2001) discusses a British ad of a toy ‘Family Love Doll House’ which is a toy for young girls comprising a plastic mould representing the shape of a house, with miniature furniture and a family. The ad portrays a family in the form of a toy that is the product the ad is aimed for. The family in this toy shows a man, woman, young girl, smaller boy and a baby son, along with a dog. The family lives in a large suburban style detached house with large rooms and facilities. The family in this toy ad represents the ‘perfect family’ image. “The family is complete even down to the dog, and this completeness leads to connotations of fulfillment and happiness.  ‘Completeness’ in itself is in direct relation to fulfillment, which is one of our Western, commercialised, consumerist aims.” (Watson; 2001) Respondents to a study (Borgerson et al.; 2007) said that adults with children and dogs (or a dog) represented the portrait of a family in ads, with the inclusion of children signaling a key aspect of the family.

Watson (2001) states that if this family had only one parent the ‘completeness’ would be fractured and the ideal set up by the commercial would be harmed. Likewise, if the commercial had a gay couple as parents. Thus, Watson (2001) shows how ads represent the complete and perfect image of a conventional nuclear family. Data from numerous studies suggest that TV is far more likely to reinforce traditional models of family than to promote non-conventional configurations (Robinson and Skill; 2001)

Images of the ideal nuclear families like those described above have also been a central theme in central state advertising campaigns in countries like India (Fernanades; 2000) and even in Pakistan. The ideal modern Indian family with a father, mother, son and daughter is that visual image that has been a national symbol of the family planning programme in the post-independence period in India (Fenrnades; 2000)

Despite the differences that we see in families in Western ads and those of traditional societies like Pakistan and India, a study (Marquez; 1979) found that at that time the American and Asian advertisements were identical in their treatment of the family. “Almost all of the advertisements which used the family as a graphic device illustrated it as nuclear. This family type appeared in the American advertisements 91.3 % of the time, 95.2 % in Philippine advertisements, and 92.6 % in Thai advertisements. Both nuclear and extended family types were easily distinguishable in that the nuclear family consisted only of parents and their children, while the extended family included grandparents and other relatives.” (Marquez; 1979)

Although the idea of “the family” may be changing in a real-life social context, advertisements still do engage with old-fashioned values and stereotypes in their representations. Advertising executive Jerry Goodis says: “Advertising doesn’t always mirror how people are acting, but how they are dreaming…In a sense, what we’re doing is wrapping up your emotions and selling them back to you” In an ever progressing society, there is a tendency to be nostalgic about past values and ideologies and this is what most ads communicate to us (Wilkinson; 2002).

Happiness linked to family consumption and materialism

In advertisements family happiness is presented as the way of consumption. Children are one of the most basic consumers, for whom the family which is now restructured as the unit of commodity consumers, buys the children’s commodities in order for the children and family to become happy. Children’s happiness which is consumption related is equaled with the happiness of the family. Happy families are shown as those who buy goods and services for the children (Shiraishi; 2004).

When a family consists of the basic man, woman and children and dog, the presence of a big house, large rooms and other material possessions like the Television contributes to the sense of ‘completeness’ as they are whole in terms of relationships and material needs and wants (Watson; 2001).

Ads make people believe that the happy or over-contented families in the ads are so ‘together’ because of a certain type of milk that they choose to drink, a certain tea or cooking oil they opt for or the multi-purpose cleaner they use (Mapara; 2008).

Products are shown as an integral part of showing our love and caring for others. The more closely the advertiser can link the product with natural and positive emotions, the more successful the ad. “A car advertises itself as ‘part of the family’, not merely offering something to the family but actually being part of it.” (Harris; 2004)

Domestic commodities such as automobiles and refrigerators are often associated with gendered or family images. A series of automobile advertisements ‘Man, Woman and Child and Car’ in India (Fernandes; 2000), replaces the traditional or ideological ‘Man, woman, son and daughter’ with a commodity. The traditional or old depiction was one used by state sponsored family planning ads, while the new depiction gives an “association between an idealized tranquility of the nuclear family with status and material comfort” (Fernandes; 2000).

Gender segregation in family roles

Men and women in families portrayed in ads are often shown in stereotypical gender roles like those of the male bread winner and the female housewife. The woman is shown as the housewife in the kitchen or shopping, while the husband works (Lloyd-Davis, 2002).

“The father is not shown to be actively engaged with the children unless it is in play. Whereas the mothers do tend to be active when they are present. If one parent is to be shown, then in adverts related to toys, play or learning it will tend to be the father, who is the fun, authority figure. In adverts related to food or day-to-day activities it will be the mother who is shown. These findings show that although society may be changing in its family ideologies, many old ideals are remaining in advertising. The advertisers rely heavily on stereotypes.” (Wilkinson; 2002)

There is a new movement however, in advertisements of sharing of male and female characteristics. Males are being represented as sensuous and nurturing, while females are represented as strong and confident. “However, the impetus behind much of this nontraditional coding is not a celebration of stereotypical gender traits being supplanted, but rather advertising’s continuing need for a new means to capture and hold the consumer’s attention.” (Kervin; 1990)

From the 1950s through the 1980s researchers have found a lessening of advertising images showing women in the home or in family settings, and an increase in the number of women portrayed in work roles (Bell and Milic; 2002).

Absence of family in Western ads—the rise of individualism

A great change in advertising in the West especially since World War 2 has been “the ascendant motif of the solitary figure” (Fowles; 1996). Illustrations of individuals occur far more frequently than couples, families or friends (Andren; 1978 as cited in Fowles; 1996). The people featured in ads are increasingly devoid of family. “Leiss et al. (1990) discovered that individualism rose steadily over the 20th Century in their sample of Canadian print ads” (Fowles; 1996)

The family does not seem to play a role in many British advertisements nowadays. If the family is represented in advertisements it now tends to be in a nostalgic manner to show the product as having longstanding values or some such message (Wilkinson; 2002).

Portrayal of family interactions and intimacy

A happy family in the ad is a close family (Wilkinson; 2002). Wilkinson (2002) identifies an ad in which the mother is showed as the ‘involved parent’, caring for the children and having a deep bond with them. Respondents to a study (Borgerson et al.; 2007) said that the presence of physical contact and closeness generally gave the various people the appearance of families. Among the ‘family cues’ was closeness and children.

The most pervasive of family values on television is family solidarity including loyalty, support and love for one’s family (Harris; 2004). Short, joyful moments of interaction between families are often caught in the ad (Patel, 2008). Advertisements like the Indian ad of Airtel and the Pakistani one of Everyday Tea Whitener show small gestures and good relationships among couples (Ejaz; 2008).

The Regional Perspective

Many current and old Pakistani advertisements can be identified as having portrayed the family while attempting to market their product. The family has been, beyond doubt, a popular figure featured in many Pakistani advertisements.

Since there is a serious dearth of researches on this subject in Pakistan, and if there are any at all they are very difficult to obtain, I interviewed some personnel from advertising agencies to get an insight into the portrayal of family life in Pakistani advertisements and the reasons for the kind of portrayals one finds.

The family is very popular in Pakistani ads, because every consumer is part of a family one way or the other (Ejaz; 2008). Furthermore, people are very family-oriented in Pakistan and thus many brands prefer focusing more on families as compared to the individual, but whether or not family is shown in the ad depends also on the type of product being advertised (Patel; 2008). “A lot of advertising in Pakistan is feel-good advertising, a lot of it focuses on the soft-sell approach by bringing emotions into it,” therefore, the family becomes a popular figure in ads here (Meenai; 2008).

In fact, many products have basic marketing themes focusing on family and relationships. Their slogans clearly spell out this, like for instance “Yehi tou hai who apna pan” (This is what you call belongingness) of Brooke Bond Supreme, “Rishton ki khushboo” (The fragrance of relationsips) of Soya Supreme Banaspati, “Mukamal Ghar” (Complete household) of Tapal Family Mixture, “Jahan mamta wahan Dalda” (Where there is mother, there is Dalda) etc.

Consider the Brooke Bond Supreme Tea television commercial that shows a joint or extended family sitting together in a traditional style, drinking tea together. The family shown is a middle class family with three generations comprising the grandfather and grandmother, their son and his wife and their children—a young girl of the ‘traditional’ age of marriage and her younger brother. The presence of the grandparents with a couple and their children usually complete the family picture here (Patel; 2008). Brooke Bond Supreme as a brand has been known to focus on families since the beginning with a theme of togetherness and relationships and its ads always show family life. Old brands like Supreme don’t focus only on the new generation, they want to show that they have been here for a long time and hence they show traditional families and portray all age groups in it (Patel; 2008).

What type of family an ad portrays also depends on the target market of the product being advertised. Ads of products for the ‘C’ market usually show joint families (Ejaz; 2008). For example, products like Tapal Family mixture tea or Sunsip Limopani show joint or extended families in their television commercials, comprising mother, father, children, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. “Why would they show nuclear families, which people can’t relate to? If a product shows nuclear families, they can’t make the product approachable” (Ejaz; 2008)

But then many Pakistani ads show nuclear families as well. For example, one television commercial of Kashmir Banaspati shows a typical nuclear family of four, so does the television commercial of Knorr Soup and Knorr Make a meal, and that of National Foods. One television commercial of Manpasand Oil, shows four different types of families within a single commercial. It shows the extended family with the grandparents and uncles and aunts, one family with grandparents alone, one young couple with a new born baby, and one typical nuclear family of four comprising mother, father, son and daughter. Ads like those of Dalda Cooking oil or Surf Excel tend to focus only on the mother-child relationship, they do not show any other family members, so we cannot say whether they intend to show a single mother or not.

Because companies want to target the masses they show all sorts of people from the young to the grandparents all in one ad (Ejaz; 2008). Thus, they show all sorts of families too. Bank Insurance ads often show lone couples, other products feature on one parent and one child (Meenai; 2008). Print ads usually focus on one parent and one child or two. “It depends on what is being advertised. I think they are trying to move away from the normal (configuration of the family) and reach out to all segments of the market” (Meenai; 2008)

Advertisements in Pakistan usually show the nurturing side of families (Meenai; 2008).  Fun time in families is usually shown (Patel; 2008) For example, the mother-relationship is often highlighted, as in Dalda and Surf Excel commercials. Husband and wife bonds are also shown as in Knorr Soup commercials and those of Everyday Tea whitener. Some Pakistani ads also challenge traditional gender roles by showing men cooking like Knorr Soup, Everyday Tea Whitener and  Ads like those of Coca Cola in Pakistan make people believe that soft drinks can change the mood of the family and make them go dancing out on the streets, others like those like Tapal tea or Everyday Tea whitener can magically bring people together to tie the knot or to sort out marital tiffs (Mapara; 2008).

Perfect situations or idealized depictions are used because of the aim to sell the product (Patel; 2008). A lot of products preach aspirational values and thus use idealized portrayals of family life and relationships. All products try to show that you will have a perfect life if you choose that product (Meenai; 2008)


Thus, we see family life is portrayed in many different forms in advertisements. The family is one of the most popular figures featured in advertisements in Pakistan. Many products draw on the family in their advertisements in hopes of having positive associations for their products. This is ever more true for traditional societies like Pakistan and India which are family-oriented societies. While most western ads portray the conventional nuclear family, Pakistani ads more usually show the extended or joint family, although we see many ads showing other configurations of the family as well. Portrayals of single parent families though remain rare, and same-sex-couples-with-children is indeed out of question in conservative societies like Pakistan. Pakistani ads usually show families with traditional segregated gender roles, though we see some commendable counter trends emerging now.

Family ads in Pakistan usually focus on strong relationships and bonds, which although raises the question of the false image of perfection, has positive implications for society if it is able to shape trends within society as many theorists suggest. Herein comes the shape versus mirror debate and we are pressed to question whether these portrayals mirror society or are idealized depictions which though may not exist in society, are able to shape it. The disappearance of family from Western ads is a disturbing trend indeed in terms how it can negatively shape their society and lead to individualism and isolation. So, is the association of family happiness and completeness to materialism and consumption which is an all-pervading trend in ads the world over. Advertisers must take into account the effects their ads can have on society and must strive to picture positive and healthy portrayals.


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