Taking ADvantage
Me, Myself and I: Self-Esteem and Advertising
Part One of a Three Part Series


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

For further readings, I suggest going to the Media and Communications Studies website.

A man looks in his bedroom mirror and sees all that bare scalp gleaming through his thinning hair. He holds a three-way argument with himself: one real self, a bald self on his right and the last self, with a full head of hair, on his left. The bald self is insecure and whiny. The fully thatched self is self-confident and assured. At that moment the real self decides that he must do something before he goes completely bald and becomes like the insecure one. He obviously would rather be self-confident and assured, an argument winner like his hairy self.


At a lake cabin two women listen to their husbands arguing over the best way to prepare dinner. Laughing, the women go outside and have a cup of gourmet coffee, reaffirming to each other that what counts is the nonconfrontational friendship they have. They can share quiet moments together and even share the problems they each have with their husbands. They decide to leave the husbands to their quarrel, and have another cup of coffee.


The above are examples of commercials that rely on the concept of self-esteem, that the purchase of a product will raise how a person feels about rherself.

Self-esteem is a combination of psychological factors that can include confidence, assertiveness, self-respect, strong bonds to and/or the respect of other people. Sometimes it includes conceit, arrogance and an attitude of superiority.

An interesting point about self-esteem is that it requires a sense of self, that the individual is an individual, separate and distinct from any other. Self-esteem is a relational attitude, the perceived difference between one individual and another. Thus, until there is a sense of self and an ability to perceive that it is different from others, self-esteem cannot arise.

A difference between self-esteem and the drives for self-preservation, sex and greed is that self-esteem requires more than just being alive to exist. Although all organisms want to live, reproduce, and gather resources, only those that are aware of themselves as individuals can have a sense of self-esteem. This requires a nervous system of sufficient complexity that the organism can perceive and, more important, appreciate the differences between itself and other organisms.(1)

Self-esteem also requires a society sufficiently complex that a relative position between the members of that society carries an advantage. Unless the self-aware individuals in that society see an advantage in terms of self-preservation, sex, or greed in being different in some way from the other individuals in that society, self-esteem doesn't arise.

This last may require some explanation. If we accept that there are biological (for the individual) and cultural (for the society) advantages to self-preservation, sex, and greed, then it follows that something that advances these three aspects of life would also be advantageous. Let's examine these three in terms of self-esteem.


A presence of self-esteem in a person gives that person an advantage in self-preservation. In an event that might harm or kill a person, having high self-esteem can be very helpful. That person may feel the confidence, competence and assertiveness necessary to deal with the event in a faster or more effective manner to avoid harm or death. Someone lacking self-esteem may feel a lack of power, ability or even necessity to avoid or counter the event: the "why bother?" response.


A presence of self-esteem in a person gives that person an advantage in sex. In the search for and evaluation of a potential sexual partner's suitability, self-esteem can provide the determining factor. How it would work is often gender linked.


For men, self-esteem gives them several benefits. First, he has the confidence to initiate and maintain contact with women. Second, he has the assertiveness to compete against potential rivals or to try to overcome a woman's reservations about him as a partner. Finally, he has the self-respect that could help satisfy a woman's complex social criteria for a sexual partner.

A lack of self-esteem could make a man reluctant to initiate contact with a woman. His lack of confidence in himself might cause him to fear the rejection he would expect. If rivals appeared he might stop pursuing (feeling that she would naturally prefer the rival to himself) and wish to avoid the pain of her rejecting or ignoring him. Lacking self-respect, he would assume she wouldn't find him suitable as a sexual partner, since he would feel he had nothing she would want that would satisfy her biological or societal criteria.

Thus a man having self-esteem would have a decided advantage in sexual behavior. The number of initiations and successful sexual contacts he achieves can be significantly increased over the man without self-esteem.


For women, high self-esteem also gives them an advantage. She may have the confidence either to initiate or to accept a man's approach when making contact with a potential sexual partner. Her strong bonds with others gives her the ability to accept or reject a contact; she has little to lose and perhaps much to gain. She can also accept or reject a contact since she can feel certain this contact will not be the only one that might occur. This allows her to be more selective in her choices. She may also feel more free to initiate contact, or have more casual sexual contact (i.e., that which will bring physical satisfaction, but not necessarily satisfy her societal criteria) since her self-respect will allow her to ignore anyone who disapproves of her sexual behavior: the "it's none of your business" response.

A lack of self-esteem in a woman can make her avoid contact with men. She may lack the confidence either to initiate or accept the social elements (such as conversation) involved in human sexual courtship. She may also lack the bonds with others that might allow her to reject an unsuitable partner; she would have no one to fall back on if things don't work out. Also, since many women feel a need for strong interpersonal bonds, she may accept an unsuitable partner just to achieve a sense of that bond (see below). A lack of self-respect may also lead her to accept a normally unacceptable partner. She may feel that this might be her only chance, and that if she was "choosy", i.e., applied too many or too restrictive criteria for an acceptable partner, she would lose this one chance she does have.

Thus self-esteem in a woman can bring her more, and more acceptable according to her criteria, contacts. She can be more selective in her choices than a woman lacking self-esteem.


Finally, self-esteem and greed (or acquisition of property, to make it sound better). Self-esteem once again provides a person with the confidence to try new methods or techniques that might be successful in gathering wealth, or to take a chance. Assertiveness allows a person to compete at a higher, stronger, or more ruthless level with rivals for resources. Self-respect can lead a person to believe that they deserve a larger piece of the pie, and thus avoid the dissonance possible with greed.

A lack of self-esteem could make a person reluctant to take a chance or approach a possibility, compete with rivals, or believe they deserve more than anyone else.

Thus self-esteem provides an advantage when it comes to acquiring property.


Self-esteem clearly provides advantages in the biological functioning of humans. Does it also provide advantages in the social functioning of humans? Yes. Let's look at how this might work.

Self-esteem arises from society, the interactions people have with each other. Circumstances that might increase or improve, or decrease or worsen, those individual interactions can raise or lower an individual's self-esteem. Among those circumstances are the biological, social or intellectual components of the individual, such as gender, appearance, age; interpersonal relationships; knowledge, wit, intelligence. Let's take a look at these, one at a time. (Please bear in mind that the following discussions are descriptive, not prescriptive. Self-esteem is a personal, individual determination, not one imposed on a person by society.)


Gender, whether you are male or female, is a biological circumstance. However, when it comes to self-esteem, not only the biological but the societal aspects are important.

Biologically, self-esteem because of gender can arise from the biological function being male or female entails. For example, being particularly competent as a mother or father can raise one's self-esteem. For a female, bearing and raising healthy, intelligent, attractive children can bring great self-satisfaction, self-respect, and confidence. For a male, fathering a large number of children can bring self-satisfaction, self-respect and confidence.

It is societally that gender as a component of self-esteem truly becomes important. Depending on the society, being male or female can automatically bring with it a level of self-esteem. In those societies that consider women to be less important or intelligent or capable, etc., than men, and can, through political or social pressure, prevent women from proving otherwise, being a man already raises his self-esteem; he can consider himself above at least half the population.(2) Of course, the converse is also true: in those societies, women's self-esteem is automatically low. In such cases, women will often increase their self-esteem (remember how important it can be in self-preservation, sex and greed) by working to alter the perception of women in those societies. Not only the working, but the success of that work, can and does raise women's, and men's, perceptions of women, raising women's self-esteem even more.

In those societies where women are equal to men, self-esteem arises through their relative position to anyone in that society, with the consideration of gender of no importance to that determination.

In those societies where women are the dominant gender,(3) the effect on self-esteem is the opposite of that seen in male-dominated societies. That is, the women automatically have a higher self-esteem since they are "superior" to half the population. The men try to alter the normal (for that society) perception of men as inferior.

Another element that gender can play in self-esteem arises from the different approaches men and women take to sex (see Biological and Social Bases for Human Behavior for a discussion of this). For many men, self-esteem can be increased through being found acceptable as a sexual partner by several women by perceiving, understanding and satisfying their physical and/or social criteria for such a partner. It can also come from attracting or being found acceptable by women that other men desire. A man more sexually successful with desirable women raises that man's position in the quest for sex relative to the other men.

A man's self-esteem can be lowered by being ignored or rejected by those women he approaches. The more often this occurs, the lower his self-esteem, until he may stop trying at all rather than risk a further decline. In addition, it can be lowered by being rejected by women who had previously accepted him.

For many women, self-esteem can arise from attracting men from which to select a suitable partner. The more men and/or those with the greatest social criteria she can attract and select from, the higher her self-esteem can rise. Indeed, just thinking or knowing that she is one of the women that men find desirable can raise her self-esteem, whether or not she actually attracts or even wishes to attract men. Attracting men's attention without having actual contact with them can be sufficient.

A woman's self-esteem can be lowered by her not being able to attract a man. In addition, a part of many women's perception of their sexual being is tied to their social criteria. These include selecting a partner who provides advantages for herself and/or offspring. Having a partner who leaves her can lower her self-esteem. First, she may consider herself no longer able to attract a man (indeed, any man); and second, she may think she made a mistake in her selection.

Finally, differences in male and female approaches to sex can play a large part in self-esteem, differences that result in diametrically opposed sense of self-esteem. Male sexuality, usually driven and dependent on biology,(4) can result in his being able to perform sexually without the slightest concern for his partner or her thoughts and feelings. Biologically, his job is to get her pregnant, then find another woman to impregnate (although few men think of it that way). For a man, simply being able to perform sexually has no detrimental effect on his self-esteem. Indeed, it can raise his self-esteem -- there are many accounts of men bragging about their sexual "conquests" to their male friends, placing themselves in a superior position to their friends as a "lady-killer". If the woman being discussed is one that is desirable to many men, the self-esteem can rise even higher (see above).

However, women's approach to sex is less physical and more psychological and cognitive.(5) Biologically, for her sex is more than just the physical act. It is one component in a set of criteria she applies to achieve a connection between herself and her partner. Even if she and her partner have agreed that their relationship at that moment is to be just sexual, it is the connection that is uppermost in her sense of self-esteem as regards sexual activity. The purely mechanical act of sex, which for him is his biological function in order to impregnate her, is for her a denigration of her biological function as a woman. This is because she must, psychobiologically, find and mate with the best possible father for her children. Without at least some reason other than his physical abilities as a "stud", she has no rationale for having sex with him. The reasons may be comparatively trivial, such as he's a good conversationalist or witty or sensitive to her needs and desires, or shows some other non-sexual signs of promise as worthy of future contact. However, she must justify in her own mind that having sex with him wasn't "meaningless".

The effect on her self-esteem can be profound depending on whether she feels that sex with her partner was meaningless. If she feels it was meaningful, that she has had a satisfactory non-sexual connection with him, she has a sense of fulfillment and correctness with her choice of men and decision to have sex. This can raise her sense of self-respect and her self-esteem since it justifies her decision.

However, if she feels no connection, if there is no communication between herself and her partner that would satisfy at least some of her sociosexual criteria beyond the physical act of sex, she may feel a strong sense of being used. That is, she may feel she is nothing but a means for the man to achieve sexual satisfaction, one that he could find elsewhere and in ways that didn't involve her as a person, or of her needs as a female sexual being. Although she herself may feel physically satisfied, her need for a psychological connection with someone close to her remains unfulfilled. This can result in a loss of self-respect and self-esteem since her decision hasn't satisfied her social, human requirements for a sexual relationship.

Go to Self-Esteem in Advertising: Part Two

Go to Self-Esteem in Advertising: Part Three

Return to Taking ADvantage Contents Page

Return to Taflinger's Home Page


(1) According to John McCrone in his book, THE APE THAT SPOKE, only primates (and, perhaps, whales and dolphins) have arrived at this ability.

(2) Please note that the establishment of this type of social order is not necessarily nor exclusively the work of the men in the society. Women have, and still do, cooperate tacitly and sometimes actively in the creation and maintenanc e of many of these societies. This is neither wrong nor right; it simply is.

(3) Note that such societies in the modern world are few and far between, although they do exist, such as the Wodaabe tribe in Nigeria.

(4) A man depends on the physical, non-cognitive aspects of sex to perform sexually; if he spends time thinking, his ability to maintain an erection or achieve orgasm is reduced ("think about baseball") or even destroyed (psychological i mpotence). See Biological and Social Basis of Human Behavior for a discussion of male and female approaches to sex.

(5) See Biological and Social Basis of Human Behavior for a discussion of this.

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