I’m not sure who decided salads were exclusively for laughing women or that steak was the manliest food that could ever meet your mouth, but I do know this: the perpetuation of gendered stereotypes in marketing is the result of lazy, out of touch work at best, and sexism at worst.
Gendered marketing is everywhere, though it doesn’t always present itself in blazingly offensive manners. From telling us those pink women’s razors also need to be more expensive than their identical “male” counterparts, to personal hygiene products unnecessarily being marketed as “for men,” we’re hit with subtle messages that we should be buying products that somehow reaffirm a larger cultural notion of what is appropriate for our gender.
Well, I’m calling bullshit on this. Aside from the blatant sexism often involved with this type of marketing (that can negatively impact everyone: women, men, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals), I take offense to it as a person in the marketing profession. Marketing that relies on gender stereotypes (or heck, in many cases, marketing that relies on gender at all) is more often than not the result of flat out lazy work, and I’m here to implore you not to partake in it.
Why? Because you’re capable of creating better, more effective marketing.
Marketing to a Gender vs. Gendering Your Marketing
First, a quick but important terminology reminder: sex and gender are not synonymous. Sex refers to biological and physiological characteristics that differentiate males and females, while gender refers to the socially constructed behaviors, roles and other attributes that have been deemed appropriate for men and women.
You might be thinking, “We know our demographic is heavily female – and now you’re telling me not to use that information in my marketing? Get outta here!”
You should absolutely keep your demographic knowledge of your audience handy as you’re building out your messaging and ads. However, there’s a big difference between marketing to a gender and gendering your marketing. Let me explain:
Marketing to a gender:
If you’re a competent marketer, you have a lot of data about your target demographics. This most definitely includes a note on gender – including whether you sway heavily toward one gender or are split right down the middle. The key is to use this data appropriately, rather than pander to stereotypical gender norms.
If your product is used primarily by women, for example, that doesn’t mean you should paint the town pink in your marketing. What you should do is use this data to get your brand in front of where these women are. By making gender a consideration in your targeting, you’ll be able to get in front of the specific women who are within your target audience in the places that they frequent (based on user data, readership figures, and more). This way, your ads can be seen by women, but you can skip the language and imagery that often appears desperate to remind readers that your product is for women.
Gendering your marketing:
When a lazy marketer sees that their product is primarily used by women, they may brainstorm ways to intrigue them using traditionally feminine language, outdated stereotypes and gender roles, or just throwing pink, hearts and flowers and chocolates all over their advertising.
Gendering your product involves telling audiences that your product has some characteristic that aligns it with a simplistic stereotype of one particular gender. Since products are objects, and not people with complex personalities and nuances, this strategy rarely makes sense. What’s more, when you gender your marketing, you are essentially creating an imaginary audience you hope uses your product, instead of creating a product to be used by a real, already existing audience.
Why you shouldn’t gender your marketing
There are a relatively small number of products that can get away with marketing that focuses on the gender of their end user, and those are products that are usually related to a person’s sex. Tampons and condoms are examples of products that relate to an end user’s sex that can get away with focusing on gender and gender-related issues in their marketing, though the advertising of these products often perpetuate gender stereotypes too.
Most other products simply don’t need to be gendered. Below is one of my favorite, albeit infuriatingly sexist, examples as proof; in the writing of this article, I was shocked to learn that this product was still for sale!
Have you ever considered how inane it is that we’ve been convinced that we need to buy razors and shaving cream that are created for our gender? As a person who has used razors and shaving cream marketed for both men and women, I can tell you that the only difference between the two was the price I paid.
So aside from the fact that most gendered marketing is flat out unnecessary, what trouble may you run into by gendering the marketing of your product or service?
- If you rely on stereotypes, you’ll offend (and look out touch)
Let me know if you’ve never seen these stereotypes in marketing or advertising:
- The hot woman who is eye candy for men
- The mom who does it all
- The guy too lazy or stupid to help his wife around the house
- The male football fans on the couch with a woman in the kitchen making snacks
Seriously, let me know, because I’ve seen all of these in commercials during a single episode of a cable TV show.
The problem with these stereotypes is they:
- Rely on long-standing, outdated myths about gender roles, expectations and interests
- Completely disregard the fact that all of us have separate goals, desires and needs
- You may limit the power of your product to seem innovative or forward-thinking
If you have a new product or service that’s doing something new and exciting, you need your marketing to match that excitement. It will be difficult for consumers to take your brand seriously if you try to match claims of innovation with the same old marketing clichés they’ve seen a thousand times before.
Let’s put aside for a second whether or not a marketer cares if using stereotypes, blanket statements or sexist language and imagery in marketing has the potential to offend or talk down to their target audience. Instead, let’s take a second to look at a variety of advertisements and talk about why they are problematic from a marketing perspective.
I’ll admit that I enjoy this ad, but only because it’s so easy to mock. Credit goes to Yoplait for fully committing to hit as many stereotypes about what women like as possible in this deeply offensive and lazy ad. Shoes? Chocolate? Wow, it’s like they didn’t do any market research to find out things that actually resonate with their target demographic!
Automobile advertisements definitely have a history of being sexist, and this spot for Hunyadi is no exception. This one found a new angle for its sexism, being offensive to both dads and daughters. There are so many great dads who wouldn’t:
- Stalk their daughter while she’s on a date
- Not give their daughter the agency to be independent and make her own choices, and
- Give their daughter’s date the keys to their car instead of to their own daughter
The “overprotective dad hating the daughter’s boyfriend” routine is played out and offensive for everyone involved.
In the world of Doritos (and many advertisements that came before this one), men care more about football than anything else in the world, and women find football to be so boring. The only way the bored woman in this spot could ever get her man’s attention during the game is to get naked, because men are all hound dogs who lose all self-control around a naked woman.
Once again, overdone stereotypes about what each gender enjoys and cares about is put to the extreme. The result? An ad that is condescending to both women and men.
Each of these ads made the poor choice to incorporate tired gender stereotypes and tropes. Not only did each spot lack conceptual originality, but they also revealed how little the brand behind each respects their audiences. In short? It’s everything a marketer should avoid in their work.
It’s possible that, despite the negative impacts we’ve outlined here, some marketers may still feel fine using gendered marketing. Gendered marketing has been used for as long many of us can remember – people are surely used to it by now, right? And anyway, haven't some brands succeeded specifically by being shocking or offensive?
If a marketer chooses to continue using these antiquated forms of messaging, it's important that they be aware that the number of individuals that accept a lack of respect in marketing is dwindling. While a sexist or unnecessarily gendered ad five or ten years ago may have only resulted in a whisper of disapproval, more and more ads are on the receiving end of a powerful roar of people who don’t want anything to do with a company who can’t see their audience for what they are: individuals who are far more complicated and sophisticated than a simple gender stereotype.
I’ll leave you with an advertisement from Dollar Shave Club that proves you don’t need to gender your marketing – even in a market that traditionally does. I think you’ll see why I found this ad to be refreshing, smart and inclusive.
Why does it work? Because it calls bullshit on gendered marketing and speaks to women (and men) with respect, no stereotypes - or pink - to be found.
Marketers enjoy an immense amount of artistic freedom in their work; whatever you do, don’t waste this freedom on insulting, simplistic and tired creative.