Gender is fluid in a way like never before, and the marketing world is scrambling to understand how best to respond to this market change. Is a completely gender-neutral strategy the answer or should brands try a new approach to gender marketing?
The push behind gendering what could easily be neutral products has always been money. But the newest generations of parents and consumers are arguing that brands shouldn’t try to influence children’s imaginations and innate desire to create and explore new things well before they are truly aware of gender differences.
Most brands have a gender-specific audience which leads them to choose traditionally gendered colors for their ads and stereotypically aimed vocabulary for their messaging. This generalized approach can actually prove to be disadvantageous and hinder the presentation of products and services to an additional audience segment that may have an interest.
Gender roles have changed. Men and women cook, clean, and tend to other household responsibilities. Women and men hold strategic, decision-making business positions. Instead of gender-specific marketing, brands need to better understand how they authentically fit into the professional and personal lives of consumers. This change will be a major key to brand longevity and success as we move forward.
The trend towards gender-neutrality
Transgender visibility in popular culture has grown exponentially along with a debate about gender roles. The influence of this change is evidenced in the buying habits of young people. In a survey conducted by JWT intelligence, they found that less than half of 13-20 year-olds said they always bought clothes designed for their own gender.
Brands that are ahead of the curve have taken note and started launching genderless lines and products. Companies like Coca-Cola and CoverGirl are encouraging teens and other segments of their audience to tap into both the masculine and feminine sides of their personalities. US retailer Target has also recently announced gender-neutral product lines for children.
Should all brands be on board?
Experts believe that gender-neutral marketing makes sense, especially in the context of children’s products. But, unlike children’s products, cosmetics, and fashion, where almost all products have traditionally been gender marketed, there is a different inclination regarding brands whose products are more gender neutral. Experts suggest a marketing approach where both sexes feel addressed but without utilizing stereotypes or clichés.
Tide is on board with commercials that show moms and dads independently using their products to take care of family wash. And, they do so without inserting any offending stereotypes. (Remember Carl Jr.’s 2015 Super Bowl commercial?) Nivea is another brand showing an effort to work around gender role models and simply show examples of people facing the realities of life.
New rules and regulations for gender stereotypes in advertising
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) of the United Kingdom found that advertising impacts people’s expectations of how others should “look or behave” according to their gender. As a result of this and other findings, new rules around gender marketing have been set and gender stereotyping has, essentially, been banned from British ads.
Advertisers themselves have previously addressed the fight to end gender stereotyping. In 2017, Unilever created the Unstereotype Alliance which seeks to encourage advertisers to depict people in roles that are modern or forward-looking. The message from Unstereotype Alliance is that marketers need to be more inclusive in how all people are portrayed, taking into account dimensions beyond gender such as language, sexuality, class, and race.
Members of the Alliance include companies like Facebook, Google, and Johnson & Johnson.
Unilever hopes this global approach will help more companies authentically reflect the diversity of today’s world. While acknowledging that no two countries are the same, the goal is to open discussion around stereotypes for, first, awareness and second, action. While this, obviously, impacts large, international brands, the question is whether or not other countries will address the topic in such a manner.
U.S. ad industry unlikely to follow suit
Marketing decisions in the consumerism that is the United States are based on consumer spending. U.S. marketing has, for decades, blatantly assigned sexist roles and mocked people for not conforming to gender stereotypes. While advertisers have taken steps towards more inclusive representations, few experts believe that such a state-sanctioned crack down on sexist advertising will ever happen in the United States.
Debates over gender stereotypes are nothing new in the American ad industry and there has been a slow, but steady shift away from outdated stereotypes that no longer resonate with the general public. It has been argued that American advertisers’ decisions should be self-regulated and that brands should take responsibility for the values they project through their messaging. Many have also voiced that individuals should be responsible for their own ability to reject or accept the advertising they consume versus looking to a regulatory body to control advertising creative.
To that point, we are seeing the growth of a cycle in which a new ad campaign is released, segments of the target audience find the message offending and voice their opinions and concerns on social media, the backlash grows, and action may or may not be taken by the brand. But then the headlines fade away until another ill-advised campaign is pushed out.
We’ve seen brands apologize for racist ads, for example, GAP, in 2016, and Dolce & Gabbana in 2018. We also saw Protein World repurpose an originally fat-shaming campaign to celebrate women of all sizes with an apology and body positive message included. And while Gillette never outright apologized for its “The Best a Man Can Get” campaign, it took a completely different approach to its next campaign attempt.
Some ad categories aren’t worried about changing
While some businesses are realizing a shift away from dated gender ads, others aren’t budging a bit. Kantar, a research company, looked at more than 18,000 ad tests across six marketing categories in over 40 countries. They found that brands in the food and drink categories have made modest shifts towards a more balanced gender targeting.
Spirits giant, Diageo, very thoughtfully reviewed its creatives worldwide to analyze where it might change gender portrayal in its advertising. The company not only identified four areas to address, it created a framework to address those areas and also trained its marketers and agencies to apply the framework to their work. But, in the same light, one only needs to Google a print or digital ad for SKYY vodka to be immersed in blatant sexism.
The Kantar study also found that ad categories including auto have not seen any substantial changes in the way they represent gender stereotypes and the manner in which they address their target audience. As a simple example, think of the last television truck commercial you didn’t mute. Odds are pretty good the voice used was male, low, and gruff. And the suggestions of how the trucks could be utilized were dripping with testosterone.
Caveat worth mentioning
Women are not the only targets of today’s marketers. Men are also represented in blatantly stereotypical ways that are awash with sexism as well. Some ads represent men either as hyper-masculine (truck ads mentioned above) or as complete idiots. The Hanes commercial showing a dad creating paste socks is an example of an ad that depicts men as incapable of completing domestic tasks. (And, to make sure no one felt left out, the woman in the commercial just happened to have a package of socks in her purse…really?)
As the understanding and acceptance of gender continue to evolve, marketers will not only seek to prevent the reinforcement of gendered stereotypes, they will also hope to address the entire spectrum that the historically binary topic of gender has become. The best course for any brand is to understand where the company’s values meet the consumer’s aspirations while staying authentic to who and what the brand is.
The experts at Strategy Driven Marketing understand the importance of marketing that addresses personality and lifestyle instead of gender. We can help you analyze how your brand is presented at each point of consumer contact and work with your creative team to widen the appeal of your products or services. Contact us today to learn more about the services we offer and how we can create a personalized marketing plan that works with your particular business goals and budget.