The perils of gender stereotypes in marketing and advertising

Gillette’s recent ad “The best men can be”, created heated debate on social media and racked-up an impressive 1.4m dislikes. However, while it tried to challenge the culture of toxic masculinity and call for change, people have called out the brand for not taking real action, for example, it still adds a ‘pink tax’ to the products it markets to women.

A 2018 study by RIFT found that women were charged an average of 34% more for products than men. In one example, we see that a pack of 10 orange Bic razors cost £1.45, while a pack of 8 Bic razors targeted to women cost £2.69. Bic marketed both as sensitive; the only noticeable difference was that the women’s razors came in pastel colours (and that there were fewer of them).

For products like deodorant, women may be being charged more because the design of the can is different, or the fragrances used in the formula are more expensive than those in the male version. But, on the face of it, it appears that women are being charged more for the same product in a different coloured package.

It’s not just about the money…

…although being regularly charged more for the same products does put women at a significant disadvantage. It’s also about gendered messaging.

In 2018, Radox was called-out for its shower gel branding.

Some came in bottles that featured curvy text that said: “feel gorgeous”, “feel bubbly”, “feel glam” or “feel exotic”, while bottles with darker colours had “powerful”, “sporty”, “feel heroic” and “feel strong” on the bottles in big, bold lettering.

When one man called attention to this, Unilever responded:

“At Radox, we always try to design products that clearly explain their benefits and how they make you feel and smell. We have a wide range of products available, that can be used by both men and women, and that meet a variety of needs.”

But this wasn’t just about some guy seeing the word powerful on a bottle and assuming it was designed for a man. The bottles that said “powerful”, “sporty”, “feel heroic” and “feel strong” on them also said “Radox MEN”.

It might not seem like a big deal to the brand, but these messages contribute to how society perceives, and expresses, gender. It helps to legitimise the view that it’s unnatural for a woman to be too powerful, or that a ‘real’ man should care more about being strong than pampering himself. These are microaggressions.

A daily assault on identity

What are microaggressions? Derald W Sue, an author who’s written two books on the subject, defines it as: “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Most brands don’t set out to insult, belittle or patronise their customers. But that can be how this type of marketing makes people feel.

A more blatant example of this is the infamous Bic for Her pens. In 2012, Bic released new pens in a variety of pastel shades and called them “Bic for Her”. Word spread and people took to social media and Amazon to mock the brand (and the reviews were still being posted six years later).

Bic said that it was glad people were having fun with the product, and that it had added some glamour to stationery cupboards.

What neither Bic nor Radox understood was that people weren’t criticising the colours or the phrases being used to market the products. They were criticising the gendering. If this pen is for women, does that mean all of the other Bic pens are not? If I want to buy the “powerful” shower gel why do I also have to smell like my dad?

Gendered products and campaigns make no sense. They rely on tired stereotypes from decades ago and show that the brand is out of touch with their customers. They’ve taken no time to find out how their customers have changed, and instead rely on what they think would appeal to a stereotypical member of that gender.

The new ASA regulations

In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority has taken a stand against gender stereotypes in adverts. From 14th June 2019, advertising regulations will include the clause:

“[Advertisements] must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.

It’s introducing this because its review found that harmful stereotypes can: “restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes.”

As International Women’s Day draws closer, brands should take some time to review their own products, campaigns and ideas. Instead of focusing on intention, look at the effect. Go beyond your target audience and examine how other people interpret it. Present the products designed for women alongside their male equivalents and see what people think then.

It’s important that brands do not dismiss consumer feedback. It’s easy to say, “well, that was not our intention” and move on as if the person had said nothing at all. But thinking about the consequences of bias in marketing will help create a more gender-balanced world.

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