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Strategies continue to feed off tired stereotypes

Susan Dobscha

Why do marketers continue to get gender wrong? While many women’s gender roles have changed in the last 50 years, you would never know it from the types of ad appeals and product innovations companies are rolling out in order to capture the lucrative women’s market.

My work on motherhood in particular has uncovered several difficult truths about women and the marketplace. Impending motherhood is a liminal state between identities where consumers are particularly vulnerable. Yet, marketers continue to market goods and services to these new mothers using fear appeals. What new mother will choose the cheaper, less safe child car seat?

This multi-billion dollar industry feeds off the fears of new parents with buzzwords like safety, security, and protection. Yet fear is only one way in which marketers appeal to women. Marketers use self-esteem, motivation, and values to appeal to all consumers, not just women. But it is women who are more negatively impacted by these appeals, as evidenced by the disproportionate amount of self-esteem related diseases such as eating disorders and excessive plastic surgery.

Creators of marketing strategies and their collaborators in advertising continue to create sexist reflections with no apparent “soul-searching” about the potential negative impacts. Sometimes it backfires spectacularly: A recent Nike ad where a woman outruns her rapist was only shown once before it was pulled. But where were the people (men and women) along the way in the creative process concerned about this ad’s portrayal of women?

Three recent examples show that marketers continue to get gender-based targeting wrong. Honda recently revealed a pink car with special window tinting to combat wrinkles. Bic pens released Pens for Her, which was subsequently skewered by Ellen DeGeneres and the clever commenters on Amazon. And an amazing array of Halloween costumes are themed for men and women, with the female version being the “slutty” or “sexy” version, everything from profession-themes such as “sexy police officer” to the more obscure themes, like “sexy banana.”

There are many theories why marketers continue to get gender wrong. Pat Flynn and her team would probably argue it’s because of the lack of women on corporate boards and the C-Suite. Other scholars would point to the patriarchal nature of capitalism. I have another theory: ignorance.

First, marketers are constantly conflating the separate constructs of sex, gender, and sexuality. They assume female means feminine means heterosexual or male means masculine means heterosexual. They assume all women are feminine and would like a pink car. They assume women’s hands are daintier and would need an anatomically correct pen, and they assume women want to dress up as slutty version of virtually anything for Halloween.

Second, marketers continue to drop gender stereotypes into ads because they fail to see these stereotypes are by and large outdated and untrue (if they ever were true). While there are women who prefer pink, and it has become the official color of breast cancer, the NFL has since created more realistic jerseys for its female clientele.

Third, marketers are ignorant to the diversity of preferences among women because they have long used male and female as catchall categories for segmentation. While fashion marketers have further segmented the consumer using additional demographic categories such as age and income, other industries have not followed suit. The automobile industry habitually misfires when it tries to use sex as a demographic category while doing much better using lifestyle and social class classifications.

The gender gap in the recent election, particularly among unmarried women, demonstrates that marketers aren’t the only ones getting gender wrong. To stay relevant marketers, along with political parties, must learn to adapt to modern female consumer/citizens whose wants and needs reflect a new set of gender roles.

Susan Dobscha is an associate professor of marketing at Bentley University.

See all posts in Women and Business.

This story originally appeared in Advertising Age.