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It’s time to ditch sexism in advertising

In this series of blog posts, researchers from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute share some major marketing science discoveries from the past fifty years. www.MarketingScience.info

Ever wonder why some ads for mundane products such as breakfast cereal or diet soft drinks only target one particular gender? While it’s easy to criticise products such as BIC Pen for Her, gender-centric advertising for everyday products is commonplace.

For example, Kellogg’s Special K is one of the many brands that is guilty of continuously targeting a specific gender – ie females. Its granola ad gives an impression that the product is only relevant for dieting women. Another example – Diet Coke previously focused on female buyers by featuring male models such as Lucky Vanous (1994) and Andrew Cooper (2013), as well as the marionette ads in 2010.

Numerous research studies by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute actually show that brand user profiles seldom differ across competitive brands, and when they do it tends to be minimal.

This does not mean that there aren’t any differences. Factors such as distribution can produce user profile differences – for example, comparing subscribers of the Guardian against those subscribing to the Western Mail, one would not be surprised to see the Western Mail skewing more to a Welsh sample.

However, by and large, demographic attributes such as gender, age group or attitudinal differences such as family values or views on recycling seldom differ across directly competing brands. Thus, narrow targeting limits business potential with the possibility of alienating other prospective buyers with the product positioning and advertising.

Some research does show that certain product variants do appeal to specific segments, for example: older segments skew somewhat to healthier product variants (like diet soft drinks, decaffeinated instant coffees or premium soup).

Let’s take a look at soft drink and beer consumption: do we see a big skew towards female drinkers for diet soft drinks? And beer towards male drinkers?

From the annual consumption habit survey collected by Gallup poll, we look at whether there are meaningful differences across competing brands in terms of gender, age group and income among diet vs regular soft drink consumers. The information is compared with data provided by one of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s corporate sponsors for beer consumers.

The following table shows the average absolute deviations across three demographic attributes, compared to the profiles of average product category buyer. A five-point difference is usually used as a benchmark to see whether there are any meaningful differences in buyer profiles.

The results show that there are some profile differences for age and income for soft drink consumers. In the US, older segments and higher income consumers gravitate towards diet variants, in line with the findings that older segments skew towards healthier products.

However, there are no meaningful differences for gender distribution. Comparatively, gender, age and income do not affect the user profiles of beer in the US. This means that soft drink and beer advertisements should not solely target one particular demographic, as women are just as likely to consumer beer and men are just as likely to consume diet soft drinks.

So, the key message is: brands should aim for a broad appeal to category users. Brand owners who have a growth agenda should not specifically target a certain gender with their advertising, packs and other activations.

Men also watch what they eat and some men probably purchase Kellogg’s Special K for themselves from time to time. There are also women who purchase Kleenex Mansize Tissues because they like the bigger ply. This does not mean that brands like Kellogg’s Special K should dramatically change its brand image to shed any traces of gender specific elements. What is important is that the brand should be cautious of being seen as irrelevant by a large portion of the population when it does its advertising and promotions.

In his book How Brands Grow, professor Byron Sharp states that brands need to aim for greater reach across all potential buyers and increase penetration in order to grow. So, the key is to ensure that your brand is thought about when any category buyer is in the market to buy – and don’t alienate any potential buyers by promoting a message that the brand or the product is not for them. If your category is bought by both genders, it’s time to ditch sexism in advertising.

Ann-Marie Manno and Arry Tanusondjaja are research associates at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute

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