Shepherd Laughlin of J Walter Thompson’s Innovation Group explores how marketers are adjusting to a world where there can be no excuse for relying on stereotypical notions of gender.
Quicker than you can say ‘call me Caitlyn’, gender issues have moved to the centre of public discourse. While applauding the courage of transgender individuals, marketers are left scratching their heads: what does rapid evolution on this issue say about society in general?
When J Walter Thompson recently surveyed 1,000 12 to 19-year-olds, attitudes on gender were particularly striking. 84 per cent of UK and 79 per cent of US respondents believe gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to. A further 90 per cent and 86 per cent, respectively, said people were exploring their sexuality more.
In this light, progress on transgender issues can be seen as part of a larger shift toward more fluid attitudes on what constitutes appropriate male or female behaviour. At least since 1990, when UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, academics have been arguing that gender is a product of performance, not biology. Today this idea has jumped from the ivory tower to high-school halls.
We see this when 16-year-old Jaden Smith, considered a generation Z heartthrob, shows up for Coachella wearing a skirt, or tweets that he wants to buy “some girl clothes, I mean ‘clothes’” – mocking the odd tendency of ‘the olds’ to assign gendered expectations even to fabric. Or when Miley Cyrus, not a gen Z’er herself but certainly an icon among the group, tells Out magazine that she doesn’t “relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy”.
Social media has played a key role in this shift. To promote her foundation for disadvantaged LGBT youth, Cyrus recently began featuring “gender expansive” young people on her Instagram account, including 19-year-old Leo Sheng, a creative writing student and trans man who has used social media to celebrate his difference and connect with a sympathetic community. Mel Gonzales, a transgender teenager in Texas, told us as part of our research that without the internet his transition “would have been twice as hard”.
Brands are just beginning to navigate this gender-fluid territory. Often, they create campaigns that link non-traditional approaches to gender with an age-old teen desire: the quest to find an identity that feels authentic. One example is a recent Clean & Clear campaign, ‘See the real me’, which features 14-yearold transgender activist Jazz Jennings discussing her struggle to be true to herself. Another is Magnum, the ice cream brand, which debuted a campaign at the Cannes Film Festival featuring five gender non-conforming models under the tagline ‘be true to your pleasure’.
Rather than buying into pre-packaged notions of gender, young people are collaging different aspects of it together to suit their personal preferences. While we may sympathise with Caitlyn Jenner’s desire to wear nail polish “long enough that it actually chips off,” future generations will wonder why she had to wait until after her transition to enjoy the privilege. In the meantime, marketers will have to adjust to a world where reliance on stereotypical notions of gender risks marking them, and the brands they represent, as old and out of touch.