Modern Marketing Agency

A neuroscience approach to shattering ‘gendered marketing’

By Cristina De Balanzó | Director

UNLIMITED

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June 21, 2022 | 7 min read

It's no secret that the advertising industry is rife with gender imbalance. Here, Dr Cristina de Balanzó, director of Walnut Unlimited (part of agency group Unlimited) looks at how to neutralize negative gendered interactions in marketing.

You might wonder what science (specifically, cognitive neuroscience) can bring to the gender debate. It can bring a lot. What if I told you that there was no such thing as a 'female brain' or 'male brain'? We recently held a discussion at our annual Brainy Bar event unpicking the science (or lack thereof) behind the ‘gendered brain’ and the importance of external messaging changing the way we think and behave.

Brand’s role in tackling gender biases

We have always thought that women and men, boys and girls are different. But are they? Why are differences perceived so starkly? Where are they coming from? Are they purely biological, or influenced by history and other societal cues?

Unlimited on how brands can work to create a less gender divided marketing space.

Unlimited on how brands can work to create less of a gender divide in the marketing space.

By tackling these questions and consulting the science, we can get to the bottom of where these perceived differences truly come from and why they are perpetuated in modern society. This insight is key to changing gender inequality issues. Using science, we need to rethink the way we talk about ‘gender’ and call upon brands and marketing to play their part in addressing the situation.

The ‘new generation’ possesses a growing distrust of traditional sources of authority and archaic institutions. They are looking inward, among their peers, for guidance and are known to throw their weight behind brands who can authentically align themselves with their values.

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As the expectations continue for brands to have a purpose, the wider question is: can brands afford not to be truly reflective of their audiences, alienating half of their potential customer base? Women are still the primary decision-makers for key purchases and gone are ‘pink-it’ approaches. So, what now? Where does the change start? Marketing and communications are soaked in accidental sexism so this needs to be recognized immediately.

Brands can lead by example. We don’t need to wait until 50% of chief executive officers (CEOs) are women to release ads with female CEOs. You can’t be what you can’t see.

But we need to be very clear about what we mean by ‘authentic representation’. When it comes to ethnicity, casting choices are important. But can we take it one stage further to reflect not just the diversity but also the culture of the people featured?

In 2019, a new Committee of Advertising Practices (CAP) code banned gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offense, but bigger steps need to be taken to normalize authentic gender representation.

Taking action to change the game

So, how do we start as an industry? Is it with research? Is it with the product line? Is it with communications?

One small change that would be game-changing would be to open up the conversation between brands and their agencies on their diversity and inclusion (D&I) objectives. The campaigns we produce are often time-pressured. Unless something very specific comes up on D&I as we develop the strategy, D&I is often limited to a brief conversation over casting. Let alone a deeper discussion to call out any potential area for gender or any biases.

A challenge to ourselves as an industry would be to make time to discuss what we want our audiences to feel about the brand, regardless of gender. There's a balance between taking a truly gender-neutral stance and ensuring gender is considered and norms challenged. We need to normalize these discussions, remove any awkwardness and make them happen regularly.

As an industry, this has started, and there are groups out there. The most important thing is to hold each other to account, collectively.

Mechanisms to avoid gender bias

Most corporations have unconscious bias training, but could we go further by applying that to our day-to-day.

We've seen brands retreat to safety, and this can create barriers. Stereotypes enable consumers to connect the dots quickly based on what is socially understood, and create shortcuts. It's hard to subvert a stereotype. Social media platform best practices can often work against us, with an expectation that the consumer should see x,y, or z in the first few seconds.

There are limits to the desire to do something new as clients seek ROI. But in a space where best practice can create homogenous comms, actually tackling gender bias is an opportunity for brands to do something unexpected that could really engage. We all need to open up more opportunities for taking risks, getting it wrong and taking learnings forward.

With our Human Understanding Lab, we’ve been seeking to apply behavioral and neuroscience thinking to better understand the subconscious drivers of human behavior. To create an effective campaign, a one size fits all approach won’t work. We need to create smaller, targeted steps for audiences where we can have the most impact, who are at different levels of comprehension of the issue and bring them on the journey.

Our brains reflect the way we live and all that we learn from all socialization agents is key to explaining our behaviors and the way our brains decode, display attitudes, and internalize the world around us.

Marketing and brands are playing a role in this ‘gendered world’. Looking at what is happening outside our brains is as important as looking inside.

So, this is a call to all of us to be more aware of the stimuli we create, the language we use, the messages we launch, the stories we bring and the culture our companies portray. We must be more aware of the influence that all these stimuli have on each individual.

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