Gender

How Advertisers Psychologically Mug Women

Though women make 85 percent of all consumer purchases, marketers rarely recognize the extent of women's buying power, technical savvy or confidence.
As a journalist who writes about issues of interest to women, I receive a steady stream of pitches from public relations and marketing agencies:

Secrets of discreet feminine hygiene. Products that will eliminate pounds and years. An "age-defying lift" brassiere. Another bra that makes you look like you have cosmetic breast implants (who knew that was desirable?).

For Mother's Day, there was the Love Doctor dispensing romance advice for single moms. For Valentine's Day, there was the condom paper weight and a PR rep offering an interview with America's Love Doctor.

The problem with pitches like this, many of which trade on women's anxieties, is that they seem to assume women are mainly in the business of buying trifles. And that extends to the general marketplace.

"While marketers may be aware that women are major spenders on the so-called small stuff -- groceries, apparel, kids -- they are not fully aware that women are the majority of buyers of new cars, consumer electronics and home improvement," says Marti Barletta, CEO of the marketing consultancy TrendSight Group, who was a keynote speaker at last week's annual M2W marketing conference in Chicago, which debated how marketers could improve their appeals to women.

Women's Purchasing Power is Green, Not Pink

Marketers, Barletta says, "are worried that marketing to women means making it pink and that would horrify men. ... They don't know what marketing to women is."

While marketing campaigns often seem to assume men are more technologically oriented than women, Barletta, a veteran marketing and advertising executive, says that when Best Buy analyzed its patrons, it found the majority of those cruising the aisles were men, but at the cash register, the majority of buyers were women.

Even though women make 85 percent of all consumer purchases, Barletta says the pay gap, which leaves women earning 76 cents for every dollar earned by men, creates the impression that women don't have or control much money. In fact, "Women bring in more than half of household income," Barletta says. "In a partnered household, a woman spends not only her own paycheck but most of her spouse's or partner's as well."

Much has been said and lamented over the years -- including by me in columns in this space -- of marketing that gets women to open up their wallets through a sort of psychological mugging. Ads target us with the self-improvement message. One example that comes to mind is Nutrisystem's touting of going from an already modest dress size to an even smaller one ("I went from a size 10 to a size 4!"). The relentlessly repeated premise is that we're inadequate. Unattractive. Unworthy.

Reality Check

Then there's the reality. Barletta describes women now between 50 and 75 -- a group virtually ignored by marketers -- as "the healthiest, wealthiest, most educated, active and influential generation of women in history."

If marketing reflected this -- instead of picking away at our fears about our complexions, our weight and the elasticity of our skin -- it might go a long way toward countering ageism and boosting the confidence of young women who look to older women for role models. Who knows, it might even help close the incredible gender gap in the U.S. Congress and corporate board rooms.

But Barletta says even sophisticated marketers are half a step behind where women are right now. "They'll say, 'We're offering these tools to empower women to take control of their lives, to give them more freedom and flexibility.' That's language from the 1980s and 1990s. I keep telling them women are empowered and they need to be thinking about serving women."

Barletta singled out the already highly-praised "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" as the best women's marketing campaign of 2007. The campaign's ads for Dove soap featured "real" women -- in other words not fashion models -- of various ages, shapes and sizes, and was intended to widen the definition and discussion of beauty. (A May 12 New Yorker article about a photo retoucher quoted him as saying the Dove models had in fact been a bit retouched but he has since clarified that he "was directed only to remove dust and do color correction -- both the integrity of the photographs and the women's natural beauty were maintained.") Dove says women's response to the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive; nearly 2.5 million visitors have visited the site at Campaignforrealbeauty.com. Parent company Unilever's first-quarter revenues exceeded its forecast for the first time in six years, in part because of increased sales of Dove products.

But Dove's campaign was hardly typical. Most beauty and apparel products are fronted by skinny, extensively airbrushed models few real women relate to. According to a Dove-commissioned study of women in nine countries, the majority of women believe that if media were reflective of the population, a person would likely believe women over 50 do not exist.

"Most businesses fall into the trap of believing in the 'ethereal woman,'" write Michele Miller and Holly Buchanan in "The Soccer Mom Myth" (Wizard Academy Press, 2007). "They see her as an intangible, emotional being with mysterious traits like intuition and nurturing behavior."

They consider mothers "the most stereotyped women in advertising," and I can believe it after the outpouring of ads in the newspaper last week about giving "her" jewelry and other expensive baubles for "all that she does." The message of these ads is that women with children labor quietly in the shadows most of the year to emerge Cinderella-like, once a year, to play the princess at the magical Hallmark ball.

New Blood Could Improve Marketing Tactics

A new generation of marketing execs might stop the industry from undervaluing and patronizing women.

An intriguing initiative is 3iying, a New York City agency. Its staff is media-talented young women 15 and up who sniff out marketing ploys that lack authenticity and relevance to them and their peers.

Miller and Buchanan say 3iying founder Heidi Dangelmaier "makes a point to contact these girls before they get into a traditional agency setting. She wants to reach them before they are forced to give up their natural instincts to conform to the more traditional, and often male-dominated, world of advertising."

The early influx of young women into the advertising and marketing scene could lead to more accurate female images.

Even with single women heading so many households, authors Miller and Buchanan say the majority of today's advertising still depicts the traditional mother-father household. "The traditional family unit may not be as reflective of reality, but it's a whole lot more comfortable territory for advertisers," they say.

And that's the real point. Women have worked hard to make social gains but the consumer P.A. system seems intent on denying us our hard-won advancement. It would help everyone -- companies and their female customers alike -- if marketers would just catch on.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly journal of news, research and commentary about women and media.