When considering the above question, the main question in my mind is not about whether there is a problem with using gender itself, but rather, when does it become a problem? When is the usage of gender such that no longer makes a brand relevant, but just attracts attention? And in any case, why is that a problem?
In short, yes, it’s time to kill the gender cliché. But not to kill the conversation around gender itself. That use of gender sometimes offends people is not a marketing problem; it’s an issue with political correctness. The implied question is ‘What is the moral role of creative agencies and who defines it?’, whereas the real question here should be ‘How do we make effective communications?’
Psychology tells us that understanding gender is critically important if we are to be able to make sense of our thoughts and actions. Freud once said, “Anatomy is destiny”. He felt that gender is so important, it has a major influence over our choices and actions. So in order to drive relevance in consumers’ lives we need to understand how we can fit within the real characteristics of the audience itself. Clearly gender affects our choices, our behaviour, and society’s expectations of us. Right or wrong (as Emma Watson recently explored in her He for She introductory speech to the UN) the truth is that gender is a very real factor in our lives. So with that in mind, it’s ridiculous to suggest that brands should ignore gender when communicating with consumers, if we want brands to be relevant to real life.
We are also told that the way we portray gender should not be demeaning, that people are not objects. (Clearly this is true. Not only is it offensive to suggest this, I also think that effective communications can afford to be so stupid). The issue is that if all that ads do is support positive role models when gender is at play, then the advertising is not going to be able to touch people’s lives in any kind of interesting way because it won’t register.
We live in ‘modern times’, the traditional male/female roles are less clear than ever before. But the gender issues in our lives have not gone away. Men and women are not the same. We might fight for our rights to equal in opportunities, but the truth is underneath it all, we are not wired the same way.
So if all we do is just flip gender stereotypes around, and suddenly embrace the stay-at-home dad, or high-powered businesswoman, as a politically correct alternative to gender bias in marketing, then we’d be locked in an oversimplified, and frankly lazy beahviour. And at risk of being even more patronising than the historic alternative.
Brands, identities, communications, all try to make brands matter to people. To do that we need to have real insights around what people will really relate to, so that we can bring this to life through marketing. The truth is that make these insights a marketing reality, we need to create points of view, and when you form a point of view, you are always at risk of offending some people.
So, the way I see it, we either offend some people on occasion, or we risk losing our creativity. After all, when ideas are not up for debate, all creativity is lost.
What is really mortifying is when brands insist on condescending their target audience through design with visual cultural stereotypes they presume to be relevant. ‘Pink it and shrink it’ is the common industry term for the lazy behaviour of a brand to reach women through an adapt of the predict or brand design to a female accessible look and feel.
When Bic launched the ‘For Her’ range, I am sure it did so with the very best of intentions. But despite questionable rationale to launch a pen ergonomically designed for a woman in the first place, a quick glance at the numerous reviews and feedback on Amazon concur that the design had quite the opposite effect.
For a good hour’s sniggering read the full selection.
All too often women are accused of being feminist and too sensitive, but the reality is that this isn’t just a female debate. When brands communicate the gender biases of their products too obviously, they will also get men’s hackles up too. As proven by Veet for Men, most of which are too explicit to publish here, but feel free to review at your leisure.
I’m under no illusions that a one-hour speech with resolve everything. This subject will be topical forever. Gender is important, it is conflicting, it causes issues, there are no simple solutions because they will be ignorant of history, psychology, archetypal ideas and basic human drives.
But what is vital is that brands capture the deep meaning which is relevant to the lives of their consumers. And when they don’t, they are being irresponsible, and will be pulled up on it by the consumers themselves.