Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
May 28, 2019

Why gender-neutral marketing may not mean equality

Efforts to address authentic differences between men and women need not be held back in the name of political correctness or progressiveness, say practitioners.

Why gender-neutral marketing may not mean equality

A recent surge in campaigns around female empowerment and achievement, especially from developing markets in Asia, appear to signal changes in how marketers are thinking about men and women, whom they have treated so differently for centuries.

But does this new wave mean we can sprinkle 'hashtag equality' over advertising in this region? Not quite. 

Fundamental truths about physiology and neurology continue to play a legitimate, evolving, role in marketing — as long as they are used to avoid stereotypes, not enhance them. 

Differently wired? 

"Men utilise more grey matter in their brains; women utilise more white matter. Men have a stronger front-to-rear connection in their brains while those of women are connected better between left and right," explained Amy Lee, vice president of customer insights and competitor analysis at Galaxy Entertainment Group, at a recent event on the topic of marketing to women. These differences result in distinct approaches to decision-making and shopping patterns, Lee said.

Customer insights such as these have likely contributed to the Macau casino operator's advertisements over the years. Its ads have never featured either a single man or two men shopping together, found Professor Zhen Sun from Macau University of Science and Technology in a 2017 study of the city's tourism ads.

Shopping for fashion and luxury goods was primarily carried out by women, Sun wrote. "Due to the gender-based division of labour initiated in early times and strengthened in the modern era, women have a long-lasting and close association with all kinds of shopping activities...The absence of individual or duo male shoppers in the ads seemingly reflects the historically-constructed gendered nature of shopping and helps perpetuate it." 

Women are "collectors" and men are "hunters", Galaxy's Lee explains, with women browsing and looking at options more than men. The above screengrab from Galaxy's latest ad appears to corroborate this. 

The Galaxy Entertainment Group guide to targeting women:

  • Note that they respond to contextual ads that show 'a total story' instead of blunt facts.
  • Know that they prefer choices ('this OR that?') instead of solutions ('this AND that').
  • Use emotion-based, visual imagery, especially human faces and elements.
  • Layer opportunities for emotional decison-making over purely rational information.
  • Avoid callous, overt messenging or stress tactics such as “offer expires today” and “call now”.

If women are indeed collectors, they certainly like to collect opinions before they shop.

Venus Szeto, account director at Kantar Insights Hong Kong, observed significant results from word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing among Hong Kong women, while informational websites were found to have more impact on local men.

Word-of-mouth's 'touchpoint impact' was 125 for women and 75 for men, the biggest variation between the genders in Hong Kong, Kantar found. 

"Brands should think beyond just paid-media touchpoints for HK women," Szeto said, speaking at the same recent marketing event. She cited Kiehl's as one brand getting WOM right on social media by using "a lot of topical hashtags".

How to play to differences while avoiding clichés

When brands acknowledge such gender traits and advertise accordingly, does that mean they should be criticised for their lack of gender-neutrality?

In a word, no. Where a masculine or feminine approach is more appropriate, it should be applied, according to the experts; the key is to not do this in a gender-stereotypical manner.

Some such stereotypes are still being perpetuated in Hong Kong's financial services ads, says Mike Underhill, group director and head of new client development at Kantar Insights Hong Kong.

There is no obvious bias in the frequency of women appearing in banking, insurance or investment adverts but there is some partiality in how they are presented, with the possible underlying suggestion being that wives are seen as the compliant ones when it comes to financial matters.

Take facial expressions: women were portrayed always as smiling, which does not match reality, says Underhill. Men picked up the 'most-serious-faces' prize, on the other hand.


Source: Kantar, based on a review of 31 finance campaigns that ran in Hong Kong

"When it comes to money, women have a lot more worries than men," points out Underhill, referencing another Kantar study asking 600 Hong Kong consumers how they felt about financial matters. In the context of buying financial products, a female target will, in real life, pay more attention to risk (the potential downside) in a wider context (her family) than a male would. "Men are much more comfortable about making risky investments, and respond well to ads promising better returns."

Shouldn't it therefore be men smiling and women looking serious?  

Eunice Wong, Ketchum’s chief growth officer for Greater China, believes that advertising should be "reflecting general practices that are already existing in society and not distorting or disrupting them". Milk powder ads will therefore obviously feature mums feeding babies, Wong explains, because this fits the socially-constructed roles and likely biological behaviours for women.

Gender-bias and gender-neutrality are tactics, rather than goals or objectives — Eunice Wong, Ketchum

Genetics aside, consumer preferences about their own image projections are largely influenced by what they perceive as social norms. "At the end of the day, we are social animals so we want to be socially accepted and will refrain from doing what is not expected for our gender," says Hoi Kwan Navy Lam, chief marketing officer at HeiQ, a thermoregulating-textile ingredient brand supplying to companies like Speedo and Buff.

A lot of products are gender-specific by nature, adds Lam. "You just can't target a Gillette ad to a woman; therefore there is Gillette Venus. In the current world we live in, it is impossible to be 100% gender-neutral. You also just can't make an average man want to wear floral and fruity perfume."

Many so-called 'gender biases' come from the product's features, which "somewhat dictate the gender of the users," agrees Ketchum's Wong. For example, one needs to be physically stronger and taller to drive a truck, she cites. When gender differences exist, marketing communications will be skewed to attract the target audience that has been defined as core, she says.

In this sense, gender bias is in fact mirroring how the targets would like themselves to be seen in the eyes of others, Wong continues. "Therefore, I will consider gender-bias and gender-neutrality as tactics rather than goals or objectives. These are the tactics that help a brand build resonance with the audience 'tribes' it wishes to win over."

The gender-neutrality minefield

In general, the industry thinks it is doing a good job designing marketing campaigns that cater to both genders, with more than 80% of marketers in APAC confident that they are getting gender right, according to Kantar's 5th annual Getting Media Right report. The reality is more nuanced, however. 

In China, for instance, we saw a backlash when an ad on C2C e-commerce platform Taobao promoted outright gender discrimination by persuading expectant mothers to eat alkaline food to heighten their chances of giving birth to boys.

What, then, does an effective gender-balanced ad look like? HeiQ's Lam, a B2B marketer who does not implement gender-specific targeting even though over 70% of her main clients (product designers at apparel, fashion and fabric brands) are female, picked a Thai Life Insurance TVC from 2014 (shown below) as a good example.

"The characters in this Thai ad could be in either gender, and the target audience is also not gender-specific in this case," said Lam.

Gender-neutrality can be interpreted as making everything ambiguous and androgynous, and assimilating gender roles. What can happen, therefore, is that brands end up creating products for the lowest common denominator—products of such a 'sameness' that they are acceptable for everyone but ideal for nobody.

Tarun Menon, senior director of Kantar Insights, suggests instead applying a human-centred principle called "designing to the edges". When brands accomodate for consumers at one extreme (females), results are also realised for those on the other end (males).

The current reality

We can dream of a world in which advertising thinks this carefully and granularly about how to portray genders — but the more urgent reality to be aware of is that regressive depictions of women still prevail. 

A September 2018 independent analysis of 500 ads across FMCG categories in China, India and Indonesia, conducted by Unilever for its Unstereotype initiative, showed that just 13% of ads featuring women and 18% of ads featuring men could be regarded as progressive. 

Even in supposedly more developed Australia, shockingly reductive stereotypes prevail: Sofitel Brisbane Hotel angered women nationwide last year after portraying the man in its ad reading the  Australian Financial Review newspaper and the woman flicking through a Chanel coffeetable book.

Increasingly, however, for every such shocker there is an ad to be proud of. One recent effort that well matched the goals of UN Women's Unstereotype Alliance to "collectively use the advertising industry as a force for good to drive positive change all over the world" and "empower women in all their diversity (race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, education, etc)" was a campaign released in March by GSK’s Women’s Horlicks.

'Stories of Strength' sought to challenge traditional representations of Indian women as dutiful, sacrificial and marginalised while highlighting its brand benefit — improving bone mineral density — as a link to its brand belief, that 'women should be as strong in body as they are in mind'. 

This campaign features India’s only female commando trainer, India’s first female naturalist, and a Dhaki (Iocal musical instrument) player who challenged the age-old tradition of this being an only-male profession (see below). "With ‘Stories of Strength’ we thought of changing the narrative, so that when we think of strength, we don’t just think of men," said Swati Bhattacharya, CCO of FCB Ulka, which made the ad. 

Stereotypes, busted; more gender-equal world, approached. 

Campaign's Women Leading Change

We'll be discussing gender equality and attitudes towards women in media and marketing at our annual Women Leading Change conference in Singapore on 4 June 2019. Register your interest and find out more at



Campaign Asia

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