Carol Toller is editorial director at communications agency Pilot PMR.
We're good now, right?
Canada's national anthem appears set to go gender-neutral, along with Ontario's driver's licences, the federal government has introduced legislation to guarantee legal and human rights protection to transgender people, and non-gendered washrooms are suddenly everywhere. (Okay, maybe not in North Carolina.)
North America is entering a new, postgender era. Thanks in large part to LGBT culture, identity is no longer limited to male/female binary options. Facebook now lists more than 50 gender-status options that place users on a spectrum that includes "bi-gender," "neither" and dozens of choices in between. And as identities become less rigidly defined, our traditional notions of male and female behaviour are crumbling. Women don't have to wear heels and dresses. Men can stay home and cook gazpacho.
Given this tectonic upheaval, you might be tempted to think we'll soon see an end to gender-based marketing. After all, who can be bothered developing marketing plans that target gender, when, according to some LGBT advocates, the spectrum may include as many as 71 identities?
But if you're driven as crazy as I am by unnecessarily gendered products like Bic For Her pens and Bounce For Men fabric softener sheets (these actually exist), prepare for more insanity. Research suggests as society moves away from gender poles, some consumers and marketers work harder to preserve them.
Want to sell a new yogurt that's basically, you know, yogurt? Slap a black label on it, call it "Powerful," encourage media to refer to it as "brogurt," and you've got the perfect, low-fat, probiotic breakfast for men who object to all that societal gender-muddying.
As the lines blur, we need our objects to send clearer "gender marker" signals, said Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School who has studied consumer resistance to brand gender-bending. Paradoxically, him-and-her products may become more, not less, important to consumers as we move toward a more fluid understanding, Dr. Avery said. "It becomes harder to establish one's gender identity through actions" – so products become signifiers.
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Gender-based stuff makes sense on one level, at least to marketers. If you're trying to sell soap in an aisle of identical products, call them "beauty bars" and you start differentiating. Package a similar product as Dove Men+Care, and now you're selling twice the product. And as traditional roles continue to shift (more than 80 per cent of Canadian men say they participate in housework and a growing percentage of Canadian women are becoming primary breadwinners), gender-based labelling offers comfort and security to those who feel threatened by societal change.
In most cases, those people tend to be men. In a 2012 research paper, Dr. Avery studied consumer response to the 2003 launch of the Porsche Cayenne SUV – a controversial move for a brand that many hyper-masculine consumers viewed as an embrace of "soccer moms." Analyzing comments in the brand's online community, Dr. Avery identified a phenomenon that she called "gender contamination." Male Porsche owners unleashed a torrent of disgust designed to reaffirm the masculinity of other Porsche models and denigrate the Cayenne and its drivers. "Hopefully I will see a competent-looking driver [in the Cayenne], but I know I'll see a soccer mom," wrote one.
The men needed to protect their masculinity, and gender-branded identity helped them do that, Dr. Avery said. So do products like Mansize Kleenex, French Meadow Bakery Men's Bread and Planter's Men's Health nut mix. On a broader level, the fight over gender-identified products may also reflect the greater battle some men are fighting to maintain a dominant position in the social hierarchy, Dr. Avery wrote.
So gender-based marketing isn't going away for now. It may even become more prevalent as women and LGBT community members make more social gains. But surely it's time to question how and why we reduce consumers to X and Y chromosomes.
I don't object to brands targeting men or women, but I do object to those that explicitly market to them as only for men or women, with a one-size-fits-all notion of what those labels mean. When Honda released a new women's model of the Fit sedan in 2012, guess what colour it came in? Shallow connections create shallow brand relationships and, these days, brands want lifelong loyalty. Gendered marketing that relies on conventional stereotypes doesn't forge a strong connection, and it impoverishes the human landscape at a time when individuals are experiencing the freedom to be more complex, more nuanced, more individual, more interesting.
Gender identities are becoming richer, yet the marketing world is still dabbling in stereotypes. This year's Gandalf Group study of consumer attitudes toward advertising shows that fewer than 50 per cent of Canadians perceive ads as less sexist now than they were a decade ago.
Still, Dr. Avery sees hope that what we're seeing is just a blip. While marketers continue to push "him" and "her" buttons, many consumers want to ditch the labels. "The stigma for doing so seems to be lessening," she said.
At the very least, here's hoping gendered brands will eventually begin acknowledging the diversity of our lives. When High Heel Brewing, a new craft brewery making beer for women, adds a "Birkenstock" to complement its initial release, "the Slingback," I'll be the first to buy a two-four.