Marketing to Women 101

Allergies, illness, or something has taken over and made me really lethargic, headachey, and scrambled lately which is why this post is both slightly old news, and slightly all over the place… but I hope you enjoy all the same!


For a month or two of my life ( in between wanting to be a teacher, psychologist, or writer) I decided I should go into marketing. I’m creative, I reasoned, I could be good at coming up with slogans and advertisement ideas. I never changed my major but news like this makes me think I should have… the decision-makers of the advertising world apparently need smart women (and men!) to explain to them that not all women (or people for that matter) are alike and marketing to the gender binary is not going to turn out well for them, at least not now as we enter further into the 21st century. (They should join us!)

flingRecently, two advertising campaigns (from Dell and Mars) have caught my eye due to their sheer stupidity. The common thread? Both campaigns were aimed at women… but I’m struggling to see how even a single woman could have been involved with the creation of these campaigns. Surely, if they had asked a woman what she thought she would have been able to explain to them that women are not all variations on the same stereotype and, for instance, probably won’t respond as well as they are expecting to a sparkly, pink-packaged, low-fat chocolate bar or a miniaturized computer that comes in enough colors to go with every outfit and has an appropriate girl-y name (Della).

According to the marketing world there are only a few ways one can market a product to women:

1) Make it pink & sparkly! I mean, it worked for Stephanie Meyer and her sparkly vampires. As Cara of Feministe put it, “Fling is a new chocolate bar that’s aimed at women. You can tell, because the packaging is pink.” The Della laptops may not all be pink, I’ll give them that, but the pink one does come with the added bonus of a donation to a Breast Cancer Charity (none of the other laptops have a charity attached) and they’re still marketed as “adorable” and “cute” because that’s what women care about, adorable and cute computers, not, you know, functional and  durable ones.

2) Make it low fat because all women care about losing weight, unlike men who don’t need to diet constantly and, therefore, can enjoy “man candy” like Snickers and M&Ms. (Not that women don’t eat these candies too… something has to put on the weight that needs to be dieted off!) Even Della’s new laptops manage to buy into the “low fat” trend – a quick look into the website’s “tech tips” shows us that our laptops can be used to help us remember to exercise and even look up low-fat recipes! (As this article outlines, since I started writing this article the website has already changed – the recipe tip is gone and the exercise tip has become “get moving” but still…)

3) Make it teeny – Its not a chocolate bar its a chocolate finger because women, with their diets and whatnot, cannot handle a chocolate bar. Similarly, the Della computers are miniaturized – I suppose to fit into our purses better or something? Smaller laptops have their place, I won’t deny that, but to focus the marketing of these computers specifically onto women is where the gender stereotyping and fail comes in.

The problem with marketing like this is that, for starters, it sets women off as “the other.” Men, who marketers faithfully expect to buy products that are not  wrapped in pink, teeny, and color-coordinated to one’s outfit, receive the “default” advertising. Take this Nikon ad that has recently been making the rounds in the feminist blogosphere:


Although both men and women buy and use cameras this ad is very purposefully targeted at men: the woman’s body is used to catch their attention and cause them to equate their arousal with the product for sale, in this case, a camera. An ad like this is likely to put off and even offend many women; yet it still runs, because companies like this assume that the most money they are going to make will come from men – the “technologically minded” gender. As a woman who loves her laptop (for WAY more than just diet tips and recipe searches) I’m fairly offended by the sexist assumptions made by many marketing executives.

These assumptions are even being made about little girls. Just take a look at this toy store display:


Apparently Scrabble, Life, Quija, and Monopoly weren’t appropriatley girly enough to hit the target market… funny, I wasn’t aware that Scrabble was too “manly” a game for me to be playing, until now that is. (Even worse? A closeup on the game box spells out the word fashion!) At some point this has to all seem like a joke right… I mean, marketers can’t think women are all like this… can they?

Furthermore, its not just sticking to advertising either, this way of thinking is seeping into our everday lives. Need an example? Lets look at the newspapers (both online and off) that most people read each day:

I think the best example of this phenomena lately is the birth of Double X, Slate’s new “web magazine, founded by women but not just for women.” What confused and troubled me, like many other women, is the fact that this website had to exist in the first place – rather than Slate simply hiring more female writers and allowing them to write for the main magazine. This is a classic example of othering and seems to imply that the people who read Slate regularly are not interested in the female opinion or at least, don’t want to have to deal with it all the time, thus the best solution being to regulate the female voices to their own site. This isn’t just happening on Slate, however, its a common media trope – ever notice how many completley unrelated articles end up in the fashion section of newspapers just because they concern women? For instance:

My Sister’s Keeper in the NY Times: an article about lesbian separatist communes in the US.

Smoother Transitions in the NY Times: about trans women’s experiences transitioning in the workplace.

The Carrot Some Vegans Deplore NY Times: about sexism within vegan/vegetarian circles of people.

You get the point…. and this was just a quick scan of the NY Times!

I know it may seem like harmless stereotyping, just an annoyance to be borne (and a perk for those of us who do love pink, I suppose) but its worse than that. Its this kind of reasoning and marketing that supports the gender binary – the idea that women act and think one way and men another, end of story – rather than a societial understanding of gender expression that is as varied and unique as the members of the society itself. Its this kind of reasoning that leads to essays like the one discussed here where a mother dreads giving birth to a girl, because ofher dislike of “girl toys” and so on; this child is not even born yet and assumptions about her desires, personality, and interests are being made based upon her gender alone, by her own mother no less. The kind of reasoning that leads to homophobiaand taunting of those who don’t fit the approporiate feminine/masculing stereotypes. The kind of reasoning that creates a culture where people do not always feel free to express who they are, regardless of gender…. try to tell me there isn’t something wrong with that.

3 thoughts on “Marketing to Women 101

  1. I think that for the most part you are correct. However the simple overriding fact that governs most brand and advertising campaigns is that they quite simply don’t repeat things that don’t work.

    This means that the candy bars, laptops, and cameras will sell with these campaigns.

    We may lament the stupidity of the consumer but in the end its up to us not to put up with this type of marketing.

    As for Slate’s new “women only magazine” You may want to look at it from a different angle. Instead of women not being good enough for the Main Slate site, could it be that there is demand for an all woman’s website?

    Look at Lifetime and the WE networks. They exist because of a demand by women for channels that talk only about Women’s issues. They got it and they are successful.

    Websites aren’t generated out of gender bias they exist for one purpose and one purpose only to make money. If the site exists I bet there is demand and a large one at that.

    Just my 2 cents hope you don’t mind.

  2. I don’t mind at all! I welcome your input and I really do appreciate your well worded and thought out point.

    I totally understand that this stuff works, I think my major issue is that this stuff works – media (which advertising is a part of, naturally) plays such a huge role in shaping our cultural understandings of so many things, including gender expressions, that gendered ads like this are the quickest and easiest ways to sell products.

    It just seems sad to me that these cookie-cutter images of masculinity and femininity are so prevalent in society, considering they do so much harm and I wish that the advertising industry, and all other industries that play into the creation of these tropes, would rethink their stance and try to promote a more nuanced understanding of personal expression.

    The won’t because the current mold is infinitely more profitable, but it would be awesome if they did all the same.

    In terms of Slate, WE, and Lifetime etc. I do get where your coming from but often I feel like these channels/magazines fall prey to a few major mistakes: overly stereotyping their demographic (WE and Lifetime don’t so much deal with Women’s Issues as they make use of stereotypical interests like fashion and cooking to create an ideal platform for commercials to sell clothing, makeup, etc. to their female audience) or separating “women’s issues” from the mainstream, to the point where we forget that the issues of feminism are issues that play a role in the lives of both women and men and really do belong in mainstream discourse… there’s no need to shove them off to their own corner.

  3. Have you ever thought about including a little bit more than just your articles?
    I mean, what you say is valuable and everything. Nevertheless just imagine if you added some great pictures or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”!
    Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this site could certainly be one of the greatest in its niche.

    Awesome blog!

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