Misunderstanding Gender Differences Can Let Brands Down

The advertising industry and audiences differ on how well marketers are doing in portraying women. Kantar’s AdReaction: Getting Gender Right study of advertising creativity and media effectiveness found that 91 percent of marketers think they are doing a good job of portraying women as positive role models. However, 45 percent of audiences think women are still being portrayed inappropriately. Kantar notes that the advertising industry’s failure to portray and target women well impacts the effectiveness of individual ads and campaigns, and at a high level means male-skewed brands are missing out on an average of $9 billion in brand valuation.

The Kantar study analyzed 30,000 ads, surveyed 450 global marketers and gathered consumer advertising attitudes among almost 40,000 consumers around the world, and brand equity analysis of over 9,000 global brands. It found that when both genders appear in ads, men are 38 percent more likely to be featured prominently than women, and that gender portrayals in advertising remain stereotyped, with most ads showing women to be “likeable” or “caring,” and only six percent including an “authoritative” female character.

Ads led by authoritative female characters outperform other ads, the study found. Kantar says they generate more expressiveness—measured via facial coding—in part because these roles are a positive surprise. Authoritative female characters also make ads much more believable and persuasive—attributes which are known to lead to short-term sales boosts. However, in a sign that the industry struggles to make great ads starring women, Kantar found that ads featuring only women are less impactful overall and less likely to make people feel proud or to generate excitement than ads featuring only men.

Kantar reports that average brand value is highest among gender-balanced brands—$20.6 billion vs $16.1 billion among female-skewed brands and $11.5 billion among male-skewed brands—but only 33 percent of global brands achieve this balance. It notes that over-simplistic targeting approaches of some brands fail to acknowledge that decision-making roles extend across genders in most categories.

The study notes that creating gender-based creative is less necessary than has been traditionally imagined. Kantar found no identifiable overall difference in response to ads across gender lines, as good ads are usually good for everyone and bad ads are bad for everyone, irrespective of intended gender targeting. The firm’s research did show that women have a slight preference for ads with a “slice of life,” children and well-known music, but there are very few other specific creative elements which guarantee success among one gender. Humor works well across both genders but ads featuring only women use comedy less than half the time as ads featuring only men—22 percent vs 51 percent.

Ad format has a strong role in effectiveness, the study shows. In particular, online ads fail to deliver for women: in 2018 they generated 28 percent less brand impact than among men, and fewer women find online ads to be reliably relevant. Women much prefer shorter online video and strongly dislike non-skippable ad formats which create a sense of “loss of agency.” Beyond paid advertising, point of sale activity and word of mouth are often more impactful touchpoints among women.

“It is clear from our findings that some introspection is required on the part of creative and media agencies and their clients,” says Rosie Hawkins, chief offer and innovation officer at Kantar's insights division. “The failure to meaningfully connect with female audiences is selling brands short and limiting their brand value. It is disappointing that female portrayals are generally less powerful but encouraging that ads featuring more authoritative women are seeing greater success.” Hawkins continued, “It is not a simple journey though. Brands need to tread with care and have good self-awareness of how they are perceived. Some more progressive brands have greater permission to challenge gender stereotypes, and brands also need to account for local socio-cultural attitudes.”

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