Do you need stereotypes to market to women?

If you are a woman reading this article and the image of the Sheryl Sandberg-type power mum doesn’t resonate with you, well, you could always be a domestic goddess; or the vixen embodying every man’s desire. If all else fails, you could always be the insecure everyday woman just trying to find happiness. Whichever you pick, it looks like advertising has a type for you.

A decade ago, when Dove launched its incredible “Real Beauty” campaign with the help of advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, the public lauded the diversity of the women depicted. But since banking on that strategy 10 years later, it looks like it could be wearing thin. The criticism surrounding its latest campaign, “Patches”, could be revealing – perhaps it’s been playing the image of the insecure woman for far too long.

The ad “Patches” showed an “experiment”, which saw an authority figure in the form of psychologist Ann Kearney, who studies body image issues, bringing in women to talk about their insecurities. She then gives the women a revolutionary beauty drug which works like a nicotine patch and asks them to document the results. Miraculously, the women feel beautiful. The campaign drew criticism: Are women so stereotypically insecure to fall for such a simple prank?


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There are more local examples. Late last year, the Ministry of Defence, in an attempt to recruit women into the army, sent out direct mailers in the form of a fake mirror and eye-shadow palette. The envelope said: “Discover shades of green that bring out the best in you.” Local women’s rights group AWARE slammed the ad as portraying an inaccurate and offensive stereotype about women and called the army’s use of make-up and mirrors to appeal to women “trivialising”.

Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at AWARE Singapore, says that today some ads “explicitly rely on damaging and insulting stereotypes about women”.


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“Many ads, even if they are not so openly contemptuous of women, seek to promote insecurities in women and girls. Often these are based on appearance, suggesting that women and girls are – and should feel – inadequate unless the shapes and sizes of their bodies or specific body parts meet certain narrow-minded standards,” Tan says.

She added it was common knowledge that most images of women used in advertising were heavily airbrushed or edited to conform to a “rigid view” of what female bodies and faces should look like.

What’s wrong with stereotypes?

Marketers and advertisers are aware the roles and social stature of women are changing quickly, and they need to keep up.

JWT’s global planning director Atika Malik says advertisers are well aware that clichéd images of a woman in a spotless home or waiting on her family or being sensual is in no way reflective of the complexity of modern women’s lives.

While marketers are trying to communicate with women in a more authentic way, the real danger lies in simply replacing one stereotype for another – the perfect housewife for the multitasking mother, the pin-up girl for the hair-swishing vixen. This is not necessarily reflecting the changes in their lives in a nuanced way.

“Insights need to be rooted in the real world – and that world is changing fast every day. There are stereotypes of women that haven’t changed in years and their repeated usage proves that we as an industry don’t really understand our audience. Stereotypes are pretty dangerous for an industry that is built on human understanding,” she says.

“Women aren’t just one homogenous group and most campaigns are probably still painting women in general with brushstrokes that are much too broad.”

Farrokh Madon, chief creative officer of Young &Rubicam, is also of a similar stand. He says it is human nature to put everything into boxes. This is what often leads to stereotypes.

“However, while the world evolves, sometimes perceptions don’t keep pace. Some of the advertising directed at women is cringe worthy. It’s almost as if someone had wrapped women up in cotton wool and said: ‘Thou shall not evolve.’ This must stop,” Madon says.

In fact, clients today should no longer ask to be seen as talking exclusively to women, says Madon. Marketers should not have a specific communication targeted at women because this shows they are being seen in a different light.

While a brand can have touch-point differences – based on an area women are more likely to frequent, it is no longer a necessity that a different set of communications be created just to target women.

For example, according to Generation Asia, a study by Y&R in partnership with VML Qais covering 34,000 people across 10 countries, 47% of them prefer powerful vehicles, similar to men.

“So when marketers try to suddenly talk to women specifically, the communication may sound patronising,” Madon says.

Sirpa Ikola, a senior marketer at HTC, in an earlier conversation with Marketing, said HTC as a brand would also be making a move into acquiring more of the female demographic. So when asked what were some of the mistakes and pitfalls she would be looking out for, she explained one of the mistakes brands usually made was over-simplifying messages to attract female buyers.

“A marketer should never make a woman feel like she will not understand or ‘get it’ if they don’t simplify the benefit or the product messages,” Ikola says.

Like Madon, she is also of the view that a marketer’s aim cannot just be to get a woman to buy the product, but rather provide an amazing personal experience. The experience should touch the woman in her multiple roles as a daughter, sister, mother, businesswoman and professional.

“Personally, I feel it is a shame that many brands ignore the fact that women love the ‘entire shopping experience’ not just the buying,” Ikola says.

Does stereotyping actually work then?

Despite all the arguments – the answer is still yes.

One such industry where it has worked is in the perfume advertising and make-up industry. Through the images portrayed in the communication of these campaigns, women are not just sold the product, but rather a sense of “hope” of the image portrayed, said Ikola.

Madon also agrees that when executed right and with taste, stereotyping can be made to work for a brand. Humour is one such way.

“If you play on a cliché, give it your own twist to break out of a stereotype,” Madon says.

For example, when a marketer uses a stereotype normally implied on women and imposes it on men, you not only add some humour – you also break the tension. Nonetheless, you have to be careful of not further perpetuating the stereotype.

Relating to the audience

The lines of stereotyping can blur with what is known as generalisation. With the cost of expenditure rising, marketers are often under pressure of stretching out their dollars in the short time they have to reach consumers.

Take, for example, a 30-second TVC – in less than a minute, the marketer is tasked to engage the target customer, tell a compelling story and have a call to action.

In crunch time a little generalisation is helpful for the brand to quickly identify with its target demographic. But it is when done badly that generalisation crosses over to the dark side of stereotyping.

One well-played generalisation says Madon was P&G’s “Thank You Mums” campaign which saw immense success when it launched in London in 2012.

“We all owe a huge debt to our mums. So if the ‘stereotype’ is true, by all means use it. Glorify mums. They are most certainly worth it.”

P&G was a sponsor of the London Olympics, but combining sport with a raft of products aimed at housewives seemed odd as there was no obvious connection – except that behind every athlete is a mother who wants the best for their children.

The marketers at P&G fast realised it was the mums who helped future stars reach their potential and they wanted to show appreciation for all of these mums. Hence, for the Olympics, P&G’s communication focused on it being the “Proud Sponsor of Mums”. All of P&G’s products were communicated in a way to make any mother’s life easier.

According to numbers provided by P&G’s media agency, MediaCom, the campaign generated more than 20,000 “Thank you, Mum” stories and increased the campaign awareness eight-fold. P&G’s TV ROI was up 60% on single brand activity and sales of participating brands rose by 5%. In Poland and Central Europe, P&G reached 42% brand awareness, overtaking L’Oréal, Henkel and Unilever, and its e-commerce sales reached its highest ever mark of a positive 320%.

So what do women want?

A question not only men, but marketers are scratching their heads over: What works with women?

Honestly, should a brand stereotype women in ads? Perhaps. And there is no hard and fast rule on what works, which is why it looks like stereotyping will still be around.

But one safe point is to associate with good. Twenty-first century women strongly believe they can make a difference in this world, and in general, they evaluate brands strongly through what they believe the brands stand for, said a study by Carat.

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[ Image from Shutterstock]