Summer Series - Guys and Dolls: Gender Marketing
*Our Summer Series airs every Thursday and Saturday at 11:30 on CBC Radio One.*
This week, we delve into the controversial world of Gender Marketing. How did it all start? Why are aisles and products separated by gender? Why do some companies charge women more than men for identical items? Marketing different products to different genders leads to profit but also to big consequences.
It's not a black-and-white issue, but it's definitely pink and blue…
When I was a teenager in the '70s, I became fascinated with karate.
That discovery came courtesy of a movie.
It was called… Billy Jack.
The movie was about an ex-green beret martial artist who protects an arts school from some rough townsfolk who wanted to shut it down.
I sat through Billy Jack twice in a row in the movie theatre that day back in 1971. I was wide-eyed.
It made such an impression on me that I joined a karate school the next week.
Two years later, another martial artist hit the screen.
His name… was Bruce Lee.
We had never seen a martial artist like him before.
He was only 5 foot 7, 130 pounds - and absolutely formidable. He had a great look. His onscreen intensity was riveting. His martial art ability - astounding.
In the 1973 movie Enter The Dragon, director Robert Clouse had to ask Bruce Lee to slow his techniques down. He was just too fast. He was blurring the film.
Bruce Lee wasn't a karate man, he practiced Kung Fu. He had been trained in the Wing Chun style in China. As I watched his films, I marvelled at his unusual techniques.
When I observed Kung Fu fighters at martial arts tournaments, I noticed they used minimal effort. Instead of meeting the force of an attacker head-on, they employed soft deflections and used their attacker's momentum against them.
Karate was hard and aggressive.
Kung Fu was quiet and mysterious.
I promised myself that, one day, I would study Kung Fu.
That day didn't come for another 25 years.
When it did, I chose a very traditional Kung Fu school.
To my delight, the school offered Wing Chun. The original style of Bruce Lee. Finally, I could learn the very art that made Lee such a remarkable fighter.
As I studied Wing Chun, I realized it had an unusual theory and unorthodox techniques. For one thing, you blocked and punched at the same time. That was very different from karate, where you would block, then strike.
In Wing Chun, virtually every strike was aimed at the centreline of an opponent. Forehead, nose, upper lip, throat - solar plexus, stomach, groin.
Unlike karate, Wing Chun kicks were aimed low – from the knee down.
Most strikes were a series of multiple punches. Instead of one big punch, it was more like the flurry of a machine gun.
And most interestingly, the stances were all narrow. Never wider than shoulder-width. That was curious, because most karate stances are wide, almost lunge-like.
When I asked my teacher why the stances were so narrow, his answer completely surprised me.
They were narrow… because Wing Chun had been invented by a woman.
Centuries ago in China, a Buddhist nun founded the Wing Chun style as a martial art designed for women. While men were stronger, females were faster. So the quick, multiple strikes were perfect for women. The centre-line philosophy gave women close targets, as most men stand close to women in a confrontation.
So that made perfect sense.
The real epiphany was the narrow stances. They were narrow because women back then wore long, constrictive dresses. So the stances were no wider than a dress would allow. That's why the kicks were low, too.
Then it hit me: Bruce Lee, the ultimate martial artist, the ultimate fighter - the ultimate man - had chosen a martial art created by a woman.
Gender had influenced the art of the greatest martial artist of all time.
Gender also influences the martial art of marketing.
As brands fight it out for market share, they often use gender in hard and soft ways.
They use it to sell more products. They use it to personalize products. But they also use it to reinforce lucrative stereotypes.
And they sometimes charge one gender more than the other for identical items.
Many groups want gender marketing eliminated.
While other groups want gender marketing to stay.
It's not a black and white issue.
But it's definitely pink and blue…
The rise of gendered marketing has a very interesting history.
To carbon-date it, you have to go back in time.
To the late 1800s.
To the rise of the first department stores.
When the first department stores appeared, like the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada, Macy's in the States and Myer's in Australia, they were – by definition – organized by departments.
The owners of these stores categorized products by aisles and sections.
These owners – all male – also broke the toy and children's clothing departments down by gender.
So in the toy department, there was a boy's aisle and a girl's aisle. Same with the clothing department.
It's fair to say we've been tethered to that distinction ever since.
Pink and blue.
Those two colours have divided the sexes for decades.
But how those gender distinctions came about is not as black and white as you might think.
For centuries, all babies were dressed in white. And continued to wear white until they were six or seven year old.
Parents made no attempt to signal a child's gender with colour.
There was a practical reason parents chose white.
It was the easiest colour to bleach.
Then in the early 1900s, a major department store declared that pink was for boys and blue was for girls. Pink was considered the stronger colour – therefore more fitting for a boy. Blue was considered delicate, more feminine.
In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colours for girls and boys – again advising parents to dress a boy in strong pink colours.
This gender colour coding stayed in place for more than twenty years, until after the Second World War, when department stores and manufacturers flip-flopped the colours – stating that pink was now a feminine colour and blue masculine.
In other words, the blue/pink decision could have gone either way. It was completely arbitrary.
But what a lasting effect it's had.
The segmentation of genders has historically been an advantage for retailers and marketers.
The more stores individualized products, the more they sold.
One theory was that pink and blue products made it harder for parents to use items as hand-me-downs.
So a daughter's pink clothing and pink-themed toys were rarely passed down to a younger son. And vice versa.
That was a big uptick for marketers.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, toys were heavily divided by gender.
A typical 1925 Sears ad for a "Toy, Broom and Mop Set" featured a headline that said, "Mothers! Every little girl likes to play house, to sweep and do a mother's work for her!"
Another ad in the same year for an "Erector Set" stated that every boy likes to tinker and build things, and went on to say the toy will help boys learn the fundamentals of engineering.
Pink and blue colour coding was added to almost every product, from sleepers, cribs and sheets to strollers and wallpaper.
Parents could now decorate two different bedrooms for boys and girls.
Another windfall for marketers.
Child development experts say children become conscious of their gender between the ages of 3 and 4.
They start to identify with products that are associated with their gender, like team jerseys in sports. During that time, they are also exposed to persuasive advertising in kid's television shows that tends to reinforce stereotypes.
Starting in the late 50s and 60s, those distinctions got even more explicit.
Clearly girl's toys were preparing them for a life of homemaking.
Commercials aimed at boys prepared them for action.
One of the most lucrative marketing strategies emerged with the invention of the "toddler" as a developmental stage.
That meant a toddler could be targeted with products.
Toddler clothing, toddler toys, even toddler-specifc foods.
Parents began to consult their children when making purchases for them. It was the beginning of the "consumer tot."
With that, children began asking for gendered products at a very formative stage.
The clothing industry, for example, began to re-position gender fashions as a social virtue – that wearing the right clothes was a way for a child to "fit in" – and that fitting in was beneficial to a child's well-being and self-confidence.
Pink and blue was seen as the morally right thing to do.
Feminism was in full swing, demanding equality at home and in the workforce.
During this decade, gender marketing declined substantially.
Mothers began to rail against pink – seeing it as a symbol of oppression, and stopped dressing their daughters in frilly clothes.
In the 1975 Sears catalogue, less than 2% of clothing and toys was explicitly marketed to girls or boys.
As a matter of fact, marketing by gender stereotypes was suddenly seen as a risky strategy. They showed boys playing with homemaker toys and girls playing with building blocks and enacting what were then traditionally masculine roles such as doctors and scientists.
But the trend was to be short-lived...
Two important things happened in the 80s.
The first was deregulation. President Ronald Reagan believed that regulations stifled business.
So along with deregulating industries like airlines, he also deregulated the broadcasting business.
Reagan vetoed a measure overwhelmingly approved by Congress that would have re-imposed restrictions on television advertising aimed at children.
The bill would have limited the number of ads that could be shown during each hour of children's programming. And it would have required broadcasters to provide educational programs for children as a condition of license renewal.
But with those regulations lifted, the amount of commercials aimed at children increased significantly.
More importantly, it opened the doors to branded cartoons and TV shows. Between 1984 and 1985, cartoons featuring a licensed toy character increased 300%.
Like the G.I. Joe Show:
My Little Pony:
And Care Bears:
Here's why this is important. Toy corporations dictated much of the show's content. Hasbro, for example, maintained complete script control over the G.I. Joe show. The Care Bears were developed by the American Greeting Card Company, and so on.
These TV shows were viewed by kids in the United States and Canada.
The shows often reinforced gender stereotypes. Programs for girls not only featured lead characters that leaned towards stereotypes, but those programs advertised toys that promoted domesticity and nurturing, and programs and commercials for boys were all about action and leadership.
By 1984, over 50% of the toys in the Sears catalogue were now separated by gender. Even disposable diapers were marketed in pink and blue.
The second big beat in the 80s was the advent of pre-natal testing and ultrasounds.
Parents were now able to learn the sex of their unborn baby – then went out shopping for clothing, toys and paint colours in pink or blue.
In a recent TED talk, sociologist Elizabeth Sweet stated that toys are more gendered than ever.
The problem with that, Sweet explains, is that gender stereotypes affect task performance in children. They shape aspirations and affect confidence levels. Toys marketed by gender influence what kids aspire to be.
If girls see an overwhelming projection of domesticity and inferior career possibilities, it can skew their goals in life.
When boys only see aggression and action in their worlds, they are eventually underrepresented in caring professions.
Gender marketing reinforces limitations.
Parents also play another role in gender marketing.
An article in Marketing Magazine quoted a survey saying Dads are more likely than Moms to set strict gender boundaries for their kids – especially sons. And that Dads are twice as likely as Moms to admit to making gender choices based on social pressure.
The reason is two-fold: Dads have an intense desire to protect their sons from being bullied. And Dads themselves are afraid of being judged.
According to this survey, Moms, on the other hand, are often the parent most looking for gender-neutral alternatives for their children.
Parents also hand down their toy preferences. Many fathers, for example, pass on their love of Star Wars to their sons. Or Moms often pass on their nostalgic fondness for Barbie to their daughters.
Gender bias is a complicated concept, and it can have a "taxing" effect down the road…
Gendered marketing is a lucrative onion that has many layers.
And one of the most eye-watering slices is the concept of "Pink Tax."
While a lot of the gender marketing we've talked about today is aimed at children, there is a lot of it aimed at adults, as well.
Take the prices women pay for products versus what men pay for nearly identical items.
Studies have shown that girls toys cost more than boys toys 55% of the time.
Girls clothing cost more than boys clothing 26% of the time.
Women's clothing costs more than men's clothing over 40% of the time.
And even senior home health care for women costs more 45% of the time.
Women routinely pay over 25% more for haircuts than men – even though both take the same amount of labour.
Even when it comes to vehicle repair, Northwestern did a study that showed women calling to get an estimate to have a radiator replaced were quoted $406. Men were quoted $383.
CBC's Marketplace found a huge disparity in personal health care products.
Women paid a whopping 48% more for nearly identical shampoos as men. Razors and lotions cost 11% more for women. Body washes cost 6% more if you are female.
And because these items are purchased at a higher frequency than other consumer products it translates into a significant financial burden for women – because they earn less on average and pay more.
But it's big revenue for marketers.
The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs compared nearly 800 products with male and female versions. In virtually every category, women paid substantially more for the identical item.
CBS News went undercover to visit dry-cleaners and brought nearly identical 100% cotton button-down white shirts in comparable male and female sizes and requested the same service.
Females were charged twice as much as men in over half of the dry cleaners visited. The word "blouse" kicked up the price - versus "dress shirt."
In a department store, red scooters for boys were priced at $24.99. The identical scooter in pink was priced $49.99.
Even pink "stool softener" cost 11% more than blue "stool softener."
Ellen Degeneres did a funny bit when she discovered that Bic made pink pens for women:
We have been conditioned to think that men's products are the standard, and that women's products are specialty items. That smaller sizes require special machines. That buttons on the opposite side need special laundering. That a woman's hair is a tricky cut.
While some States like New York, California and Connecticut have outlawed gender pricing, there is no law against the practice in Canada.
But again, it's the segmentation strategy. As an article in the Toronto Star stated, if a consumer feels a certain emotion or has a favourable reaction to a product that seems to be made for them, there is a willingness to pay more.
In other words, marketing lines like "designed for a woman" have a pull.
Gender has become a front-burner issue lately.
And those conversations are affecting many aspects of our lives – including marketing.
In response, several prominent retail stores have decided to eliminate gender signage and categories.
Hamley's – established in 1760 – is one of the oldest toy stores in the world. The British retailer stopped using gendered store signage in 2011.
Harrod's removed "boys" and "girls" from its toy signage in 2012.
WH Smith bookstores agreed to abandon the term "Women's Fiction" recently.
But those changes are not always met with applause.
When Target announced it was eliminating the pink and blue signage from its toy and bedding aisles, it faced protests.
One of the most vocal was from Reverend Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham - who strongly opposes gender-neutral signage:
It's interesting that Reverend Graham is protesting because he equates the removal of pink and blue signage as pandering to the LGBT community.
Yet in all our examples today, the goal was gender equality.
That a toy doesn't have to be pink or blue.
That one gender shouldn't be charged more than the other for the identical product.
That a marketing campaign doesn't have to play into gender stereotypes.
And as Bruce Lee proved, gender influences don't have to be limiting.
When the first department stores set up shop in the 1800s, little did they know they were exerting a powerful influence that would echo into the 21st century.
It's also interesting that the pink and blue divide was such an arbitrary decision. It could have gone either way.
Yet, the ramifications of those decisions have been enormous.
Merchandisers and retailers have an obligation to understand the values they're shaping in society.
And my industry – advertisers and marketers - have to understand it's not only the product, it's how you market the product that is also important.
But even when stores eliminate the pink and blue aisles and switch to product categories, it still generates pushback.
There are no easy solutions.
Next week, in Part Two of this episode, we'll explore the interesting ways brands have addressed this difficult issue.
And how they answer this one question:
What are your values – not what is your value…
…when you're under the influence.