Women are being let down by advertising ‘complacency’: Kantar

The advertising industry is still relying on old stereotypes when it comes to targeting consumers, limiting the effectiveness of both individual ads and campaigns, and in some cases significantly undermining brand value, according to a new AdReaction study from Kantar.

Getting Gender Right, is based on analysis of some 30,000 test ads in Kantar’s global ad database, survey responses from 450 global marketers, consumer advertising attitudes among almost 40,000 consumers, and brand equity analysis of over 9,000 global brands.

It also suggests that there is a considerable gulf between advertiser and consumer perception of how both genders are portrayed in advertising. While 88% of male marketers and 76% of female marketers believe they are creating ads that avoid gender stereotypes, for example, 76% of female consumers and 71% of men say the way they are portrayed in advertising is “completely out of touch.”

Women as a percentage of ad-testing groups, by category. Source: Link global database 2018. Metric: % of female sample by category across all ads over time

While recent initiatives such as the Unstereotype Alliance are working to eliminate gender-based stereotypes, Kantar says that many brands “are still operating like its 1999” when it comes to how they target prospective customers. Many marketers, it says, are avoiding the issue entirely out of fear of getting it wrong.

“In this precarious environment, achieving a balance between acknowledging and recognizing gender, while evading stereotypes that can burden a brand, isn’t easy,” states the report.

That helps explain why many marketers seem willing to accept the status quo when it comes to how they target the two genders.

According to Kantar, a large majority of the ads it tested for items like laundry products (93%) and household cleaners (87%) in 2018 were aimed at women (although it’s worth noting that both categories were at 100% as recently as 2012). Gender balance is better in categories like food, with 68% of ads aimed at women, down from nearly 80% in 2010, and drink, 48%, up from 40% in 2010.

While 85% of women consider themselves the main grocery buyer, men are also highly involved in the process, with 68% identifying themselves as the main shopper. Meanwhile, the purchase decisions for other categories—including holidays, finance, utilities and cars—tend to be equally divided.

“While it is true that more women than men are primary grocery shoppers, it is strange that almost 100% of the people [marketers] talk to about baby products, laundry products and household cleaners are women,” the Kantar study concludes.

The study also cites research conducted by JWT and the Geena Davis Institute in its study Unpacking Gender Bias in Advertising. In an analysis of 2,000 Cannes Lions film entries from 2006-2016, the study found that men spoke seven times as much as women; received four times as much screen time, and were 62% more likely to be depicted as smart.

This is despite research suggesting that this outdated approach could have significant financial implications for brands. According to Kantar, brands that maintain a “historic gender skew” towards men are worth, on average, US$9 billion less than gender-balanced brands, and losing market share to brands with broader appeal.

Gender-balanced brands drive far greater brand value. However, only one in three brands achieve this balance. Source: BrandZ Brand Values of 219 US, UK and China brands, and gender classification of 9,560 brands in 43 countries

It cites Home Depot as an example of the benefits of broadening brand appeal. The hardware retailer saw its brand valuation increase from US$9 billion in 2010 to US$52.2 billion in 2019, in part, says Kantar, because of  its efforts to engage women through initiatives such as “Do It Herself” workshops.

“Marketers need to acknowledge that while society has evolved, the industry lags in its responsiveness,” the study says. “The status quo is not optimal, and many brands are not meeting consumers’ gender needs as well as they could be.”

There is some discernible progress being made, however. Last year, the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced a crackdown on ads containing stereotypes—women who can’t park a car, for example, or a man incapable of changing a diaper—across both broadcast and non-broadcast media.

Among the Kantar study’s other key observations:

  • When both genders appear in ads, men are 38% more likely than women to be featured prominently;
  • Gender portrayals in advertising remain stereotyped, with most ads showing women to be “likeable” or “caring,” and only 6% including an “authoritative” female character; and
  • Commercials led by authoritative female characters outperform other ads. 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 known to lead to short-term sales boosts.

The study said that getting gender right requires brands to be bold, and consciously consider gender issues and challenge the status quo. “They must then acknowledge and embrace gender differences by recognizing outdated, over-simplistic targeting assumptions that reinforce old decision-making paradigms.”

– Chris Powell


David Brown