How marketing makes gender imbalance worse

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Last week, I took part in a panel discussion on Gender in Marketing to coincide with the publication of our ebook on the subject. 

The discussion was part of our bumper content marketing webinar – in what I like to think of as “the headlining slot”.

My fellow panellists – Karen Webber, Stacey MacNaught and Kelvin Newman – and I talked about the imbalance of men and women in the marketing industry’s upper and lower reaches, the impact of parenthood on marketing careers and the under-representation of women in speaking roles at conferences. 

There was, however, one huge area which I don’t think that we touched on at all. 

The exercise was introspective – reflecting on how gender issues manifest amongst people working in the marketing industry. We did not look at all at how the work that the marketing sector does can itself contribute to the reasons there are gender imbalances in our industry and in society at large. 

Let me explain, with an example. 

Do you like Frozen? 

When it came out, we went to the cinema to see it and my two boys (aged seven and five now but younger then) LOVED IT. In due course, we got it on DVD and the kids watched it literally non-stop for a couple of weeks. I was soon heartily sick of it, but you know what children are like – having just finished watching a movie in no way diminishes their enthusiasm for starting it all over again immediately. 

And then all of a sudden, both boys decided that they HATED Frozen. 

This was revisionism on a major scale – the only comparable transvaluation of all values I can think of from my own experience was how excited I was about The Phantom Menace before I saw it (this is going to be the best thing EVER!) and then how I felt after I had seen it (that was the WORST THING EVER!). 

Everything they had previously thought was great about Frozen was now a sign of how appallingly dreadful it was. There was not even a hateworthy Jar Jar-style character to rationalise it....

Do you know what brought this about?

The boys had realised, or decided, or been told that Frozen is FOR GIRLS. 

I don’t want to bring down a howling Twitter mob on my head, but I had been under the impression that Frozen is actually quite progressive in the messages it puts across:

  • Happily ever after for Elsa does not involve her ending up with a prince, handsome or otherwise 

  • The people of Arendelle (yeah, well...I’ve seen it many, many times) are totally unconcerned about having a queen who is a single woman

  • Only the villains, in fact, make anything out of gender issues in the film

Look, I am not an expert on feminist theory by any stretch of the imagination. There are no doubt thousands of more thorough, more thoughtful analyses of Frozen out there for those of you who are interested in such things. 

My interest in the subject as a dad is to make sure my sons don’t grow up hating, fearing and unable to understand half the population – for their own sake as well as those around them. 

My touchstone in this regard is Emma Watson’s UN speech last year when she launched the HeForShe campaign. That’s the kind of world I want to see. 

So why did my kids suddenly decide that Frozen was “for girls”? 

Marketing, that’s why. 

The marketing industry took Frozen and annihilated anything distinctive or subversive about it under a pink, frilly, princess steamroller. To sell more Elsa dresses, more Elsa dolls, more strictly gendered tat. 

You can’t just say “oh well that’s Disney”. Have you heard of Lego Friends? It’s Lego FOR GIRLS. Like me, perhaps you hadn’t realised that before Lego Friends, Lego was NOT for girls. 

Have you played Angry Birds Stella? It’s Angry Birds... FOR GIRLS. 

Nerf Rebelle? Nerf guns... FOR GIRLS!

In online marketing, we pride ourselves on our subtle appreciation of our audiences. We develop complex personas and tailor our marketing to fit the worldviews and interests of niche segments. 

And yet when it comes to marketing to kids – children for god’s sake! the most suggestible audience there is! – when it comes to marketing to kids, we impose the crudest, most  gender normative stereotypes imaginable. Not all the time of course, but often enough that it has to be actively campaigned against

Boys don’t “naturally” hate pink things. Girls don’t “naturally” love princesses. Before culture and marketing got to them, the fact that the main characters in Frozen are female passed right over my sons’ heads. 

We – as a society - tell them day in, day out “this is for you; this is not for you”. How can marketing call itself progressive when it takes the lead in pushing this message down children’s throats?

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