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Role of gender equality: Kantar - Ad Reaction Report 2019

Does the average laundry detergent, chocolate brand or financial services supplier really need to take a stand on gender equality? Although the practical benefit of appealing to a wider consumer base can be a clear brand priority, perhaps the moral imperative of ‘doing the right thing’ may be less compelling for some. And importantly, does addressing gender result in brand growth?

Gender issue continues to remain a sensitive topic — one that society is renegotiating across social, cultural, political and commercial spheres. The just-released Kantar - Ad Reaction Report 2019 analyses consumer responses to various brands, creatives and campaigns, as well as a global survey of marketers, all delivering fresh new insights into the role of gender in brand strategy, creative response and media targeting.

What to get?

To begin with, definitions of gender have progressed. Today it is widely viewed as a spectrum, rather than a simple binary. Gender roles in society are evolving too. Men and women now lead and nurture at work and at home. Whether running for office or running from sexual harassment and assault, gender pervades political realms. In business, gender has moved beyond inclusion and diversity initiatives — it is now the focus of customer experience initiatives and ad campaigns. It is a different, evolving world. The gender zeitgeist has overtaken many who are still operating like it’s 1999. In fact, some marketers seem to be avoiding the issue altogether, paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong.

There are questions of purpose — does the average laundry detergent, chocolate brand or financial services supplier really need to take a stand for gender equality? Although the practical benefit of appealing to a wider consumer base can be a clear brand priority, perhaps the moral imperative of ‘doing the right thing’ may be less compelling for some. And importantly, does addressing gender result in brand growth?

Getting gender wrong

Marketers think they’re getting gender right. The vast majority are confident that their organisations are creating advertising that avoids gender stereotypes and contains balanced content. But more female marketers think the industry is missing a beat with on average 13% fewer women agreeing.

Meanwhile, consumers on the other side of the scale think that marketers are getting it wrong, with 76% of female consumers and 71% of male consumers believing the way they are portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. So, the question is — what are marketers missing? Researchers found that men speak seven times the amount women do in ads. Men get four times more screen time than women. And men are 62% more likely to be shown as ‘smart’. This data prompts disturbing questions about the nature of average, everyday advertising, considering that these striking gender inequities are based on scrutiny of the best of the best in advertising. Regardless, marketers can’t escape the fact that the gendered consumer experience falls short of expectations and that perhaps there are good reasons for it.

Getting gender targeting right

The issue is not that marketers aren’t trying to target women. Ad testing and targeting usually focuses on both genders, or is more likely to target women exclusively. Testing for static ads (print and out-of-home) are more likely to target women (35%). Testing for TV and digital on women is around 26% and 21%, respectively.

Research respondent samples show that females may be over-targeted in categories like laundry (98%) and household products (98%) and under-targeted in other areas like automotive (42%). Sometimes progressive targeting can be as simple as challenging outdated and over-simplistic assumptions. While it is true that more women than men are primary grocery shoppers, it is strange that almost 100% of the people brands talk to about baby products, laundry products and household cleaners are women.

The research also demonstrates that most domestic buying decisions are made jointly by men and women. Gender targeting in creative approaches and media plans should, therefore, not often need to be exclusive to one gender or the other.

Gender-skewed brands are losing revenue to more gender-balanced brands. Gender-balanced brands drive far greater brand value. However, only one in three brands achieves this balance. 35% ($16,177m) of the brands are female-skewed, 32% ($11,454m) are male-skewed and 33% ($20,565m) are balanced towards both.

Getting gender portrayal right

Marketers are confident that they are creating communications that actively appeal to women and men and feature positive role models. However, female marketers are again less sure than males, especially when it comes to portrayal of men.

Among ads featuring people, the research found that women appear in more ads (67%) than men (60%). However, the research data confirms remaining bias in advertising. So when both appear, men are 38% more likely to be featured prominently than women (9% of all ads vs 6% of all ads). The research shows that ads featuring only women are less impactful than ads featuring only men, indicating that there is still room for improvement in how females are depicted.

The research shows more people think women are portrayed in a way that is inappropriate (45%), rather than in a way that makes them think highly of the ad characters (40%). This gap is even wider for male portrayals (44% vs 35%). Research shows that gender portrayals are not aspirational or authoritative for women or men. Women are more likely to be stereotyped as being likeable (48%) and caring (21%). Authoritative portrayals work well, but in different ways across genders.

Getting gender response right

Women and men are more alike than different. While male and female brains can differ perhaps as much as 8% because of, for example, the differing sizes of structures and the brain’s interconnectedness, the impact of such differences is not clear. What is clear is that socio-cultural gender effects can be powerful and impact perceptions, attitudes and decision-making. Similarly, when the responses to advertising are reviewed by gender — enjoyment, involvement and branding — the research finds no overall differences. This is even the case where advertising is strongly targeted to one gender or the other. This implies that marketers could do better when they are creating and targeting ads at one particular gender.

Overall, there is a strong relationship between how well or how poorly ads perform among women and men. However, enjoyment ratings (a leading indicator of emotional response) for individual executions can vary by gender. Across universally well-liked ads and those preferred by one gender, research indicates that men and women may appreciate different elements. In-depth investigation of creative elements in the research revealed few consistencies between ads preferred by men versus those preferred by women. The few significant differences were that women are slightly more likely to prefer ads that feature children, music and written message. They also favour ads where the prevailing narrative technique is slice-of-life. So, while gender preferences are evident, they are not simple, making testing essential.

However, before a brand can devise an effective gender marketing strategy to reduce the risk of not getting it right, marketers must be clear where consumers view the brand on a gender progress spectrum and where the brand aspires to be. A large gap between the two requires more concerted marketing efforts to close the distance, than a smaller gap.

Getting gender placement right

Gender is an important strategic media planning, targeting and optimisation variable.

From category to category, the role of women and men varies. Even in a category where women are more commonly the primary purchasers, the decision-making, usage and influencing roles may have quite different gender profiles. Performance marketing campaigns focus more on purchasers, whether that’s in-store or via online retail channels. However, the roles of users and influencers tend to be more important for brand-building campaigns.

Gender should be a consideration in media placement and optimisation. It is possible to plan for and trade against gender-specific Gross Rating Points (GRPs). These capabilities are strongest in the digital space, where ads can be 100% gender-targeted. On TV, although most ads are bought against both genders, some are bought against a single gender, often women. Very few TV programmes have exclusively female audiences, but advertisers can target female-skewed channels or female-skewed shows. Alternatively, they can choose not to value male viewers within their cost calculations. Like TV, radio spots can be selected to skew by gender. Gender targeting is more commonplace in print, where very gender-skewed readerships are available in certain lifestyle magazines. But it is generally tougher to control with outdoor advertising, though some potential exists even here, for example, with male and female toilet advertising.

Gender can be used as a targeting and optimisation variable to varying extents.

Unfortunately, the gender issues around media effectiveness are more complicated. Kantar’s US CrossMedia database analysis uncovered a surprising finding: women are less impacted by paid media campaigns, including TV, digital and print.

Even more concerning, the gender gap in digital effectiveness seems to be widening. In 2018 digital campaigns generated 28% less positive brand impact among women. Women think that online targeting is less reliable than men; more impact from word-of-mouth and point-of-sale among women.

Globally, more women claim to skip online video ads whenever they can (65% vs 58% of men).

For targeting purposes, TV channels and shows can have significant gender skews.

Getting gender programmes right

Beyond an acknowledgement of gender issues in marketing, accurate targeting, non-stereotyped gender portrayals and appropriate media placement, businesses need to weigh in more deeply if they expect to reap the benefits of a more balanced approach. When commitments come together, the result for businesses can be communications that better reflect brand ambitions and consumer expectations.

The result can also be marketing that is bold, progressive and leads change.


Brands that want to get gender right must start by being bold, by consciously considering gender issues and challenging the status quo. They must then acknowledge and embrace gender differences by recognising outdated, over-simplistic targeting assumptions that reinforce old decision-making paradigms. Progressive gender portrayals are where a brand can shine through the competition with aspirational and authoritative characters. Because women and men can respond differently to the same ad, brands must develop creative with consideration of feminine and masculine needs. By ‘designing to the edges’, brands can create ads that satisfy both. Next, brands must assess their media targeting and optimisation by gender with an understanding that women are less receptive to online media and greater efforts need to be made to engage them. Finally, with the acknowledgement that gender progress is a journey, committed brands can be best served by comprehensive gender progressiveness programmes, where effectiveness can be monitored and measured.

Gender is a delicate topic. Whether brands take a stand for gender or make more subtle changes, brand communications are due a rebalancing, through a re-examination of targeting, portrayals in advertising, response to creative and media targeting. This new, different equilibrium is an opportunity for marketers to provide benefit to brands, consumers and society.

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