What your data tells advertisers about your gender… and why it matters.

What your data tells advertisers about your gender… and why it matters. 3351 1832 Claire Hovey

Facebook is more than a pastime for idle thumbs; it’s a multi-billion pound selling platform for brands of all sizes. Facebook gathers all the information you leave behind when you use the site and builds a profile of you, the real human being. Advertisers choose the ideal audience for their ads, if you match the profile, Facebook shows you the ones they think will appeal to you. And one of the basic markers defining which ads you’ll see? Your gender.

Your gender is more than the box you tick

Facebook has allowed us to customise our gender since 2015, but while it’s a helpful tool for self-expression, it isn’t just the identity we give ourselves that counts. Our behaviour online, language and even our likes say something about who we are, and who is likely to succeed in selling us something.

A ‘man’s man’ who uses warm language and posts about his family often might have ‘female’ traits that don’t fit the 24-carat alpha male stereotype. A woman can like generally ‘male’ content and use assertive language and still be ‘all-woman’.

But advertising has traditionally been led by concrete stereotypes – the angry face of Mr. T, barking at men to ‘man up’ and ‘Get Some Nuts’ plays into the idea of what it is to be manly; strength, humour and toughness that defies emotion or fragility. It’s a lot of pressure to question a man’s masculinity in a bid to sell him a chocolate bar. But it worked. 

It worked for Snickers, it worked when Mark Wahlberg grabbed his rugged, unemotional and ultra-masculine crotch for Calvin Klein in the 90’s, and again when David Beckham bulged our eyes, and his seams, for Armani’s underwear range more than a decade later.

Ads for female pants, meanwhile, conform to a different social stereotype; the archetypal woman is submissive, physically flawless, sexualised, her gaze demurely averted from the camera (a stark contrast to the lads’ respective ‘straight-down-the-pan’ stares). Even when the sexes appear in ads together, the Gender Ads Project has found that men are still too often portrayed as dominant and women decorative.

The sinister side of stereotypes

While plenty of ads have chosen to break from the norm, it’s these two gender portrayals that have driven advertising for decades. Campaigning to the ad industry and the public accountability of social media have contributed to better ads, targeted at whole human beings rather than broad-strokes, 2D gender roles – but there’s still a way to go. Last year’s nostalgic campaign from shoe brand Stuart Weitzman, featuring three supermodels wearing nothing but shoes, faced a fierce backlash from campaigners and customers alike.

The Advertising Standards Authority have tightened the belt of regulation on ads that favour stereotypes too heavily, having agreed what was long-suspected, that ‘harmful stereotypes can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults’.

Does this mean that the days of men being portrayed as hapless dads, clueless at parenting and crap at housework, are over? Likewise, perhaps we’ll see more tampon ads in the vein of Bodyform’s ‘Blood’ – in which the red stuff is, well, red and not a blue, untrustworthy gloop, and women expect more from their menstruation than limiting their activities to wearing white jeans.

Generation Gender-Blend

And what about the kids? A study from California University found that gender preferences only showed up once kids actually learned what gender was, yet pink and blue birthday cards, toy aisles and clothing departments remain stalwarts of our high street.

While brands like Lego have made a concerted effort to appeal to girls by promoting STEM career goals, and Barbie has redefined the doll as a ‘boys toy too’ with their Moschino Barbie launch, UK campaign group, Let Toys be Toys still feels there’s room for improvement. After all, playtime is serious business, given that it’s essential to the development of a child’s cognitive and social progression, as well as their world-view of what it means to be a person before what it means to be male, female or anything else.

While John Lewis has made the biggest recent splash by shaking up the labelling of their kids’ range, they are in fact far from setting the gender-blending trend. Disney did it with Halloween costumes in 2015, redefining their range ‘for kids’ (though their thumbnails remain occupied by boys in hero costumes and girls in princess dresses).

Zara, Selfridges and Urban Decay all followed the androgynous suit with their Ungendered ranges last year to significant success. But only recently, a female Swedish model has received torrents of abuse online after appearing in an Adidas campaign with unshaven legs, proving that resistance to breaking away from gender stereotypes is still alive and well.

Millennials and Generation-Z are more loyal to brands they care about than any generation before them. At the same time, they’re largely shrugging off hard-and-fast definitions of gender. It’s no surprise, then that brands are turning to behavioural data to better understand their audiences, and how they can use gender to sell to them in the future.

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