Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014
Above all else, align with customers. Win when they win. Win only when they win.
Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon, 2012
The advertising agency
It was a summer’s day and the advertising agency was ready to unveil its concept boards for clean energy. This was a niche agency with creatives from some of the UK’s top agencies and they had invited outside experts who could offer their opinions on the marketing campaign. The young creatives sported open-necked shirts and trainers while the client, a natural energy producer — a visionary who had devoted his life to harnessing energy from renewable sources, was dressed in a light linen suit. Everyone waited expectantly for the white sheets to be removed from the boards around the room.
Commanding the show was the advertising MD, a casually-dressed man in his early 40s with sleeves rolled up. He stepped back while his assistant, a slightly younger man, took centre stage. “We have sourced images which will impact strongly on the energy consumer,” he explained, “and our aim is to effect a significant consumer shift from regular energy suppliers to greener sources.” The sheet from the first board was removed. It showed an image of the founder of the company gazing out at the grey wind turbines that stood immediately outside the window of his empty sitting room. The MD then moved to the second concept board. The sheet was ripped away to reveal a wave of energy decorated with numbers illustrating the Fibonacci sequence, the elegant mathematical formula that lies behind many of the structures of the natural world.
The MD then moved to the final image and a flourish of the hand unleashed a gasp from everyone in the room. All eyes were on a foetus with a gas mask, which was floating in the dark stratosphere encased in a bubble. This was the chilling future awaiting consumers if they did not buy into green energy.
“Any questions?” asked the MD as he looked around the room, focusing his gaze on the cluster of experts in one corner. With this clear invitation to the experts to contribute to the discussion, my hand shot up. “Yes, who are these ads aimed at?” Glances were busily exchanged as it became clear that this question was not anticipated in the briefing notes. As the seconds ticked by and the silence became burdensome, I asked myself how advertising messages could be created without a clear idea of the target market. Yet here was an advertising MD with an excellent track record feeling perfectly fine about presenting ideas which needed no external reference point. Is this acceptable practice or not? Is the creative an artist or a craftsman who adjusts his work to suit the desires of the customer?
The Importance of the customer
If you asked that question of American guru, Michael Hammer, the brains behind the concept of Business Process Reengineering (BPR), he would be unequivocal in his answer. BPR taught businesses worldwide about the need to reconfigure their activities so that the customer was always centre stage, warning companies that business survival depends on shaping products and services around the “unique and particular needs” of their customer (Hammer, 1995). One of the results of BPR was to increase the salience of the customer in the eyes of business so Hammer might well have attempted to change the thinking of the solipsistic creative to become more customer centric.
This focus on the customer means that successful businesses are those that keep their customers in view and deliver products matched to their needs. The first step in this process is to identify who exactly is making the purchase decisions about a product, defining them as closely as possible. Traditionally, market research has defined the customer in terms of their social class, age and geographical location, but played scant attention to their gender. Now, after many years out in the cold, a fourth variable, gender, is receiving increasing attention. Some organisations are now taking an important step forward and asking whether their customers are men or women, although (as we shall see later) much market research is still rooted in variables such as age, class and location.
Arguably to ignore a person’s gender is to omit vital additional information and this explains why the first substantive plenary session of the 1999 Alpbach European Forum on economic and social trends — a symposium attended by business leaders and politicians — was dedicated to the issue of “gender differences”.
If you think about the posters that were unveiled, many elements there came straight out of the male production aesthetic — the fact that only a male figure was displayed, that there was an emphasis on the technical and on fear and faces without smiles — and given what we know of the mirroring of production and preference aesthetics, were likely to have strong appeal to the male creative and other men. The campaign would be excellent if this was the target market, but there was no data to check this against at the meeting.
Back in the office, I undertook a search and, within a short space of time, had some answers. Jan Pahl, an academic from the University of Kent and an expert on male and female expenditure patterns, confirmed that the rather dubious honour of settling household bills falls largely to women (2000). Unfortunately, Pahl had not studied the question of energy decisions but a Canadian survey conducted in 2002 by Daniel Scott of the Meteorological Service of Canada together with Ian Rowlands and Paul Parker of the University of Waterloo near Toronto provided a strong lead. Their study showed that men and women were equally interested in green energy, a conclusion which, if it holds true worldwide, has vast ramifications for the £400 billion a year global electricity market. This market has been opened up to global competition and a detailed understanding of customer demographics offers competitors a distinct advantage.
Against this background, it was clear that the marketing concept could have been substantially changed to appeal to the women in the market. “In what way?” you ask. Well, since we know that drawing female figures and smiling faces are both part of the female production aesthetic (revealed as we saw in Majewski’s 1970s study), and since we know that preferences mirror production aesthetics, it would have made sense to include these elements.
Was this experience just a one-off, a blip, or typical of the sector? If it is typical, we might all be asking: are there any guidelines on how things could be improved?
A look at the advertising industry was a good place to start.
The advertising industry
The worldwide market for the conception and development of advertising campaigns is in the area of $45 billion with three main advertising centres in the world, namely New York, Tokyo and London. The US market dominates and the UK is the fourth largest advertising market in the world in terms of revenues after the US, Japan and Germany. The UK advertising industry employs around 92,000 people.
Where gender demographics are concerned, a survey by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising of the media buying, advertising and marketing communications sectors showed that women make up approximately half of the workforce but only 15.1 per cent of managing directors or chief executives. According to this survey, the percentage of women at the top of the advertising industry has more than doubled from a low of 7 per cent in 1998, but increased by only one percentage point since 2004. Meanwhile, at lower management levels, the survey shows female representation in the industry to be under 30 per cent.
The results of this survey are not surprising since the picture it paints of low female representation in the higher ranks and in creative functions has been shown before. In 2000, for example, research by the UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising showed that while women’s presence as account handlers had increased from 27 per cent in 1986 to 54 per cent in 1999 (with women accounting for half of those in planning and research), just 14 per cent of art directors and 17 per cent of copywriters were women. In 2005, an article on advertising by the Observer features journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, showed the figures largely unchanged with 83 per cent of creatives quoted as men, a figure said to be worse than 30 years ago.
It is not surprising, given the male domination of the creative side of advertising, that commentator Jamie Doward should refer to women’s representation in creative roles as “a closed shop when it comes to bridging the gender divide.” It is not surprising, either, that Jamie should describe the creative arm of the advertising industry as one that “does not seem to be too keen on thinking out of the box on gender issues.” A contributory factor, according to a report on women in the advertisement industry by Debbie Klein, Chief Executive of WCRS, may be the “stereotypical laddish atmosphere which is said to be still very much in existence.”
So much for the UK. In the US, as we have seen, a 2002 survey of advertising staff by AdAge found that on average 35 per cent of creative staff were female. Even if this figure is almost twice that of women in creative roles in the UK, this is still a low figure. So, we can see that on both sides of the Atlantic, the creative side of advertising is dominated by men. As we know, the vast majority of consumers are women and a key question relates to how a person’s gender will affect their advertising preferences. A first step is to look at previous research and the next step to look at the views of advertising creatives.
Research on gender and advertising
In 2007, I conducted a study with Dr Rod Gunn and Sylvana Azzopardi of the University of South Wales looking at the advertising preferences of business people in Malta. We circulated a questionnaire on bank advertisements to members of professional and business organisations in Malta, hoping to get responses from at least one per cent of the 50,000 membership. Luck was on our side since we had replies from 510 people, 28 per cent from females and 72 per cent from males, and what their responses revealed was very interesting. For, there was a strong statistical tendency for the men to prefer simple factual and rational information (significant at the p<0.01 level) and an extremely strong tendency for women to prefer original advertisements (significant at the p<0.001 level). Interestingly, when dealing with advertisements with a reasonable level of originality, the men in the sample appeared to have greater difficulty understanding the message than the women with the differences in the male and female understanding also statistically significant (at the p<0.05 level).
Statistics may not be everyone’s idea of fun but they can be invaluable in highlighting tendencies. Certainly, this study was telling us that what men and women liked and understood in adverts were very different, showing that effective targeting of men and women would ideally involve different treatments in the adverts. This ignited my interest in seeing what other people had discovered.
Interestingly, one of the first studies that I came across dated back to the 1990s and was written by an American Professor of Marketing, Elizabeth Hirschman. Her message was a disappointing one since she claimed that women’s views were excluded from all but a small proportion of consumer research, a view echoed at the time by other male and female marketing academics. Hirschman was writing twenty years previously and I imagined that things must have changed since then, but I could find only one study that compared men and women’s reactions to adverts after 1993.
The study was by Sanjay Putrevu, Professor of Marketing at the University of Albany. This is a value-for-money study with three main findings. The first is that when encoding advertising claims, men concentrate on no more than one or two features (Putrevu, 2004) and so prefer advertisements focused on a single-attribute. Women, he found on the other hand, are more comprehensive processors, attempting to assimilate all available information before rendering judgement. This finding runs counter to the qualities displayed in a sample of adverts scrutinised in a 1997 study by Whissell and McCall, who found that advertisements in magazines aimed at men are more wordy and complex than corresponding advertisements aimed at women. This finding, if it reflects modern practice, suggests that advertising agencies have some way to go in applying these findings.
His second finding is that women prefer advertisements focused on the product and its relationship to its product category, what Sanjay Putrevu calls “category oriented ads”. He therefore recommends that advertisers should present category-oriented messages to a female audience, highlighting how the advertised brand compares with other brands; for a male audience, he recommends using attribute-oriented messages, emphasising those features that are unique to the advertised brand.
His third finding is that women have a preference for advertisements featuring harmonious relationships suggesting that adverts targeted at women should depict people in a collective rather than individualistic situation. The opposite would be the case for advertisements aimed at men.
These are pretty specific findings which lead him to the strident conclusion that: “there is strong and unequivocal evidence that men and women exhibit sharply varying reactions to identical print advertisements.”
In academic-speak, he neatly sums up his findings by saying that:
women specifically show superior affect and purchase intent toward advertisements that are verbal, harmonious, complex and category-oriented whereas men exhibit superior affect and purchase intent toward advertisements that are comparative, simple and attribute-oriented.
The implications for advertising agencies? Again, he neatly summarises these by saying that:
… this research suggests that men and women are likely to respond more favourably to messages that are in tune with their respective information-processing styles … men show a preference for advertising messages that feature competition and engage in brand comparisons, whereas women favour messages that emphasize harmony and show importance to self as well as others. Furthermore, men prefer simple ads that focus on one or a few key attributes, whereas women prefer complex ads that contain rich verbal and visual information.
The lesson for advertisers according to Professor Putrevu is to:
create gender-specific ad campaigns that feature differing levels of hard versus soft sell, as well as differing levels (and types) of verbal and visual information.
To what extent are advertising agencies producing the gender-specific adverts recommended here?
The world of adverts
Views on how well advertising is doing to appeal to its target market can be found on both sides of the pond. In the UK, Tess Alps, the Chairman of media agency PHD, says that men “just don’t value the kinds of ads that women write and that women like.” Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, describes how women in the advertising industry are working within a masculine culture that provides the framework to what they create and how they are judged. The shortage of female creatives is “absolutely bizarre and extraordinary” but trying to change things by parachuting women in will not necessarily solve problems.
Tom Jordan, former Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of HY Connect, a Communications firm with offices in Chicago and Milwaukee, writes eloquently about the fact that the male majority in advertising need to change: Writing on his blog, he says that, “It’s time all of us men stop looking in the mirror and start projecting what will appeal to women” — the people who according to his research influence 80—90 per cent of all purchases. No slacker, he has tracked women’s opinions on a multitude of existing and reconfigured adverts and written eye-opening commentary on the world of advertising and the processes in the industry.
A few opening examples illustrates his thinking. In 2008, Newsweek ran an advert for a car, the Mercury Sable, at a cost of nearly half a million dollars. The ad showed a front view of a moving, tilted black car on a brown road surface, with no landscape or driver or passengers visible. The single-line text to the right of the vehicle read “Proof our engineers are control freaks” and below, in smaller text were the words: “AdvanceTrac Stability control, a system that constantly monitors driving dynamics to help you stay on course.”
Tom reckoned that the ad would be ignored by virtually every woman who saw it — he doesn’t mention men’s reactions but I suspect that its simplicity and focus on key attributes would make it a real hit — and so created and tested a new advert aimed at women. The new one showed three frames: an image of a road winding through hills with the headline “How it is”; an image of a straight road winding through hills labelled “How it feels” and a final frame showing the stationary car outside the house, with a smiling woman embracing a small boy. Next to her was text reading “Experience the all new Mercury Sable with AdvanceTrac electronic stability control.”
Tom tested the original and new ads with various groups of women and his version outscored the original in “likability” and “intent to purchase” by about 8 to 1. Remembering Putrevu’s advice, you can see why Tom’s ad has greater appeal since it is visually complex, emphasises harmony and also importance to self and others. That is not all. Drawing on other research, including my own, you could highlight the presence of animate images (pictures of hills), smiling people (including a woman) and a stationary rather than moving car. The test results show how the presence of certain features in the ads can influence reactions, and this is where understanding the science of perception is so important.
Unfortunately, an online survey by Greenfield in 2002 found that over 90% of all women feel that marketers don’t understand them. Tom Jordan’s book Re-Render the Gender includes data on women’s reactions to a range of adverts, and a close look at three of these provides insights on the gap between current adverts and women’s preferences.
The first is an advert for superglue showing a toy model of an amputee soldier with an arm missing. Unfortunately, women hated this ad and it does indeed seem a strange way to endear yourself to women who may be looking for a glue to mend a teapot or the handle of your favourite coffee mug. A second example is a “Cup a Soup” advert featuring smartly-dressed parents being told by their son’s teacher that his problems are caused by the fact that: “Tim doesn’t get enough personal attention.” “Who?” asks the father, clearly confused as to the identity of the person in question. The final scenes show a personalised cup a soup mug emblazoned with the name “Tim” and father and son sitting together on a sofa, mugs in hand, and the father’s saying, “This is nice, Tim.” The humour in a father forgetting the name of his son was completely lost on the women who participated in the experiments to test reactions.
Likewise, an advert for Shredded Wheat (with real strawberries) was also lost on the women to the point that they actually took it to be a hoax! The advert features a man and woman in a kitchen — he is all-man wearing a wife-beater T-shirt while she is provocatively perched atop a kitchen cabinet in a short red dress and matching high-heeled shoes. Bearing a red bowl of cereal, the advert asks: “What satisfies a hungry woman?” Is the sexual innuendo needed for a product that can provide nutrition for the whole family?
Of course, you may be thinking that an advert like this comes from the dark ages of sexist advertising in the 1950s, but a sister advert with the same rhetorical question and a similar longhaired brunette appeared in 2008.
This time, the brunette is kneeling on a bed with a bowl of cereal in one hand and a spoon in the other. She is wearing a white nightgown with a red satin robe over her but falling off one shoulder. As in the other advert, her fingernails are the same colour red as is the bowl and a man is in the background, this time asleep on the other side of the bed.
Many of the products described here are from big-budget companies and you might be wondering how we end up with adverts like these. This is such an intriguing question that I asked Tom Jordan to sketch out answers in a chapter for a book I had been commissioned to write, Lessons on Profiting from Diversity. What follows is a glimpse into the extraordinary picture he provides of the advertising industry.
The truth about the advertising industry
Tom Jordan’s starting point is that 80—90 per cent of consumer purchases are made by women, serviced by an advertising industry in which over 90 per cent of advertising directors are male. The consequence is “advertising created by men and approved by men, that generally appeals mostly to men.” He goes on to say that to succeed: “women have to create award-winning advertising that appeals to men.” The big question, of course, is why a disconnect has been allowed to develop between purchasers and advertisers.
One of the reasons is the incentive to win a prestigious award at one of the international creative competitions, for example a “Lion” at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. Winning can enhance reputation, job advancement and salary, and so the big question is what it takes to be a winner at Cannes. The answer is simple according to Tom, an ex-winner himself: “You have to convince the incredibly hip, nearly all-male, nearly all-white judges that your commercial is so hip, so irreverent, so counter to traditional advertising that you deserve a Lion.” It follows that: “Ads are not viewed with an eye as to how effective they may be at reaching their target market but merely on their ability to entertain, influence and impress the judges of these festivals.” As if that is not bad enough, he goes on to say that: “the motivating factor for the advertising creatives is to become famous by doing advertising that is not advertising.”
“But,” writes Tom, “it gets even worse.” While waiting the whole year to see if any of their ads are worthy of international recognition, advertising creatives want their work to look worthy of publication in the award manuals. An example is Archive and Communication Arts, two publications printed quarterly that display the world’s most exotic and unusual creative work. You will find very little mention, if any, as to whether or not these ads helped build a brand or sell a product. As Tom says, “The functional purpose of the advertisement is of secondary importance to its artistic function,” explaining the constant battle to keep the logo small, the copy brief or non-existent and the concept edgy.
“But,” writes Tom, “still it gets worse.” According to him, there are schools that teach writers and art directors how to do award-winning work. These are known as ’portfolio centres’ since the students hope to leave with a portfolio of ads that will get them hired at medium to large advertising agencies. The schools, according to Tom, will teach its acolytes to follow their gut instinct rather than base their ads around facts supplied by the client.
The way ahead
Ultimately, it is clients who are paying for the agency’s work or taking on advertising, and change must be driven by them. A better advert that connects with the purchaser will achieve higher sales and greater profitability. It is in their interests to ensure that advertising does more than provide a royal route to success for the creatives and that they drive a change in thinking. In recessionary times, an advertising overhead that cannot justify its approach should be jettisoned and replaced in favour of something more effective.
An example of a trailblazing organisation is NBC Universal Networks International that has commissioned research for its TV station in Asia Pacific to better understand its female viewers. Christine Fellowes is Managing Director of its Asia Pacific operation and says:
We see the majority of our audience, who are women, scaling up in education, earning power and aspirations over the last few years. The ASEAN region has the highest proportion of women in senior management roles in the world — at 32% versus the global average of 21%. 31% of women in Asia are chief income earners and purchase over 60% of traditionally male products. It is fundamental that advertisers listen to the needs of this critical demographic and yet we hear from women that they don’t feel engaged by today’s ad campaigns.
The research, conducted by High Heeled Warriors, involved over 3000 female participants (aged 20—44) from Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Hong Kong, and five distinct segments were uncovered. Fellowes emphasises the importance of the research for the regional operation, “allowing us and advertisers to effectively engage with women across Asia.” To engage successfully would be a big win since Asia’s pay-television females are big media consumers.
As marketing experts know (or should know!) and as Ann Handley, author of Content Rules, has said, “knowing who you are selling to — and why and how they buy — makes your job a whole lot easier.” Handley is dubbed “one of the most influential voices in online marketing” but taking the next step and framing the product or service around what you can discover can try the patience of many. Take a trivial example. I was in the parking lot of the second biggest supermarket in Britain and discovered, for the second or third time, that there was nowhere in the long parking lot to return the trolley to (and get back the coin deposit) and that the trolley had to be taken the length of the parking area, back to the front of the store. If you had wheeled the trolley to your car at the back of the parking area, then this was an inconvenience you could do without. When I bumped into the store manager with this nugget of information — after all, solving it would lead to more satisfied customers — I had the usual array of reasons why this was not a priority. If organisations resist something as simple as this, how will they handle a shift in the way that products are marketed and advertised?
For, a shift like this could well involve a change in marketing and corporate culture and that can be very challenging. As Kathy Gornik, former chairwoman of the American Consumer Electronics Association, has said: “There’s a lot of inertia when things are done in a particular way. You are talking about having to change the entire orientation and culture of a company.” She is absolutely right but the prize awaiting companies who can do this is greater sales and more contented and loyal customers. A first step is understanding Hunter and Gatherer vision, and the next is the long and difficult journey of shaping recruitment and promotions so that they deliver advertising to match the preferences of the customer.