Brands are struggling to keep up with the gender and inclusivity conversation, study suggests

New research by Omnicom Media Group finds marketers are lagging behind when it comes to authentic portrayals.

Picture: Thinkstock/Vaselena
Picture: Thinkstock/Vaselena

Brands: Tear up your gender guidelines and throw them in the trash—the rules have changed. Again.

According to new research by Omnicom Media Group (OMG), advertisers have been missing the mark when it comes gender portrayal, and they’re paying the price. It’s no longer about men and women, but rather masculinity and femininity. In other words, the gender conversation among consumers has moved away from traditional roles and towards inclusivity.

A comprehensive study by the agency’s Research Insights Solutions Expertise arm revealed that around 50 percent of men and 59 percent of women identify as not completely masculine or feminine.

"That was a surprising statistic, and I don’t know if that would have been the case a handful of years ago," said Pamela Marsh, managing director OMG’s Primary Research. "This has a major implication for marketers in that if they don’t start readjusting their playbook and they don’t start speaking to all types of masculinity or femininity, then they could clearly be missing the bullseye, i.e. about half of that gender population."

Marketers need to keep up with a changing society and tell the real stories of individuals in all their variety, she added. "That’s something they’ve obviously taken to heart when speaking to different generational cohorts or ethnic cohorts. It just seems as though it’s been a little slower with the gender stories, and perhaps that’s because gender’s always been framed as ‘man, woman,’ not ‘masculine, feminine.’"

The research, which involved a combination of qualitative and quantative interviews with more than 1,000 participants of mixed genders, ethnicities, religions and generations, found that 9 in 10 consumers feel that any societal role or behavior is appropriate for both men and women.

Nearly half strongly disagree with the statement that a woman’s primary role is as the caretaker of the home. And 56 percent disagree with the assertion that a woman’s primary role is as a man’s companion.

But brands continue to get it wrong, the study suggests. Nearly 40 percent of participants feel like advertising does not accurately represent all genders, and 30 percent said brands continue to misrepresent them and their gender. Think about the clear distinction in the language ads use to split gender, from perceptions of strength and power (cars, for example) to soft and delicate (like ads for body care products).

However, this offers opportunity. Around one third of consumers feel that gender inclusive advertising is starting to take hold. Brands would be missing the mark to play on a radical departure of gender norms—the approach needs to be subtle.

"There’s a fine line—they can risk alienating current consumers, but then they can also gain some new consumers," said Priscilla Aydin, associate director at OMG’s Primary Research, another of the study’s authors. "Brands have to juggle and figure out what the expectations of their target consumers are, how they want to be spoken to, engaged with and messaged to, and not be so in their face. They just want to have and feel this inclusion—whether you’re a man or a woman or masculine or feminine."

Survey respondents said Bud Light is already doing this. It’s "Bud Light Party" 2016 Super Bowl ad, for example, used comedians Seth Rogan and Amy Schumer to push inclusivity and fuse gender.

Other brands doing it the right way include Dove with its "Real Beauty" campaign, which showcased women many different sizes, ages and races in their underwear. Consumers are also behind Axe’s "Find Your Magic" campaign. One female participant said it appeals to her because "it shows that every man with his defects can still be attractive, without needing a perfect body."

The gender conversation has never been more alive. In fact, research suggests the topic is now on par with issues around racism. And what surprised the study authors is they found little to no difference across all the generations that took part (Millennial, Gen X and Boomer). Perhaps that’s because they all share the same major influencer—media. It’s right behind family and religion for what influences perceptions of gender, according to the study. It even beats out friends’ opinions.

Most consumers are optimistic that gender inclusivity will make great strides, and some even think parity has already been achieved. A total of 62 percent believe there will be no wage gap in the future, while 20 percent think this has already happened. Of those asked, 53 percent say equal career opportunities will be the norm soon, and 36 percent believe that’s already happened. Additionally, more than half feel there is equal representation of gender in the media.

However, the gender conversation put forward by brands goes deeper than the ads they produce.

"Consumers have major expectations about how a marketer should play in this space," added Marsh. "So taking a stand on gender doesn’t stop at advertising—consumers expect brands to practice what they preach, meaning that brands can address gender issues through their hiring practices, corporate culture, PR communications."

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