By Leah Jule Ritterfeld
[Pictures by Nicole Sterk]
Coming across female or male versions of products such as pink and blue packaged eggs and pickle jars or broga (yoga for men), brogurt (yoghurt for men), and mandles (“candles on testosterone”) is hilarious and it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could take them seriously. But the strategy behind these gendered products is actually an extremely effective way for companies to sell more products at higher prices. And we totally fall for it.
The strategy is referred to as market segmentation, meaning that a company splits its consumers up into smaller groups for which they meticulously customize their products. Sounds smart, doesn’t it? Well, it is; in the US, the gendered market segmentation strategy empties wallets by roughly 2000$ per year. However, gendered market segmentation isn’t just misleading us into spending more money, it is also reinforcing an unnecessary gender binary. It ostracizes individuals that simply do not fit into our binary definitions of gender. While this has received quite some criticism lately and many companies (especially in Europe) have started replacing a large amount of their gender-typed products with more neutral products, the underlying reasons for why this strategy remains to be so successful are still in place.
The sexed segmentation strategy
Market segmentation is usually based on distinctive features such as interests, demands, age, or gender. The problem is that over the last few decades, companies have focused all too much on market segmentation based on gender. This means that almost every product was developed either for women or men. For example, when parents look for toys for their children, it can be difficult to find gender-neutral coloring books, clothes, pens etc. It’s as if the placement of a pink headband on a bald baby’s head is a demonstration of the parents that assures everyone around that the baby is definitely a girl.
But this demonstration of gender sadly does not stop after childhood. Men and women buy razors in either blue or pink and shaving cream with either clear geometric patterns or a floral motive. Cosmetics are not only meticulously categorized in their colors and packaging but also use descriptions like “for men”, “4 him”, or “for women”. Even drinks are grouped into “diet coke for women” and “coke zero for men”, with slogans such as “diet cola for men: it’s not for women”. The content usually remains largely the same. So, why is this so effective? Why do so many people stay in their gendered zone and keep buying products intended for their gender?
Products as props to affirm our identity
Our gender is only one of many variables that shape our identity. But because society has developed such clear roles and corresponding rules for each gender it is a very dominant and reliable component to base our identity on. It enables us to question ourselves less because we can stick to the predetermined norms and guidelines of our gender, making us feel like we fit in. To fulfill and enhance this gender identity, we use props as gender identity markers because they display and confirm our gender to others. Gendered products materialize our gender identity and can be seen as a tangible affirmation of our aspired identity.
What happens when men exclusively buy masculine products and women buy feminine products? Especially when this trend starts covering almost every item that can possibly be bought? And when men and women start relying all too much on material props for their identity? I believe that this leads to an increased gap between men and women. The roles that we expect each gender to conform to radicalize. In many Western societies, the notion of gender not being binary but best being described as a spectrum is receiving increasingly more acceptance. Still, it makes it easier to classify ourselves and others when we have only two options. This is therefore still (often unconsciously) done. A pressing problem with this categorization of men and women is that they are often not presented as equal. And this is reflected in the products. For example: pink princesses versus blue kings or gorgeous girls versus brilliant boys.
Evidence shows that especially men persist on using products specified for their own gender. This could be explained by the persisting remains of patriarchy in our society, which leads to the female sex often being (implicitly) viewed as the lesser sex, compared to the male sex. And since most successful and rich people are men, it appears to be embedded into men’s aspirations to achieve a certain degree of masculinity. This can for instance be accomplished through consumption of masculine products and rejection of feminine products.
When companies divide toys by gender while renouncing boys to be the doctors and kings and girls to be the nurses and princesses it promotes the conception of the two sexes indeed being not only divergent, but also on a social hierarchy wherein the female sex is subordinate. Young girls will grow up in a world in which they taught that their physical appearance is of first priority. Since products play a significant role in our daily lives we are all greatly influenced by the dichotomy presented to us and the associations this creates.
Wasting money on pink and blue
Through cooperating with this segmentation strategy by continuously buying products for our own gender we actually spend more money. For the most part, gender neutral products are much cheaper than gendered equivalents. For example, Signal toothpaste used to be “for the whole family”. Then they decided to bring out a version for women and one for men. The masculine toothpaste cost 40% more while the feminine one cost 70% more! This pattern can be found in most comparisons between gender neutral and gendered products. Studies have shown that especially women are affected by this because it is usually the feminine product that is more expensive. In the US it is estimated that they spend around 2000$ a year more on gendered products.
Additionally, many products, especially in cosmetics, are hard to find in a gender neutral version. Because we only ever even consider the products verifying our own gender and those that are explicitly labeled for it, we might be spending more than we want to.
Rethinking this “categorizationalism”
The more people are aware of this dichotomy and less mindless we shop, the more pressure companies will have to apply different strategies of appealing to their customers. When I first wrote this article more than two years ago I predicted the following: If there are enough critical thinkers who are willing to boycott this gender poppycock, I believe that companies will start to rely less on gender and focus their products on other variables. I would greatly prefer it if companies would distinguish their articles based on other variables such as interest or functionality.
Today, only two years after I first dug into the topic of gendered products, I observe an immense change and can conclude that the omnipresence of gendered products has immensely decreased. When deodorants today still have both a feminine and a masculine version, this distinction is much less striking, on both the packaging and the descriptions. Even in children’s clothes and toys, there are many more neutral, less stereotypical products. Instead of buying a pink vacuum cleaner, I see more mothers buying puzzles and board games for their daughters. The candy bags that used to be available only in glittery pink for girls and hard blue for boys can now also be found in neutral versions. Yes, there are still many products that are described as being for boys or for girls (interestingly, especially the latter!). But the development over the last few years is powerful and can be interpreted as mirroring the changes in our society at large. Wow. Who would have thought two years ago, that this essay would end on such a positive note?
Leah Ritterfeld is contributing editor of Raffia. Currently, she studies psychology and works as a student assistant at Radboud University. This article is an adaptation of an essay written for the psychology bachelor.
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