Why Are We Still Using Genders In Advertising?

Originally published in The Drum, Written by We Are Social U.S. Associate Strategy Director, Casey Hobgood

It’s 2022, and brands are still failing to address the whole spectrum of gender identities in their market research, campaigns and products. This can have devastating consequences for both the ignored demographics and the brand, explains Casey Hobgood, associate strategy director at We Are Social US. Hobgood lays out four strategies marketers can take to do better in the future.

Lately, it seems that the universal goal for brands is to be culturally relevant. Marketing teams are briefed to hyper-analyze content and brainstorm for how to make a brand resonate with their consumers. However, the root of the issue is continuously overlooked: how can you make a brand culturally relevant when its audience segments don’t accurately reflect the culture we live in?

The truth is that advertising is not evolving as quickly as people’s mindsets are. This is seen most drastically when brands continue to define audiences by only ‘male’ and ‘female.’ It sounds like an easy fix: “Just make content gender neutral.” However, the problem starts in the research phase. When people are filling out surveys or forms, they are usually faced with the choices of ‘Male’ or ‘Female,’ and in some cases ‘Other.’ To people who identify as non-binary or another definition outside of society’s limiting parameters, they are faced with yet another instance of feeling uncomfortable and isolated.

So, what happens if we ignore non-binary identities in research? Well, the results can be dangerous. Platforms and advertising tools can exclude non-binary people from ad targeting, which encompasses not only product-centric and branded ads, but also advertising related to housing and jobs. Additionally, when genders are lumped into catch-all terms such as ‘Unknown,’ research can become misrepresentative, and it is left to the analyst to develop audience profiles. This could include bucketing people by how they behave and what their interests are, but unfortunately, when adding context to an audience, this practice lends itself to unconscious gendered bias (eg shopping is often paired with women’s profiles and sports with men).

This unconscious bias can hinder our ability as marketers to source influencers, develop targeted ads and make content. For influencers, third-party tools are slow to catch up, with many search filters limited to either ‘male’ or ‘female.’ This leads us to our own perceptions when wanting to source content, and in so doing assuming someone’s identity based on appearance. As mentioned before, ad targeting is where this problem flourishes the most. Not only are groups excluded from receiving ads, but audiences are created with interest profiles based on assumptions of that group. For example, if a brand wanted to target men in their ads, the interest-based targeting will most likely lean toward stereotypical ‘masculine’ interests, leaving out significant communities that could also benefit from a brand’s product or services.

In an evolving society, we are left with a huge question to face: do we really need gender in research and advertising? We live in a society now where 56% of people in the US know someone who identifies outside of binary pronouns and 25% of gen Z expect to “change their gender identity at least once during their lifetime,” according to an article by Lisa Kenney. Even though culture has progressed tremendously, and people are more comfortable than ever embracing their true selves and accepting others, brands are still making writing pens and pink toolboxes for women, toy cars for boys and dolls for girls. What can we do? Here are four actions that marketers can take immediately:

1. Determine if gender is necessary

A good place to start at both the brand and social level is to ask the following questions before starting a project. Firstly, does gender really matter for the product or brand? If not, leave out gendered words. If so, adjust content to include inclusive messaging so communities that could find value in this brand or product don’t feel ignored or excluded.

2. Push clients in the right direction

The most immediate and impactful action for brands to take is to commit to eliminating gender from all strategies unless it is a product that specifically requires gender. On the agency side, it is marketers’ responsibility to recognize these opportunities to push brands in a forward direction, and ensure that strategy and content accurately reflect the culture we live in.

3. Audit research tools

We also know that the root of non-binary representation from brands starts at the research and survey phase, and people should be given the choice to include their identity. Agencies should audit their current research tools to make sure they have a mix of platforms that can give a more holistic view of gender qualifiers.

4. Continuously educate ourselves

While becoming more conscious of the use of gender in advertising, it can be overwhelming to ensure we are aware and inclusive of all the identities used. Marketers have the difficult and also exciting responsibility of starting the wave of change by adjusting research practices and educating brands. Although this isn’t a change that can happen overnight, hopefully those that have felt alienated and misunderstood won’t have to wait too much longer for the rest of the world to catch up to them.