A hopefully-exhaustive summary for the apparently-perplexed:
Q — When should I use gender tropes in pitching my product and in the targeting or tailoring of my marketing?
A — Never.1
1: That should do it for this topic. It isn’t complicated. We shouldn’t need to keep having this conversation. Seemingly inevitably, though, it came around again just recently and doubtless it will do so once more soon enough. I’ve been in the beer-selling business for a decade now and I’m still not sure things are improving. So fine. I’ll elaborate, if I must.
Last week, for example, New World (a local supermarket chain) started pushing Facebook ads introducing the winners of various categories in their recent beer and cider awards. One beer was pitched “for your mate”, another was “for your boss”, while the only cider featured was suggested as “for the missus” — falling into the boring old stereotype that cider is for women while beer is for men. To their credit, the PR team yanked the ad very quickly and sent the marketing people back to do it over — and they avoided resorting to the usual ‘nonpology’ formula of “sorry if you were offended”. But in a conversation with their representative they ran the line that there’s a long debate to be had on a role of gender in advertising, on which many points of view can be held — which is understandable and even predictable for a PR firm, but still a little depressing and worth addressing, because there really is nothing to this. Relegating my reasoning to a footnote is my little protest.
My argument is fairly simple: you should only rely on gender in the marketing of products which are sought out or consumed in a way that implicates gender. And there are vanishingly few such cases. So unless there is a pressing need and unarguable relevance, just leave gender out of the sales pitch.
I remember an old piece of advice (offered jokingly to marketers on funny-because-true grounds) along the lines of condoms and tampons being the only things that need to be advertised with gender in mind, but even that falls apart when you think more deeply about the real world — and if “genitalia ≠ gender” is news to you, then a) you should get out more (if you need it, there’s an excellent explainer over at the Wireless), and b) you are distinctly unqualified to market things that involve either. Gender is a social concept, and doesn’t really tell you anything else about the person or what they like or what they do. The only references that work are very thin ones: pitching a World’s Greatest Dad mug as a Father’s Day gift makes sense, but dad-ness doesn’t imply that beer would be a better present than cider or wine or whisky.
The needless gendering of cider has an extra layer of Boring Old Sexism to it, but all of the ‘pitches’ in New World’s campaign fail (as ads) for precisely the same reason. There’s nothing about someone being “your mate” that suggests they’d like an imperial porter. People just don’t use their demographics to enjoy things. They use their senses and their surroundings. There are plenty of levers there on which to hang an ad or an enticement: the porter is for lovers of chocolate, or sharing over dessert, or for the depths of winter — just to cite three easy and obvious first drafts. (Replacement ads for New World’s campaign quickly surfaced that centered on food matching. It’s not difficult.)
Any marketing effort that hinges on dividing people into product-irrelevant categories and slinging random suggestions at them is doomed. Doubly so if it resorts to something as culturally-weighty and totally-unrelated as gender. You’re giving up on more than half the population; abandoning not just the ‘other’ gender, but also people who don’t comfortably fit in either of the usual two, and not-insignificant numbers of your official target demographic who are just squicked-out by such heavily-loaded ways of talking about innocuous things. I’m a heterosexual man and I don’t go anywhere near products that are branded with truckloads of overt masculinity — like iced coffee or potato chips or whatever the hell it is this week. The disconnect just seems so sad, when it isn’t outright aggravating.
Statistics is then the last refuge of the clueless, here. People will rush to defend a company marketing their fruit beer or cider in clumsily feminine terms on the grounds that that’s what women do buy. These claims are typically woefully short on actual data, and even though I don’t have any of my own to pre-empt that particular battle I can honestly say that years of bartending leaves me skeptical there’s really much to it. Women drink beer. Men drink cider. Women drink whisky. Men drink wine. None of these things are news. Any patterns are certainly not so drastic that it makes commercial sense to lock them in, rather than try to broaden your reach. Mystification at having their money often ignored was a common theme from the four beer-loving women who took over the podcast here a while back (the episodes are here and here). And even if there’s a gender-based pattern in some direction in some subset of the market, does it seem more likely that generations of boring old sexist advertisers have discovered a scientific fact about flavour preferences — or that they’ve gradually created the very thing they’re now citing to hide behind? I have my suspicions. An agency resorting to these ways of characterising their customers are unimaginative throwbacks who succeed only in the relatively-rare combination of doing bad ethics and bad capitalism at the same time.
Helpful and non-horrible beer marketing is easy: focus on the drink, not your weird assumptions about the drinker. It’s not about “not offending people” — although being a decent human being is certainly a welcome bonus — it’s just a matter of providing information people can actually use, rather than noise derived from old habits. Tell us the story of what you’ve made; talk about flavours and process and provenance. We’re quite capable of taking things from there and deciding whether or not we’d like to try it.
Free-floating thanks — since I can hardly use any real footnotes now, after that initial gag — are owed to Jess Ducey, Steph Coutts and Megan Whelan (the latter two of whom can be heard on the aforementioned podcast takeover) for their very-helpful feedback. I shall buy them each a beer. Or a cider. Or whatever the hell they’d prefer on the day.