Female receptivity to online advertising is declining. Why?

09 Apr 2019  |  Hannah Walley 
Female receptivity to online advertising is declining. Why?

As a new Kantar study shows online ads are not reaching and engaging women as well as they could, Hannah Walley looks at the strategies to reverse the trend

There’s very little difference between male and female brains, but there are clearly differences in the way genders respond to advertising. Online advertising is 28% less effective among females than males in terms of brand impact, according to Kantar’s AdReaction: Getting Gender Right study. The reasons why an ad might work for one gender and miss the mark with another are complex, but there are ways brands can more effectively engage women online through better targeting, and portraying characters more progressively.

Kantar’s study also finds that fewer women think online ads are reliably relevant to them compared to men. Globally, more women skip online video ads whenever they can: 65% compared with 58% of men. They also prefer shorter video – 10 seconds or less – whereas men are more accepting of longer ads. Women strongly dislike formats that don’t offer them control, such as non-skippable videos.

Concerningly, the gender gap seems to be widening. While digital effectiveness among men has remained relatively stable over time, there has recently been a noticeable decline in effectiveness among women.

Understanding how genders respond to different ad formats can be used as a tool for optimising media targeting and improving ad effectiveness. Currently, online ads are not reaching and engaging women as well as they could.

As digital media spend continues to rise around the world, brands need to review how they’re marketing to women online.

The role of gender in media planning

Whether or not gender is a key component of audience definition, using it as a profiling variable at the targeting stage of a media buy could improve the accuracy of placements – for example targeting women in environments where skippable video formats are present as we know these work better among this audience.

Online receptivity and targeting for women can also be improved with smarter in-market optimisation. If copy testing shows strong skews by gender to specific ads, this can be reflected in the media targeting, along with other variables such as category interest. This is easiest for digital, where it can be done most accurately.

The way in which women are depicted in online ads also has a major impact on engagement.

The power of progressive portrayals

The representation of gender in advertising has become increasingly important, particularly in light of the ASA’s ban on stereotypes that ‘hold back people and society’. However, outdated portrayals persist.

Kantar’s AdReaction study revealed that while most marketers think they’re avoiding gender stereotypes in advertising, almost half of consumers feel they’re still not getting it right. The ad industry believes women are depicted as positive role models, but 76% of female consumers believe the way they’re portrayed is out of touch. More people think women are shown in a way that is inappropriate (45%) than in a way that makes them think highly of the characters (40%).

Most ads don’t feature the blatant stereotypes we saw in the sixties and seventies. However gender portrayals remain stereotyped, with 68% of all ads in the UK and Europe showing women as ‘likeable’ and/or ‘caring’. Very few present positive role models, with only 4% including an ‘authoritative’ female character. This is limiting campaign impact: ads starring people in positions of authority outperform others, increasing believability and persuading people to buy.

Women appear in more ads (67%) than men (60%) – perhaps because they’re assumed to make the purchase decisions – but when both genders appear, men are 38% more likely to be featured prominently.

This over-simplistic targeting results in lost opportunities to engage. In most households both genders are equally involved in decision-making; 93% of women and 87% of men consider themselves a ‘main buyer’ of groceries. This should be reflected in media plans and creative. However, 99% of UK ads for laundry products are targeted at women, as are 70% of ads for toiletries and food products.

Engaging women more effectively online shouldn’t stop at eradicating stereotypes. Brands must be progressive, turning traditional stereotypes on their head by being more inclusive, diverse and aspirational. There are a number of approaches marketers can take to deliver bold, inspiring gender portrayals across all formats.

Design to the edges. Brands can optimise ads across all genders by catering to both feminine and masculine needs within the same campaign. Men and women can respond very differently to the same ad, so marketers should always view creative through different gender lenses, and look beyond unfounded assumptions.

It’s not necessary to feature both men and women, while not every ad targeted to women needs to have a female protagonist, or vice versa. The key is that the story resonates with everyone. Adidas’s Create the Answer ad, for instance, makes a woman the hero in a very ‘male setting’ that features physical action and themes of competition and mastery. Kantar data shows that both men and women appreciate it.

Be bold. More aspirational and authoritative portrayals are needed for both genders. Brands should also actively challenge stereotypical emotional assumptions.

Test, test, test. Consistent ad testing which includes gender equality metrics will help brands understand how they’re perceived, avoid the worst mistakes, and learn how to optimise portrayals.

Be culturally sensitive. Marketers need to acknowledge that what might be a subtle message in one market can be a bold statement in another.

Nike’s 2017 #BelieveInMore campaign ran in markets where acceptance of female athletes is low, tweaking the messaging to fit the local zeitgeist. Nike Middle East challenged social disapproval with a ‘What will they say about you?’ tagline. Nike Russia leveraged the children’s rhyme ‘What are girls made of?’, imbuing them with greater strength and power, and Nike Turkey celebrated its female athletes with ‘This is us’. The executions were informed by in-depth research to understand the markets.

Be self aware. Marketers must be clear where consumers view the brand on a gender progress spectrum, and where the brand aspires to be. A large gap cannot be breached with one sweeping campaign. Brands that make this mistake typically receive criticism for inauthenticity.

Brands can do better to connect with women online. Assessing media targeting and optimisation by gender is a good place to start. They must also challenge the status quo in how women are depicted. Gender progress is not a one-off task. It’s a journey – and brands will be best served by implementing a comprehensive and ongoing progressiveness programme that allows effectiveness to be monitored and measured.



Hannah Walley is Joint Head of Media & Digital, Kantar

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17 Jun 2019 

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