Gender has become a very sensitive yet crucial topic of the time. Its definition has changed throughout the ages across social, cultural, political and commercial spheres. Some view it as a simple binary while others view it as a wide spectrum. Regardless of all the debates, it cannot be denied that gender roles in the society have evolved for both men and women as they are seen both working outside and in their homes.

In business, gender has gone beyond inclusion and diversity to focus on customer initiatives and ad campaigns. In the marketing sector, although high profile initiatives have been taken by countless companies, there are still a lot of companies who ignore the ordeal in fear of getting it wrong.

The challenges and risks will always be there and it all depends on whether the companies feel they have a purpose to stand up for what is right or avoid the risks altogether for the lack of such purpose. The real question that companies should be asking is whether addressing gender can create a better brand image for them resulting in a better brand growth.


Vast majority of marketers, who address gender, think that they are getting it right by avoiding gender stereotypes and creating balanced content but more female marketers think that they are missing a beat. On the other side, consumers also believe that marketers are not portraying genders properly. According to a recent research on this, 76% of females and 71% of males think that whatever is depicted on-screen, is far away from reality. In ‘Unpacking Gender Bias in Advertising’, a thorough analysis of 2000 Cannes Lions films from 2006 to 2016, it was found that men speak seven times the amount women do in ads, get four times more screen time than women and are 62% more likely to be shown as ‘smart’. Unfortunately, this data comes from the best in advertising despite being disturbing.

Brands have gone through embarrassing climb downs because of gross stereotyping but that never resulted in losing much of customer loyalty and market share. Consumers, especially female customers, want brands to do better in this field to balance the status quo in advertising to better connect meaningfully with them.


Although marketers are confident that they are creating content that feature men and women as positive role models, according to Kantar’s ‘Getting Media Right’ study, female marketers are less sure about the portrayals, especially when it comes to portrayals of men. Among ads featuring people, it was found that females appear in more ads (67%) than men (60%). However, Link ad testing data confirms that when they both appear, men are 38% more likely to be featured prominently than women. On the other hand, it was also found that ads featuring only women are less impactful than ads only featuring men.

More people think women are portrayed in an inappropriate way, rather than in the way that makes them think highly of the ad characters. Gender portrayals are not aspirational or authoritative for women or men. Women are more likely to be stereotyped as being likable and caring. However, those ads which do manage authoritative portrayals perform exceptionally well. Authoritative female characters motivate audiences more strongly, increasing believability and persuading people to buy; whereas authoritative male characters generate more branded cut-through.

In terms of sentiment response, observing how male and female characters are perceived, ads featuring female characters are seen to be less exciting, whereas viewers feel less affection towards ads that include prominent male characters.

There is also a matter of balance regarding strength with aggression to deliver bold, inspiring gender portrayals. To create such balance, a brand needs confidence as well as cultural sensitivity, especially in transitional cultural environments. For example, Nike’s 2017 #BelieveInMore campaign that was aired in the Middle East, Russia and Turkey – places where traditional acceptance of female athletes is low – depicted empowered female athlete role models. Nike tweaked the messaging to fit the local zeitgeist. Nike Middle East challenged social disapproval by playing off the ‘What will they say about you?’ tagline. Nike Russia leveraged a modified version of the traditional children’s rhyme ‘What are girls made of?’, inspiring them with greater strength and power, and Nike Turkey unabashedly celebrated its female athletes with ‘This is us’. All these executions were informed by in-depth research to understand the domestic markets.

Despite progress, gender portrayals in advertising remain stereotyped. Even marketers who acknowledge gender bias are may be blinded by the status quo, because they are delivering far fewer aspirational portrayals than they believe.


In terms of enjoyment, involvement and branding, no overall difference was found when responses to advertising in gender was reviewed. Even in the case where advertising was targeted to one gender, the result was the same. This implies that marketers could do better when they are targeting one gender.

There is a strong relationship between how well or how poorly ads perform among women and men. However, enjoyment ratings (a leading indicator of emotional response) for individual executions can vary by gender. Across universally well-liked ads and those preferred by one gender, research indicates that men and women may appreciate different elements. Among the few significant differences, it was found that women are slightly more likely to prefer ads that feature children, music and written message. They also favour ads where the prevailing narrative technique is slice-of-life.

While the research found that breaking stereotypes generates ad engagement via surprise, not every ad targeted to women, for example, needs to have a female protagonist, or vice versa. In fact, the key is that the story reverberates with everyone. However, the result can be something that simultaneously also serves those at the other extreme better by ‘designing to the edges’ and pushing design to better serve the needs of extreme users. An inclusive design principle like this can make it possible for brands to cater to both masculine and feminine needs without the need of additional creative. Both men and women appreciated the typically masculine Adidas ad for the FIFA World Cup 2018 that showcased empowered female characters.

Marketers must have clear idea about where consumers view the brand on a gender progress spectrum and where the brand aspires to be. Moreover, this should be done before a brand can formulate an effective gender marketing strategy to reduce the risk of not getting it right. The six positions that a brand may be viewed as are: denial, difficult, fluctuating, followers, attainers and advocates. If a brand is perceived to be ‘Fluctuating’— one that communicates in inconsistent or conflicted ways when it comes to gender — will require greater, long-term investment to migrate to an ‘Advocate’ position, than one that is already perceived to be an ‘Attainer’. A large gap cannot be breached with one sweeping campaign. Brands that make this mistake typically receive backlash and criticism for inauthenticity.

For example, Audi’s 2017 ad aired in the US was a serious, hard-hitting piece entitled ‘Daughter’, where the brand spoke as an ‘Advocate’ but they received serious backlash as the brand was not perceived at that stage by the consumers. There are examples of better and more successful attempts in this regard. For example, Nissan Saudi Arabia’s #SheDrives campaign, where it was shown that whilst exhibiting socio-cultural sensitivity, the brand managed to send a message of leadership and support for the normalization of female driving in a country; where it has just been legalized by inviting participation from a woman’s male family members to give her the first driving lesson. The brand earned support from those who could have been its biggest objectors. On a different spectrum L’Oréal Paris, released their ‘Being a woman’ ad in more liberal markets as an ‘Advocate’ to promote progressive gender messages and challenge traditional binary view of gender by featuring transgender women.


The role of men and women varies from category to category but it should not be over-simplified. Even in a category where women are more commonly the primary purchasers, the decision-making, usage and influencing roles may have quite different gender profiles. Such roles are important for brand-building campaigns.

Gender should be a consideration in media placement and optimization. It is possible to plan for and trade against gender-specific Gross Rating Points (GRPs). These capabilities are strongest in the digital space, where ads can be 100% gender-targeted. On TV, although most ads are bought against both genders, some are bought against a single gender, often women. Gender targeting is more commonplace in print, where very gender-skewed readerships are available in certain lifestyle magazines. But it is generally tougher to control with outdoor advertising.

Regardless of precise media placement, brands need to be aware that media ‘spill-over’ occurs and messages will be shared by consumers. As such, media control can’t be relied upon to contain communications which might be bigot or offensive.


Beyond an acknowledgement of gender issues in marketing, accurate targeting, non-stereotyped gender portrayals and appropriate media placement, businesses need to weigh in more deeply if they expect to reap the benefits of a more balanced approach.

Leading businesses like Diageo, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever support initiatives like the Unstereotype Alliance, which is committed to eradicating harmful gender-based stereotypes, and ‘Free the Bid’, which is devoted to disseminating the creative content production pipeline. Moreover, they promote multiplicity internally, that fosters an aligned culture for inclusively serving customers.

Again, Proctor & Gamble helped change perceptions and behaviour around domestic roles in India, where 70% of children believe it is the woman’s job to do the laundry, through its award-winning Ariel #ShareTheLoad campaign. The brand sent a powerful message without alienating men. Furthermore, ANZ bank in Australia used their #EqualFuture campaign, concerning the gender pay gap, to demonstrate that good advertising can tackle sensitive gender topics head on. Fascinatingly, men were more apt to enjoy the ad, although women showed greater involvement.

Brands should understand that if their gender programs tackle the right things properly, they will not only get a good brand image but also clear business benefits for the company.


To get gender right, brands must start by being bold, by consciously considering gender issues and challenging the status quo. It is important for brands to acknowledge and embrace gender differences by recognizing obsolete, over-simplistic targeting assumptions that support old decision-making paradigms. Brands must develop creative with consideration of feminine and masculine needs considering the different responses to the same ad. By ‘designing to the edges’, brands can create ads that satisfy both. Finally, with the acknowledgement that gender progress is an expedition, committed brands can be best served by comprehensive gender progressiveness programmes. Because this is where effectiveness can be monitored and measured.

Gender is a subtle topic. It can be challenging at times to navigate without proper data. However, as a topic of discussion across social, political, cultural and now commercial spheres, it is a matter that can no longer be ignored by brands. Whether brands take a stand for gender or make more elusive changes, brand communications are due a re-balancing, through a re-examination of targeting, portrayals in advertising, response to creative and media targeting. This new, different equilibrium is an opportunity for marketers to provide benefit to brands, consumers and society.


N.B. This is an abridged version of ‘Adreaction: Getting the Gender Right’, a report by Kantar Milllward Brown.
Illustrations & visuals used in it are collected from the original report by Kantar Millward Brown, one of the world’s leading data, insight and consultancy companies, extracted from

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