In the early days of media, ad agencies geared their ads toward men. After all, men traditionally served as the primary breadwinners in their families, and women were less likely to work. By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as more and more women took to the workforce, advertisers had to rethink this strategy. Wharton Business School estimated in 2007 that women spend roughly $4 trillion a year, which represents about 83 percent of consumer shopping dollars [source: Wharton Business School]. Statistics like these have left ad agencies scrambling to create ads that appeal to both men and women.
Critics argue that early efforts to reach women through advertising were less than effective. Even female-focused ads often were created largely through a "male gaze." The male-dominated advertising industry seemed determined to develop ads based on what men thought women wanted to see, rather than what actually drew women to products. Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign is celebrated for breaking through this mold, and for using real women to present products to, well, real women [source: The Art Institutes].
Of course, even the most carefully planned ads only work if people watch them. Viewers learned to tune out at the start of commercial breaks, so advertisers resorted to shocking ploys to attract viewers' attention. One strategy involves the use of gratuitous or sexual images to draw the viewer in. After all, sex sells, right? There's no question that these ads capture the attention of both men and women, but sex doesn't necessarily lead to sales.
Researchers from a 2011 study at the University of Minnesota found that, predictably, women were more attracted to nonsexual ads, while men viewed sexual ads in a more positive light. Some researchers believe that this can be attributed to men's and women's differing attitudes on sex and relationships. Men generally see sex as more casual or recreational, but women see it as related to their relationships [source: Dahl et al].
To test this theory, the researchers had participants view ads that showed sex in the context of committed relationships. For example, consider a jewelry commercial where a man gives a women an engagement ring, and they passionately embrace. When viewed in this context, women responded favorably to the ad, but men expressed negative opinions. This study suggests that sex sells, but only to men, and that women prefer sexy ads accompanied by love, commitment or relationships [source: Dahl et al]. This leaves advertisers with the challenge of how to market products to either gender without creating negative associations with members of the opposite sex.
Studies have shown that men and women take different things away from commercials. For example, women assimilate more information from a 30-second spot than men do; without any additional effort, they are able to pick up more nuanced information. Men aren't bothered by confrontational, competitive ads with loud and fast music, but women are. Women need to see a commercial several times in order to try a product, but men don't need as many viewings. Men and women can also tell when an advertisement is directed toward their gender, and while women will buy brands that are both masculine and feminine, men will steer clear of the female-oriented brands.
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