How Advertisers Fail to Connect With Women
BY Jules Pieri
Gender bias is still popping up in Super Bowl ads and Hollywood. Can this be changed?
In a sea of lackluster Super Bowl advertisements, there was not a lot of inspiration (or inflammation) in this year's broadcast, I think. Sure, the quirky appearance of Bob Dylan turned heads, and the cancer survivor spotlight by Chevrolet was refreshing. But even GoDaddy was uncharacteristically tame. The retro-vibe Bruno Mars halftime show was supersweet, too. And then…
Yet another car ad began in the third quarter, with a preteen girl and her father riding down the road. Dad tells "Darcy" that their car just hit 100,000 miles on the odometer, and the girl says "So?" He replies, "What if I told you that every time a Volkswagen hits 100,000 miles, a German engineer gets his wings?" The spot cuts to a series of brightly lit and modern Volkswagen factory scenes featuring dozens of engineers at work, some of whom randomly sprout wings. Kind of cute, right? Yes, except that if "TV dad" wanted sharp little Darcy to feel impressed by his choice of cars, he would want to look a little harder at the company creating them.
According to Volkswagen, with its army of engineer examples in the spot, only men can be proper Volkswagen technical employees. Among the sea of white lab coats, there is a single woman who might be an engineer, but we will never know, because her only role in the ad is to swat a male engineer she thinks is hitting on her. This is what Volkswagen wants us to know about its employees and management values? (And I am overlooking the wing/penis-size bathroom joke in the ad.) Hey, Volkswagen: It is 2014, at least in the U.S.A.
With all the focus on girls entering STEM fields, with 14 percent of American engineers being women (according to a congressional report), and with the odd juxtaposition of the Super Bowl ad for the girls’ engineering-toy startup Goldieblox, Volkswagen came off as if it just crawled out from under a rock.
But lest we too quickly blame the Germans, we have some work to do at home, in our second-largest American export category: entertainment.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has uncovered that, "from 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce."
Job depictions aside, we like to believe that girls and boys are equally represented in media, but the Geena Davis Institute uncovered that: "Even among the top-grossing G-rated family films, girl characters are outnumbered by boys three-to-one. That's the same ratio that has existed since the end of World War II. For decades, male characters have dominated nearly three-quarters of speaking parts in children's entertainment, and 83% of film and TV narrators are male. The Institute's research indicates that in some group scenes, only 17% of the characters are female."
The bottom line for either a Super Bowl ad or a movie is that children learn to accept the stereotypes represented. Sure, we can boycott films, as I am doing for The Wolf of Wall Street despite the fact that I would truly like to complete my Oscar-nominations checklist. But even acknowledging that the men might be the real buffoons in the movie, I can't bear to watch women relegated to bimbo status for so many hours. Life is just too short.
But back to the Super Bowl ad. For most of us, housing aside, our car is our biggest purchase and personal asset. Women influence more than 80 percent of U.S. automobile purchases. For Volkswagen to come out with this indirect slam of its core consumer (we will take your money, but don't think about getting a cool job here), this ad was just plain bad business. Even if you assume the distant German management had undue influence on this creative direction, what American ad agency would credibly advise its client that this all-male cast would inspire its core U.S. consumer to see Volkswagen as a modern company?
I can only shake my head and root for the Chevrolets and Chryslers, which managed to produce Super Bowl ads that engaged instead of alienated. In assessing contemporary companies and our consumer and career choices, advertising provides one lens on their internal structures and beliefs that are otherwise hard to discern from outside. I guess, to judge by Volkswagen's Super Bowl ad, the company does not believe that little Darcy will ever want a job so she can buy its cars.
As a small business owner, you can think abou this framework when you put together your marketing package - remember women have the power of the purse.
JULES PIERI is co-founder and CEO of The Grommet, a not-so-in-the-box company that launches undiscovered products and helps them succeed. The company’s Citizen Commerce platform is reshaping how consumer products get discovered, shared, and bought. Pieri was previously an industrial designer and a senior executive for Keds, Stride Rite, and Playskool. She is one of Fortune's 2013 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. Follow Pieri's blog. @julespieri