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Exploring the issues of gender and stereotyping in marketing

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Image: Victoria CrittendenVictoria Crittenden

Victoria Crittenden is the Chair of the Marketing Division at Babson College. Previously a member of the marketing department faculty at Boston College, she served as department chair for nine years and chair of the MBA core faculty for three years.

She holds a Doctor of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Arkansas.

Her research in a wide range of marketing strategy topics (including sustainability, family business, ethics/corruption, emerging economies, cross-functional decision-making and direct selling) has been widely published.

Articles by Victoria Crittenden

Line Logic™ on the bow tie

From the Journal of Product & Brand Management

View the Journal of Product & Brand Management Table of Contents.

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Sexism and gender stereotyping occurs in a wide variety of products and services and can start as soon as we receive our first toy as infants. One of the most prominent examples of research to hit the press in the 21st century is that of gendered children’s toys, which suggests that this stereotyping has an effect on how a toy is perceived and who is meant to purchase it.

An example of this research, from The National Association for the Education of Young Children, explored the notion of gender-typed toys, children, and play. Unsurprisingly, Professor Blakemore, one of the team of researchers, concluded that girls’ toys were often related to physical attractiveness, nurturing, and domestic skills and comparison, the boys’ toys were rated as violent, aggressive, competitive, exciting, and dangerous. But sexism and gender stereotyping is not limited to the toy aisle, and follows society into adulthood.

The sexualization of culture, in particular the sexual explicitness of women, has long been a component in the marketer’s toolkit in the discourse around consumerism. The power of the “gaze”, initially a phrase coined by Laura Mulvey in the early to mid 1970s, is evidenced throughout marketing approaches to reaching consumers. That is, provocative advertising depicts sensuous looking men and women, lounging against beautiful cars, flirting with various scents, or eyeing one another over drinks, with subtle gendered differences.

Interestingly, marketing is often blamed for the stereotyping of the sexes, particularly since market segmentation is a key component of the marketing concept that is taught very early in the core marketing course. However, many observations about gender are constructed societally, and marketers utilize their understanding of human psychology and demographics to tap into the personal gender demographic of the targeted consumer. This personal gender attribution tends to follow the traditional demographic norm of male and female, the two-sex system in our society.

Given this two-sex system norm, gender signals sent by marketers are so ubiquitous and routine that they are likely left unheeded unless brought to someone’s attention. Yet, consumers in today’s world are increasingly becoming more comfortable with grey areas instead of the two-sex stereotype. To that end, marketers also exploit sexual ambiguity to speak to homosexual consumers and straight consumers simultaneously, all while using both male and female bodies as objects of consumption. Thus, the consumer can apply whatever message is fitting for themselves and desired.

The practice of marketing means that we utilize representations, whether gendered or otherwise, and where visuals and sounds are tethered to the material world. The representations thus serve to imply meaning to the recipient of the marketer’s message about a product or service, and representations are entrenched deeply in our culture, with some variations according to geography and society. As the world evolves and segmentation of the population becomes more prevalent, marketing practices will become increasingly diverse.