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Advertising to women

Women may account for as much as 80% of all consumer purchases - even in China - and are the target group for the majority of all advertising. So it is legitimate to ask why it should be necessary to treat them as special in some way.

There are, in fact, several reasons for doing so:

  • Women's roles in society have changed dramatically over the last 50 years, and many marketers' thinking has failed to keep pace
  • Women think differently from men, and this is not regularly factored into our communication planning; this matters because the creative departments of ad agencies tend to be populated by young males, who are not necessarily in tune with women's ways of thinking, though good creative ought to be able to empathize with such a major target
  • Too often women are portrayed in ads - whether targeted at men or women - in sexist, demeaning or stereotyped ways.

Women in society

The major change in women's roles in the last half of the twentieth century was the remorseless rise in the proportion of women who go out to work, regardless of whether they are married or have children. Bartos identified this shift in the 1970s, and developed what she called the New Demographics. This not only recognized significant differences between working and non-working women, but also a key split between women for whom work is a career and those for whom it is 'just a job'. The attitudes, motivations and buying behavior of these two groups differ markedly.

Along with the move into work has come the progressive breakdown of the traditional family, with rising divorce rates and children born outside marriage, so not only are women juggling work and home responsibilities, but they are also, increasingly, having to raise children on their own.

These and other factors have increased women's economic power, and although inequalities remain massive the overall effect has been to raise women'' importance to marketers in fields outside the woman'' traditional housewife role as domestic provider and shopper, into markets such as cars and financial services. This, and women's traditional liking for shopping, merely emphasizes the relative importance of women as a target market.

Changing roles, and changes in society as a whole, have led to changes in the overall level of women's confidence and, in some cases, the adoption of essentially male behavior: the 'ladette' and the career high-flyer have both adopted a range of masculine attitudes and behaviors.

Segments and typologies, mood and need

As Ogilvy & Mather pointed out in a qualitative study carried out in the early 1990s, women are complex. They found that housewives, in particular, tended to suppress aspects of their personalities and desires in favor of their role as family provider, but that under the surface there was a range of other personality facets fighting for recognition and satisfaction. This could be regarded partly as a reflection of need states, but arguably goes deeper than that.

A large-scale qualitative study across Europe identified a range of sub-segments across three life-stages; pre-family, motherhood and post-family, with mothers split into working and non-working. This suggests a total of at least ten sub-segments, all with rather different lifestyles and attitudes, merely as a starting point for analysis and research.

(Conversely, it is all too easy to carry out cluster analyses that throw up groups with trendy names. The point here is that these are usually a way of avoiding real understanding.)

Case studies illustrate a range of very specific segmentations which re-emphasize the importance of understanding women's relationships to specific categories and brands.

More broadly, researchers as far apart as Brazil and India have found it possible to divide women into three broad groups, which can be seen as key archetypes. In Brazil, they named these Cinderella, Carmen and Jane Fonda; in India, they were defined as relationship-dictated ('X's wife'), experience-seeking and achievement-driven. Archetype thinking can help to focus planners' attention on the key aspects of personality and behavior that could be targeted in advertising - an inversion of the idea of brand as archetype.

Modes of thinking

Psychologists have done a considerable amount of work examining both physical differences between the 'wiring' of the brains of men and women, and the consequent differences in cognitive and affective responses to different stimuli - including advertising.

Briefly, compared with men, and as broad statistical generalizations:

  • Women are more sensitive to details of relevant information, and tend to favor objective over subjective claims - but are better able to integrate emotional and rational considerations
  • Women take a broader view of life, bringing more factors into play when making decisions
  • Women tend to use language differently in different situations
  • Women are more adept at linguistics and idea generation
  • Women respond more positively to pictures and color.

The main implications of all this are that - contrary to most men's views - women are more likely to consider purchase decisions rationally, and think them through, than men are. They are sometimes more likely to read longer copy, and are happier with a discursive approach - though one of the few published experiments to examine this, in a direct mail context, suggests that long copy needs to be used with care.

Creative implications

Researchers and practitioners have worried for years about how to reflect women's changing roles and experiences in advertising. Clearly, there is substantial resistance to dated stereotypes, and some support for the use of more modern ones - and a growing resistance to stereotypes in general.

Obviously, what matters is achieving empathy with the specific audience targeted - which should go without saying. But, there is a wide variety of elements that appear in ads that can attract or turn off (most) women.

Wardle argues that ads that work well with women are those where women are defined by their personalities and feelings, rather than simply by roles or jobs, and ads that really understand (unlike much sanpro advertising) how the product fits into people's lives. Too often, women in ads play one of three roles - woman as cleaner, woman as carer or woman as sex object.

Clifton lists a range of factors that can help reach out to women in ads and, by extension, those that harm the process. She also provides some useful contrasts between male and female attitudes to relationships, sexuality and humor. Of course, as Bartos says, there is no single formula or recipe for advertising to women.


An indicator of the richness of the female market is the extent of the women's magazine market, and - to an extent - this is reflected in specific programming in other media, especially the internet, where portals like iVillage are highly successful. (Increasingly, as internet demographics trend towards the norm, women are an essential part of the internet audience)

Magazines are frequently noted as providing a discrete 'forum' for women to pursue their own interests and concerns, though it has been noted that men are significant readers of them, and the real momentum in the classic Wonderbra case was achieved via posters.

On TV, daytime spots are often quoted as ideal for reaching non-working mothers.


The major lesson from the considerable body of writing and thinking about advertising to women remains the basic rule of marketing; understand the consumer, and talk with her (in this case) in language appropriate to her needs, attitudes and mood. Empathy is key to success.

Additional resources on this topic can be found on warc.com


unknown, Admap. November 2002

Copyright © 2002 WARC. All rights reserved.