Oct 20, 2009

Pink bits: the absurd world of gendered consumer products

Marketers have never abandoned the idea that men and women require their own ‘special’ products. Women’s products are often tinted pink and advertised with cuddly names and breathy female voiceovers. Insulting much?

Mel Campbell — Freelance journalist and critic

Mel Campbell

Freelance journalist and critic

Last week I blogged at The Stump about Hummingbird Blonde Lager, National Distilleries’ new beer “for the girls to enjoy”. It comes in a 250ml bottle for little girly hands and little girly stomachs, and is flavoured with “citrus” (which one? Who knows) to get rid of that nasty beer taste. “Australian women drink over 44 million cases of beer a year but there wasn’t one beer made especially for them,” said the pitch from National Distilleries. Um, perhaps women already believe beer is made for them. Women have historically expressed their desire to be treated with the same respect accorded to men by using the same consumer products. Women wearing trousers and riding bicycles were viciously ridiculed in the 19th century; in 1897, Cambridge University male undergraduates protested the admission of women as full university members by hanging an effigy of a female cyclist. But marketers have never abandoned the idea that men and women require their own ‘special’ products. Products directed at men tend to offer to make them physically, sexually and economically more powerful. Meanwhile, products for women are often pitched as ‘treats’ and emphasise the buyers’ appearance. Last year, I received an email from a publicist with the subject line: “Do you have the balls to try new Mother?” I politely replied, “Being a woman I don’t have balls, but I would be very curious to try your product.” The PR’s response? “Heheh it was a bit cheeky wasn’t it?” Cheeky? Dull-witted. Sexist. The blurb on the 500ml can itself advises it’s best drunk “freeze your nuts off cold”, adding: “When a mate turns up with a wussy-sized can, you can raise your MOTHER up and proudly say ‘did yours come with a man-bag?’” Needless to say, I’m drinking a can of the stuff right now with my handbag right next to me, and in no fear of freezing my nonexistent nuts off. Women’s ‘special’ consumer products are often tinted pink and advertised with cuddly names and breathy female voiceovers. I’m not talking about tampons, bras or other products used exclusively by women. These are things like razors, cars and mobile phones. The implication is that women are intimidated by technology unless it’s smaller, rounder, cuter and pinker. Y’know. Like a baby. Mobile phones are repeat offenders, from Motorola’s pink Razr (with matching pink Bluetooth headset!) to mirrored phones so you can check your lipstick. Possibly the most embarrassing was Alcatel’s ELLE-branded Glamphone, which was worn like a necklace in the ads. The female-run tech blog Popgadget often comes across the stupidest stuff. There’s a fully functioning mechanical toolbox and car kit in Barbie-pink, iPoppers earphones featuring sparkly jewels and cute teddy bears, and the Miss Army Knife (geddit?), which includes a needle and thread, perfume bottle and nail file. Most surreally of all is the Pink Ice Scraper and Furry Mitt for cleaning your car windscreen on frosty mornings. The scraper even has a built-in mirror… because all women like to look at themselves. Cars “for the girls” are also markedly different to other cars. Even though women regularly take monstrous 4WDs on school runs, the ads still overwhelmingly show them being driven boldly through wilderness… by men. Toyota even presents itself as the bold frontline defence against feminisation. By contrast, women in car ads tend to pootle around town, absent-mindedly leaving their chihuahuas on the roof in pink handbags or having Sex and the City-worthy o-gasms. The Honda Jazz commercials actually objectify women as cars, then have other sleazebag cars leer at them, both here and in London. We really need to call advertisers on the absurdity of their sexism. Fortunately, the delightful Sarah Haskins from online TV show infoMania does just this. My personal favourite is her segment on yoghurt, the official food of women. And with brand names including Formé (no fat) and Elivaé (with “digestive cultures”), it’s a product category that almost satirises itself.

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18 thoughts on “Pink bits: the absurd world of gendered consumer products

  1. Jim Sutherland

    Advertising is about increasing sales. By turning an inaminate object like a spanner / phone into a gender based object by painting it pink you increase your market.
    Also there is a legitimate difference in the product – I know my daughter would buy the pink toolkit in preference to the boring chrome set – its not a question of sexism, her personal choice is for brightly coloured consumer items where as I find the bright colours offputing.

  2. John Molloy

    This looks like something worthy of study at the Ponds institute. Also, while on the subject, why do men need their own skincare product, Nivea? Good luck with that. I am in favour of pink razors for women. Saves me a lot of pain if I confuse mine with hers. My wife’s car is a medium hatchback, black. Mine small, silver. A previous car written off while parked. A woman in a four wheel drive hit the go pedal instead of the stop one and had a four car accident, all cars other than hers being parked. My present car was repaired after a woman turned right in my path. Am I attracting the wrong sort of women? Ramble on…..

  3. SBH

    Don’t forget Nutri-grain Mel, in their current blurb they note that “boys need protein” so what do girls need? That’s leaving aside their hideous deification of the only boy child as the appropriate object of a mothers love.

  4. Tom McLoughlin

    I guess you won’t be buying Barbie Camper ‘non stop glamour’ as per tv advert recently. Advertised on Mornings Ch9 last Sunday if memory serves while I was waiting for political shows. I got to thinking is this GFC fallout or what? Hanging out in camper vans. But I googled a youtube just now and it’s got provenance back to 1971. The 2009 version is complete with sister ‘Skipper’ and another fashionable sibling brat. Those Americans and their funny names. Maybe Falcon is in there hiding in the seat?

  5. meski

    I don’t like the taste of beer (so deport me as unAustralian) but can’t imagine what making it citrus flavoured would do. Blame Apple for the colour theming idea, but the pink bit is a bit cringe-worthy.

  6. james mcdonald

    The sad thing is that advertising science is pretty much empirically based, so while individual campaigns may miss their targets, overall trends do not miss. And the overall trend may have less to do with s-xism than with the increasing neotenisation (i.e. the tendency never to fully mature into adults) of urban society.

  7. Lucy

    There is also that ad in which a couple discusses the merits of a 4WD: he (being a bloke) loves its mad performance specs, whereas she claims to love it for its MP3 player. Cos chicks are incapable of appreciating a car on its merits – they just dig shiny frippery.

    I received an email from Borders with Mothers Day gift suggestions: a schmaltzy Ronan Keating CD, the latest Jodi Piccoult, cookbooks, something called How to Love, and the DVD of Marley and Me. Women’s gifts, you see; there is no chance that a mother would possibly want to read philosophy, or economics or politics or even real literature.

    And manscaping products are gendered the other way: tough products for blokes. Bold colours or black packaging, strong citrus scent. Often with a utilitarian hook: it’s not just a shampoo, it’s anti-dandruff. Which is practically medicinal and therefore nobody will think you are, you know. Effeminate.

  8. notmensa

    Citrus-flavoured wheat beer is great – beer shelves in Germany usually have a selection of flavours. The Barvarian Beer Cafe here does a fresh peach one.

    As for the raft of new products, Jim’s got it right. Most new products (or variations on existing ones) are launched after substantial market testing – focus groups, product trials, etc. Either there are lots of people who like this stuff, or lots of people lying to market researchers.

  9. SBH

    I don’t think I’d over stress the scientific nature of marketing notmensa.

  10. AR

    Does the Hummingbird girly-beer come cheaper due to their lower pay..? jes askin’

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