By Alec Knight
Gender-specific advertising and Christmas go hand in hand. It’s no great secret that most toy companies use unnecessarily gender-specific advertisements to sell their products. Just last week, 12 MPs here in the U.K. signed a parliamentary motion expressing concern that these ads can channel children’s expectations along “outdated traditional lines” that can impact their later career choices.
I recently ran across this brilliant spot by GoldieBox, a toy company that aims to “disrupt the pink aisle.” It’s especially worth watching because it’s set to the Beastie Boys’ “Girls.” As a young boy, I loved playing with dolls and dollhouses. I’d love to see an ad that similarly breaks down the association of trucks and action figures with little boys. I imagine this little girl, who rants about gender-specific advertising in the middle of a toy store, would, too.
Of course, gender-specific advertising isn’t just for kids. Companies use a wide variety of subtle social cues that tell the viewer whether a product is intended for men or women. A product intended for men typically depicts brave and strong men, often enjoying the company of scantily clad and conventionally beautiful women. Products intended for women use images of beauty, domesticity, and submissiveness. While this kind of indirect gender-specific advertising is conspicuous to those of us who are vigilant about gender stereotypes, they never overtly tell the viewer that a product is meant for men or women. This, unfortunately, is old news.
Enter Dr. Pepper. This brand, unsatisfied with the subtlety of indirect gender-specific advertising, decided to launch a product that explicitly tells consumers that it is intended for men and not for women.
Two years ago, Dr. Pepper launched Dr. Pepper TEN, which has 10 calories that are so “bold-tasting” that they must be capitalized. One of the recent spots features a mountain man with a giant beard eating bark and baying like a wolf. Music with the lyrics “a man just needs a place where he can be wild and free” plays until we hear the tagline: “Dr. Pepper TEN: The Manliest Low-Calorie Soda in the History of Mankind.” The advertisement is so completely over-the-top that, for an instant, I thought perhaps a league of feminist activists secretly runs Dr. Pepper and uses satire to attack gender-specific advertising.
Sadly, as Jezebel and other blogs pointed out when Dr. Pepper TEN was first released, this does not appear to be the case. Dr. Pepper appears to be sincere in its efforts to create a separate “for men only” drink. Dr. Pepper argues that men are not satisfied with the taste of diet soda and intends to use the “macho image” of Dr. Pepper TEN to get men to buy low calorie soda. TEN isn’t intended to break down the association of a diet soda with women; it’s intended to create a separate “manly” product that is acceptable to men. That’s why TEN isn’t called “diet” and has ten calories rather than zero.
Men aren’t supposed to care about their weight, unless it’s to pack on pounds of muscle (though even that’s seen as effete if a man cares too much). If you want to field test this assumption, try ordering a “skinny” drink at your local coffee shop (or, for women, trying ordering a full-fat drink with whipped cream). I often get strange looks for ordering coffee drinks with nonfat milk. I once ordered a skim cappuccino at a coffee shop and the (male) barista laughed and asked me whether I was watching my weight. I’ve had female friends tell me that they get curious looks when they fail to order the low-calorie drinks.
Dr. Pepper perpetuates this sort of gender policing with its “Man’Ments” app on Facebook, which encourages users to “call out” each other for breaking “Man’Ments” like “Thou Shalt Not OMG” and “Thou Shalt Not Make a Facebook Profile For Your Pet.” OMG, I’m going to post a link to this ridiculous app on my cats’ wall. Because screw your assumptions.
Frankly, I can’t help wondering why Dr. Pepper wouldn’t simply try to market the existing Diet Dr. Pepper to men as well as women. A campaign of exclusion makes little sense when marketing a non-exclusive product. Given the narrowing gap between men and women regarding weight concerns, you’d think advertisers would see this an opportunity to rebrand diet as the healthier option for both men and women (even if that’s an empirically questionable assertion). It’s as if advertisers have relied so much on gender-specific advertising for so long that they’ve forgotten how to market products in a gender-neutral manner. BIC’s decision to market “for her” pens, which singlehandedly created a gender dichotomy where none previously existed, provides support for this theory.
Perhaps, as Elizabeth Gunnison points out in Esquire, direct gender-specific advertising is preferable to indirect gender-specific advertising on the basis that its visibility makes it more vulnerable to criticism. The hilarious Amazon reviews of BIC’s “for her” pens and give me hope that this is true. Moreover, Ellen’s simply delectable lampooning of the pens makes me wish all advertising wore its gendered nature on its sleeves.
Alec Knight is currently conducting research on human rights law and gender justice as a Visiting Academic at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University and working as a Program Associate at the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society. Alec holds three tertiary degrees and will likely Pile it Higher and Deeper unless someone intervenes and stops the madness. His interests are eclectic and incongruous, ranging from highfalutin pastimes like attending the performing arts and enjoying fine meals to perfectly sensible pursuits like watching baseball (Go Nats!), listening to bluegrass, drinking craft beer (Starr Hill), and obsessing about sci-fi shows (Team Donna Noble). Alec’s true passion, however, is the study of sex, gender, sexuality, and the law. He is originally from Harrisonburg, Va. When not in Blighty, he lives with his wife and cats in Jersey City.[divider] [/divider]