The Spending Power of Women

Are women really not worth a sales pitch? Is it true that only 18-34 year old boys are worth marketing your product to?

As you may know, one of my big complaints about the film industry was how many times I endured the “We just give the audience what it wants to see” lecture. No matter how many times I – or any other young starter – won the debate by pointing out how you can’t know what people want to see until you give them a choice, the argument started fresh again the next day. Like religious dogma – a belief based on faith and hope, not logic.

What a way to run a business.

Network executives approach the philosophy backwards: they decide what they want to give the audience, then construct evidence that “proves” the audience wants it, then show that evidence to the poor fools they’re selling airtime to. Because that’s their real goal: to sell airtime. And if they could somehow do that without an audience, we wouldn’t even be considered. What they really need is evidence they can put the sponsor’s product in front of people who will want it. Which means the sponsor has to know the appropriate audience for the product, and that’s a tidbit they’re going to glean from a market research consultant.

You see the loop we’re stuck in? Market research tells us who’s watching what on TV. And market research tells sponsors who they want to have watching their commercials. All the marketing research market has to do is pick one scenario, and “prove” it. This explains why faith in ratings persists, even though ratings don’t accurately reflect who in the household watched a show; who taped another channel at the same time for later viewing; who leaves the room while your commercial is on; or whether they watched the whole show, or tuned in for five minutes before looking for something better. If a sponsor notices that a commercial didn’t bring in the sales she was expecting, she’s got both the market researching consultant and the network telling her it must have been her commercial at fault, or a failure to cross-market the commercial with store promotions. If she’s absolutely determined it’s the TV shows failing to bring in the audience she needs, she’ll turn to – you guessed it – a marketing consultant to find out what the shows are lacking.

This begs the question: why would the industry pick the 18-34 year old male demographic as the only one it wants to fool with? Maybe because that’s the mentality most filmmakers are stuck in. Modern day Peter Pans with arrested development, who never got past drooling over bikini models and wishing a beautiful girl would date them so all the boys who beat them up in junior high would have to respect them. Sad little dweebs who, despite all the money and strings of gorgeous wives, never got over the high school princesses who – in their minds – laughed their advances off cruelly to be with football team captains who went on to mistreat them. (The possibility that they got rejected for being creepily insecure doesn’t seem to occur to this type.) I can’t prove this hypothesis, of course, but doesn’t it sound like a number of standard TV forumlas? Ask any actor who’s everything the high school football captain was: gorgeous, confident, popular with the ladies. Ask him about the jealousy-driven abuse he’s endured at the hands of producers and directors who make more money than he does. And while you’re at it, ask the gorgeous actresses about the whole pedestal routine: how they flatter her up there, then knock her down, over and over until they’ve got her believing she’s somehow failing, and only they can rescue her and make her a star.

Are these the business ethos – or even the guilty fantasies – of mature, well-adjusted men?

The industry didn’t start out marketing products only to the little boys they identified with.

“Soap operas” were created initially by radio stations, then adapted by TV network executives, to sell laundry detergent to housewives, so the stories were all about stuff they thought women liked: romance and scandal. Not every woman watched soaps – many regarded them as sinful, or just didn’t like them. But every woman bought laundry detergent, and there was no way to tell if they were influenced by the TV commercial, by friends who’d seen the TV commercial, or by their own research.

So it looked like soap operas were working – and I’ll grant that they probably were – but to get that competitive edge, someone had to determine why they were working. And that’s where the magic of interpretation comes in. Ratings interpretation is… well, it’s a more exact science than tarot reading, but it’s roughly equivalent to Bible interpretation. The difference is, you can’t go read the ratings for yourself like you can read the Bible, and decide what you think the information means. Tele-Confucius say: ratings none of your business! Go watch what we tell you! So, did soaps work because women love female stars, or because women like scandal and soft porn? Did Buffy do well because people loved the lead actress, or because of the lead actors, or maybe the nifty special effects? You trust the network to tell you the truth, don’t you? Now go sit down.

How did we go from Mom to the first son as our marketing target? Again, I think the narcissim and arrested development of the teenage boys in men’s bodies who run the film and TV industries comes into play. It was in the early 80’s that marketing research suddenly started indicating that 18-25 year old boys (it’s only recently been upgraded to 18-34) were the biggest spending market in America. It was also in the 80’s that most women started working jobs outside the home, and misleading studies about careers causing miscarriages and “the man shortage” were released to scare women into hastily donning the Donna Reed lifestyle. Coincidence, or a backlash by men who weren’t ready to stop being the center of their wives’/mommy’s lives?

In any case: Huh? Does anyone actually believe 18-25 year old boys are the best market? Does anyone actually know a teenage boy who can afford every gizmo he wants? For years, people with access to marketing research have been struggling to point out the truth you observed in childhood: Mommy does the shopping.

From BusinessWeek Online:

Women earn less money than their counterparts — 78 cents for every dollar a man gets. But they make more than 80% of buying decisions in all homes.

This is not news. These statistics were roughly the same in the ’80’s. But wait: maybe the next sentence provides a clue:

And women shop differently from the way men do: Females research more extensively and are less likely to be influenced by ads.

Well, there you go. That’s women for you. They rejected your pitches of woo in high school, and now they’re rejecting your pitches of product. Ungrateful wenches.

From the Washington Business Journal online, reprinted from the June 12, 1998 print edition, and thus proving this is hardly news:

A surprisingly large number of companies continue to ignore female consumers. You do so at your own peril. Last year, women earned more than $1 trillion dollars, and 64 percent of all working women now earn more than half their family’s income.

Here’s a thought. Maybe it’s not globalization or “made in China” or Enron that’s been hurting the American economy since 2001. Maybe it’s men who are too ruled by emotion to make sensible business decisions.

Comments

  1. telepresence says

    Your argument contains part of the answer, there at the end. It’s not so much who has the money, or who makes the buying decisions. It’s whose mind can be changed via advertising.

    Advertisers don’t market to middle-aged-to-older people very much, despite older people being a growing demographic as the baby boomers age, and despite older people being quite affluent. Why? Because by the time someone is 45, 50, 55, they’re pretty set in their buying habits. They know good and well if they like Coke or Pepsi and Kanye West or Brad Pitt endorsing one or the other isn’t going to change their mind. They aren’t going to start buying different brands of cars, or deodorant, etc. When it’s not a brand new product or a brand new market segment (and that represents a relatively small part of what’s advertised in a given year in any medium), what advertisers are angling to do mostly is to change minds, poach market share from competitiors. There’s also somewhat of a desire to stimulate loyalty, but female consumers tend to show up as more loyal in studies to begin with.

    As you note in your entry, women tend to make choices based on research and forethought. That’s not what mass media advertising has ever been good at stimulating.

    The 30 second TV ad is designed to build up in the mind of a consumer who’s relatively fickle, and relatively impulsive. 18-34 year old men, for better or for worse, fit this psychological profile better than women.

    When you look at advertising for kids, the disparity narrows somewhat, because kids are more impulsive across the board.

    You’ll also find that a large amount of advertising aimed almost purely at women is semi-hidden in the editorial content of women’s magazines, posing as articles on how to..improve such and such. Recipies, makeup tips, clothing, all that kind of content is crypto advertising in the sort of form that either by neurology or socialization, women seem more likely to absorb. Male oriented magazines historically have much less of it, although that has also narrowed recently with more lifestyle and grooming oriented content for men has entered the market.

    I think there are a lot of things wrong with the intersection of gender and consumerism in this society, but on the particular point you’re bringing up, many of these decisions are more pragmatic than they appear.

    I think the more interesting question is, are certain changes in socialization for young people today going to eventually change the shape of the market, will marketing become more gender neutral or do some role swapping, as we begin to see a bit in contemporary mens lifestyle magazines? And will changes in technology make a lot of this moot anyway, as traditional advertising goes the way of the dodo and data on media consumption gets more transparent and precise in the face of the internet and Tivo and such?

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Your argument contains part of the answer, there at the end. It’s not so much who has the money, or who makes the buying decisions. It’s whose mind can be changed via advertising.

    I’ve snipped your well-written expansion on the importance of susceptibility in a market. As you hinted, it also applies to the aggressive, “you’re a loser if you don’t have this” marketing that’s pitched to kids, who in turn pressure parents to buy. It’s definitely a factor.

    But, curiously, not one that was ever cited by the people I worked with in film and TV. They maintained steadfastly that women lacked spending power, against all indications to the contrary. It was clear to me that they wanted to believe this (I grew up in Evangelist Land, and I know a dogma when I see one), and it was this psychology I wanted to probe. After all, these are the people deciding what we’ll be offered for viewing.

    You’ll also find that a large amount of advertising aimed almost purely at women is semi-hidden in the editorial content of women’s magazines, posing as articles on how to..improve such and such.

    The content of TV shows and films is used in a very similar way to influence, presumably, young men. Product placement tells them they’re not cool unless they’ve got the same watch or computer or car or clothing as some character they look up to. Sometimes it comes complete with dialog about how cool the product is. Prime time TV in the 50’s and 60’s made the cigarette industry boom, just by showing the characters smoking. This is hardly any easier than writing an ad-in-disguise article.

    So are young men really that much more susceptible? Or has the industry just done a better job figuring out how to subtly steer them – perhaps because they can relate to them more easily than mothers and people in lesser income brackets (where most of their fellow Baby Boomers fall)?

    I think there are a lot of things wrong with the intersection of gender and consumerism in this society, but on the particular point you’re bringing up, many of these decisions are more pragmatic than they appear.

    I can’t see how writing off a segment of the population that controls 80% of household spending is pragmatic. Even if TV’s short commercials are unsuited to selling to women, extreme makeover reality shows and E!’s reports on celebs getting plastic surgery would seem to have something to do with the 24% increase in plastic surgery since 2000, mainly among young women. Not that I’m at all happy about that trend, but it does indicate an untapped potential for marketing to women.

    But I’m not convinced 30-second spots can’t sell stuff to women. If you’ll accept some anecdotal evidence, I can back that up a bit.

    I run a few websites, including this one and another articles site, which have a primarily female audience, and sell adspace. Unlike a TV sponsor, I can really track what ads my visitors click, and whether they take any action on it. My other site performs very well, for its traffic level, but this one lags behind. Why the disparity, when they have the same demographic audience?

    Unlike Hathor, the other site isn’t about a “woman’s issue”, so it attracts advertisers who assume they’re pitching to men or mixed gender. The products and ads are tailored accordingly. Hathor, conversely, receives offers to advertise things like online bingo and weight loss pills, thought to be of interest to women. If Hathor was a TV show, it would either have been cancelled by now OR reformed into a site that promotes the idea that women need to lose weight. Or ironically, changed to mimic my other site, which sponsors mistakenly assume is performing well with men.

    I realize online and offline marketing aren’t directly comparable in every way, and this isn’t intended as a comprehensive argument. It’s just one example of why I question whether it’s the women being difficult, or the marketers not trying enough different approaches to find the right one.

    And this figures into your point below:

    I think the more interesting question is, are certain changes in socialization for young people today going to eventually change the shape of the market, will marketing become more gender neutral or do some role swapping, as we begin to see a bit in contemporary mens lifestyle magazines? And will changes in technology make a lot of this moot anyway, as traditional advertising goes the way of the dodo and data on media consumption gets more transparent and precise in the face of the internet and Tivo and such?

    Traditional advertising will have to catch up with the times, or else become extinct. I’ll speculate that it needs to become more gender neutral, because of my own experience with my websites, and my observation that the 18-34 year olds I know don’t shop along gender lines like baby boomers did.

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