media: marketing

SocImages authors and readers love pointing out pointlessly gendered products, especially children’s toys in blue and pink. Since gender is about what we do in the world, all the things we use for work and play can give weight to assumptions about gender differences that aren’t true. Critics of pointlessly gendered products emphasize that small differences in design—from color to function—can ultimately add up to big differences in how people learn to act in the world.

Gendering toys isn’t just about the color, it is also about what we teach kids to do with them. That’s why I got a huge kick out of this video: a compilation of old commercial shots of “white boys winning board games.” Of course, I haven’t done a systemic sampling of old commercials to see if girls win too, but this compilation makes an important point about how we can miss tropes that only show one outcome of social interaction over and over, especially competition.

I remember being a competitive kid when it came to board games. I didn’t like losing at all, and it took quite a few years until I learned to just enjoy playing on its own. After this compilation I look back and wonder whether I just felt bad about losing—as most of us do from time to time—or whether a part of that feeling was also a sense that something was wrong because I was “supposed” to be winning like the other boys. That’s the power of gendered socialization.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

That large (and largely trademarked) sporting event is this weekend. In honor of its reputation for massive advertising, Lisa Wade tipped me off about this interesting content analysis of last year’s event by the Media Education Foundation.

MEF watched last year’s big game and tallied just how much time was devoted to playing and how much was devoted to ads and other branded content during the game. According to their data, the ball was only in play “for a mere 18 minutes and 43 seconds, or roughly 8% of the entire broadcast.”

MEF used a pie chart to illustrate their findings, but readers can get better information from comparing different heights instead of different angles. Using their data, I quickly made this chart to more easily compare branded and non-branded content.

Data Source: Media Education Foundation, 2018

One surprising thing that jumps out of this data is that, for all the hubbub about commercials, far and away the most time is devoted to replays, shots of the crowd, and shots of the field without the ball in play. We know “the big game” is a big sell, but it is interesting to see how the thing it sells the most is the spectacle of the event itself.Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

I discovered a nice gem of an insight this week in an article called The 11 Ways That Consumers Are Hopeless at Math: the symbolism of the number 9.

We’re all familiar with the convention of pricing items one penny below a round number: $1.99 instead of $2.00, $39.99 instead of $40.00, etc. Psychologically, marketers know that this works. We’re more likely to buy something at $89.99 than we are at $90.00.

It’s not, though, because we are tricked by that extra penny for our pockets. It’s because, so argues Derek Thompson, the .99 symbolizes “discount.” It is more than just a number, it has a meaning. It now says to us not just 9, but also You are getting a deal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a carton of eggs for $2.99 or a dishwasher for $299.99. In both cases, putting two 9s at the end makes us feel like smart shoppers.

To bring this point home, in those moments when we’re not looking for a deal, the number 9 has the opposite effect. When marketers want to sell a “luxury” item, they generally don’t use the 9s. They simply state the round number price. The whole point of buying a luxury item is to spend a lot of money because you have the money to spend. It shouldn’t feel like a deal; it should feel like an indulgence. Thompson uses the example of lobster at a high-end restaurant. They don’t sell it to you for $99.99. That looks cheap. They ask you for the $100. And, if you’ve got the money and you’re in the mood, it feels good exactly in part because there are no 9s.

Definitely no 9s:

Photo by artjour street art flickr creative commons.

Not yet convinced? Consider as an example this price tag for a flat screen television. Originally priced at $2,300.00, but discounted at $1,999.99. Suddenly on sale and a whole lot of 9s:

Photo by Paul Swansen flickr creative commons; cropped.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Late last year Covergirl announced a new spokesmodel, a 17-year-old named James Charles. Their Instagram announcement currently boasts over 53,000 likes, though the comments on the post were decidedly mixed. They ranged from “I will never buy another (coverGIRL) because of this” to  “love love love” and “the world is coming to equality and acceptingness.”

In my circles, the overwhelming response was enthusiasm. Charles’ ascendance to Covergirl status was evidence that gender flexibility was going mainstream. And, I suppose it is.

I am always suspicious, though, of corporate motives. Covergirl’s decision to feature Charles does serve to break down the gender binary, but it does other things, too. Most notably, if makeup companies could convince boys and men that their product is as essential for them as it is for girls and women, it would literally double the size of their market.

That this hasn’t happened yet, in fact, is evidence of the triumph of gender ideology over capitalism. Either companies have decided that there’s (almost) no market in men or men have resisted what marketing has been applied. It’s an impressive resistance to what seems like an obvious expansion. There’s just no money in men thinking their faces look just fine as they are; the fact that we’ve allowed them to do so thus far is actually pretty surprising when you think about it.

If Covergirl had its way, though, I have no doubt that it would make every 17-year-old boy in America into a James Charles. Such a change would contribute to breaking down the gender binary, at least as we know it (though no doubt there are more and less feminist ways of doing this). Of course, if it was advantageous to do so, Covergirl would claim that it had something to do with feminism. But, I wouldn’t buy it.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

1To Post Secret, a project that collects personal secrets written artistically onto postcards, someone recently sent in the following bombshell: “Ever since we started getting married and buying houses,” she writes, “my girlfriends and I don’t laugh much anymore.”

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Her personal secret is, in fact, a national one.  It’s part of what has been called the “paradox of declining female happiness.” Women have more rights and opportunities than they have had in decades and yet they are less happy than ever in both absolute terms and relative to men.

Marriage is part of why. Heterosexual marriage is an unequal institution. Women on average do more of the unpaid and undervalued work of households, they work more each day, and they are more aware of this inequality than their husbands. They are more likely to sacrifice their individual leisure and career goals for marriage. Marriage is a moment of subordination and women, more so than men, subordinate themselves and their careers to their relationship, their children, and the careers of their husbands.

Compared to being single, marriage is a bum deal for many woman. Accordingly, married women are less happy than single women and less happy than their husbands, they are less eager than men to marry, they’re more likely to file for divorce and, when they do, they are happier as divorcees than they were when married (the opposite is true for men) and they are more likely than men to prefer never to remarry.

The only reason this is surprising is because of the torrent of propaganda we get that tells us otherwise. We are told by books, sitcoms, reality shows, and romantic comedies that single women are wetting their pants to get hitched. Men are metaphorically or literally drug to the altar in television commercials and wedding comedies, an idea invented by Hugh Hefner in the 1950s (before the “playboy,” men who resisted marriage were suspected of being gay). Not to mention the wedding-themed toys aimed at girls and the ubiquitous wedding magazines aimed solely at women. Why, it’s almost as if they were trying very hard to convince us of something that isn’t true.

But if women didn’t get married to men, what would happen? Marriage reduces men’s violence and conflict in a society by giving men something to lose. It increases men’s efforts at work, which is good for capitalists and the economy. It often leads to children, which exacerbate cycles of earning and spending, makes workers more reliable and dependent on employers, reduces mobility, and creates a next generation of workers and social security investors. Marriage inserts us into the machine. And if it benefits women substantially less than men, then it’s no surprise that so many of our marriage promotion messages are aimed squarely at them.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca) declared October “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” Their original campaign promoted mammography screenings and self-breast exams, as well as aided fundraising efforts for breast cancer related research.  The month continues with the same goals, and is still supported by AstraZeneca, in addition to many other organizations, most notably the American Cancer Society.

The now ubiquitous pink ribbons were pinned onto the cause, when the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation distributed them at a New York City fundraising event in 1991. The following year, 1.5 million Estée Lauder  cosmetic customers received the promotional reminder, along with an informational card about breast self-exams. Although now a well-known symbol, the ribbons elide a less well-known history of Breast Cancer Awareness co-opting grassroots’ organizing and activism targeting women’s health and breast cancer prevention.

The “awareness” campaign also opened the floodgates for other companies to capitalize on the disease. For example, Avon, New Balance, and Yoplait have sold jewelry, athletic shoes, and yogurt, respectively, using the pink ribbon as a logo, while KitchenAid still markets a product line called “Cook for the Cure” that includes pink stand mixers, food processors, and cooking accessories, items which the company first started selling in 2001.  Not to be left out, Smith and Wesson, Taurus, Federal, and Bersa, among other companies, have sold firearms with pink grips and/or finishing, pink gun-cases, and even pink ammo with the pink ribbon symbol emblazoned on the packaging. Because breast cancer can be promoted in corporate-friendly ways and lacks the stigma associated with other diseases, like HIV/AIDS, these companies and others, have been willing to endorse Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, in some cases, donate proceeds from their merchandise to support research affiliated with the disease.

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Yet companies’ willingness to profit from the cause has also served to commodify breast cancer, and to support what sociologist Gayle Sulik calls “pink ribbon culture.” As Sulik notes, marking breast cancer with the color pink not only feminizes the disease, but also reinforces gendered expectations about how women are “supposed” to react to and cope with the illness, claims also corroborated by my own research on breast cancer support groups.

Based on participant observation of four support groups and in-depth interviews with participants, I have documented how breast cancer patients are expected to present a feminine self, and to also be positive and upbeat, despite the pain and suffering they endure as a result of being ill. The women in the study, for example, spent considerable time and attention on their physical appearance, working to present a traditionally feminine self, even while recovering from surgical procedures and debilitating therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Similarly, members of the groups frequently joked about their bodies, especially in sexualized ways, making light of the physical disfigurement resulting from their disease. Like the compensatory femininity in which they engaged, laughing about their plight seemed to assuage some of the emotional pain that they experienced.  However, the coping strategies reinforced traditional standards of beauty and also prevented members of the groups from expressing anger or bitterness, feelings that would have been justifiable, but seen as (largely) culturally inappropriate because they were women.

Even when they recovered physically from the disease, the women were not immune to the effects of the “pink ribbon culture,” as other work from the study demonstrates. Many group participants, for instance, reported that friends and family were often less than sympathetic when they expressed uncertainty about the future and/or discontent about what they had been through.  As “survivors,” they were expected to be strong, positive, and upbeat, not fearful or anxious, or too willing to complain about the aftermath of their disease. The women thus learned to cover their uncomfortable emotions with a veneer of strength and courage. This too helps to illustrate how the “pink ribbon culture,” which celebrates survivors and survivorhood, limits the range of emotions that women who have had breast cancer are able to express. It also demonstrates how the myopic focus on survivors detracts attention from the over 40,000 women who die from breast cancer each year in the United States, as well as from the environmental causes of the disease.

Such findings should give pause. If October is truly a time to bring awareness to breast cancer and the women affected by it, we need to acknowledge the pain and suffering associated with the disease and resist the “pink ribbon culture” that contributes to it.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ripon College. Her research focuses on inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.

Flashback Friday.

Does the modeling industry fetishize whiteness?

It turns out that the answer is: it does and it doesn’t.  Ashley Mears, a model turned sociologist, found that high fashion models are overwhelmingly white, but that commercial modeling — the kind you see in catalogs for stores like Target, TJ Maxx, and JC Penney — is much more racially inclusive.  Similarly, extreme thinness is more pronounced among high fashion models, whereas commercial models tend to have a few more inches around their waists.

Mears says that the difference has to do with the contrasting purposes of the different modeling worlds.  High fashion is supposed to be, by definition, unattainable.  The women used in high fashion, then, should be the most idealized, with bodies that are among the most difficult to attain and beauty that is the most rareified.  In this context, whiteness is a marker of elite status because white femininity, thanks to white supremacy in U.S. culture, is the most purely feminine femininity of all.

In contrast, the commercial market is actually designed to sell clothes to everyday people.  In this case, they want consumers to identify with their models.  Their models aren’t supposed to signify social distance, they’re supposed to be just like us.  Using more diverse models and models who are less waif-like helps accomplish those goals.

Screen shot from the JC Penney catalog, thanks to reader Chelsea S.:

Originally posted in 2010.Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

I was waiting for my connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare, and spotted this advertisement on the opposite side of our gate. It reads:

“Chicago is the Potawatomi word for onion field. Apparently, the Potawatomis didn’t have a word for global business center.”

This is an example of the use of Indigenous language and imagery that many people wouldn’t think twice about, or find any inherent issues with. But let’s look at this a little deeper:

  • The use of past tense. It’s not “The Potawatomis don’t have a word for…” it’s “The Potawatomis didn’t…” Implying that the Potawatomi no longer exist or are using their language.
  • The implication that “Indians” and “Global Business Center” aren’t in congruence. Which is assuming that Natives are static, unchanging, and unable to be modern and contemporary. “Potawatomi” and “Onion Field” are fine together, because American society associates Indians with the natural world, plants, animals, etc. But there is definitely not an association between “Potawatomi” and “Global Business”.

But, in reality, of course Potawotomis still exist today, are still speaking their language, and do have a word for Global Business Center (or multiple words…).

Language is constantly evolving, adapting to new technology (remember when google wasn’t a verb?) and community changes.  I remember reading a long time ago in one of my Native studies classes about the Navajo Nation convening a committee to discuss how one would say things like “computer” or “ipod” in Navajo language, in an effort to preserve language and culture and promote the use of Navajo language among the younger generation.

In fact, here’s an awesome video of a guy describing his ipod in Navajo, complete with concepts like “downloading” (there are subtitles/translations):

Native peoples have been trading and communicating “globally” for centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans. To imply that they wouldn’t have the ability to describe a “Global Business Center” reeks of a colonialist perspective (we must “civilize” the savage! show him the ways of capitalism and personal property, for they know not of society!).

Thanks, Chicago, for giving me one more reason to strongly dislike your airport.

Originally posted in 2010.

Adrienne Keene, EdD is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. She blogs at Native Appropriations, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.