Segment Marketing Without Stereotyping: Is It Possible?

stereotypeA good deal of target marketing has to do with making generalizations – figuring out what’s going to appeal to women, or the 18-25 demographic, or whatever other group you intend to target, and then crafting an ad based on your impression of the prototypical member of that group. In the past, this has resulted in a lot of stereotyping in advertising, especially when it comes to gender-based advertising. But in recent years, some companies have managed to move away from those assumptions. This article will take a look at a few brands whose targeted ads avoid some of the major stereotyping pitfalls of marketing.

What Everybody Knows: Marketing is Inaccurate

Advertising and marketing are two areas where those making the investments really want to play it safe. It’s a fair idea from a business perspective: why get super specific when you can generalize and reach a broader audience? But as AdAge notes in this article on campaigns that defy stereotypes of women, there is currently a serious shift in the marketing business as companies try to avoid stereotypical clichés that are overdone and no longer interesting (were they ever interesting?). Instead, companies are moving towards personalized engagement and relevance.

But it’s a slow-moving process. Lab 42 asked 500 individuals about their opinions of advertising they see on a daily basis, and found that, in addition to only 3% of those surveyed believing that claims about products and services in ads are “very accurate,” the gender portrayals in ads leave a lot to be desired. Those surveyed responded that the most frequent images they see of women in advertising are “shopping obsessed,” “family-oriented,” and “promiscuous.” Men, they said, tend to be portrayed as “sports-obsessed,” “womanizing,” and “idiotic.”

Let’s take a look at a few of the brands that are doing better with their gender-based advertising.


At first glance, Tide’s 2013 Super Bowl spot seems like it’s heading down the same mom/wife-doing-the-laundry road we’ve seen in eight thousand other detergent ads. But at the end, there’s a surprising twist…

After the husband spills some salsa on his 49ers jersey in the shape of Joe Montana (a legendary San Francisco quarterback, for those of you like me who are way out of the football loop), his “miracle stain” launches a craze among 49ers fans who then flock to the house to witness the Montana-shaped salsa blotch. Enter the Baltimore Ravens jersey-wearing wife, who uses the advertised stain-fighting power of Tide to get rid of the mystical Montana image with a coy smile and the words, “Go Ravens.”

Of course, Tide still features a wife as the main laundry-doer. But, the ad is clearly a spoof of typical detergent marketing campaigns. And not only that, Tide’s Super Bowl spot also shows a woman who is not only interested in football, but is so invested in her team that she would craftily use her role as the household laundry fairy to bust through the salsa Montana and give the Ravens an advantage.

JC Penney

If you think of a “family targeted” ad, you’ll likely think of a mom at home cooking, cleaning, or taking care of the kids. Or, maybe you’ll think of a husband and wife sitting down to dinner (which mom cooked, of course) with grateful kids. Last year, JC Penney made waves with some conservative groups by running two print ads that show their idea of what a “family” is has grown to encompass more than the heterosexual nuclear ideal.

The first ad featured two moms with their daughters and the kids’ grandma:

jcpenney ad family

While the phrase “freedom of expression” certainly draws attention to the fact that they’re featuring a queer family, the ad is more about JC Penney’s own image as a store that allows for creativity through clothing options. Predictably, the ad garnered significant backlash from right-wing groups, as well as boycotts against the department store chain.

But undeterred, JC Penney released another ad, featuring two dads and their kids in honor of Fathers’ Day:

jcpenney ad momsIf you can’t read the small text, it says: “What makes Dad so cool? He’s the swim coach, tent maker, best friend, bike fixer and hug giver – all rolled into one. Or two.” So, this campaign clearly escapes gender stereotyping as a whole. And of course, the couples are otherwise extremely normative in other respects, from gender expression to race – but that’s a different post.

At the same time, these ads are innovative in that they portray a type of family that is often completely overlooked in mainstream marketing. And for that, I think JC Penney deserves a good deal of commendation and recognition for their willingness to take a risk in the name of relevance.

Home Depot

I love Home Depot’s advertising because it’s frequently educational and informative, and almost always defies gender stereotyping in some respect. Check out their Valentine’s Day blog post, “Gift Ideas for Men and Women Who Love Tools,” for example. It’s just a list of cool and useful products that you can buy at Home Depot for the “special person” in your life, and they’re not segregated by gender.

Home Depot has a line of video ads, too, that are unexpectedly competent in their portrayal of gendered individuals doing projects around the house. This one, for example, features a woman confidently building an area for kids to keep their shoes, jackets, and bike helmets:

Conversely, Home Depot also ran a video ad that features a dad trying to build a tree house at the request of his son. Unfortunately, the dad has never built anything, and doesn’t even own a hammer (fortunately, of course, the helpful associates at Home Depot get him set up with the materials he needs):

Both of these ads defy the conventional wisdom that women have no idea of what they’re doing when it comes to DIY projects, and guys magically know how to build and fix anything. Again, these ads aren’t perfect – the mom is building a spot for her kids to keep their stuff, for example – but they represent huge progress in the advertising world.

In Conclusion…

Relevance is the name of the game in marketing these days, and stereotypes and generalizations simply aren’t relevant to the everyday experiences of most consumers. While thinking outside the box may be risky, it also has the potential to help more consumers feel engaged and recognized, ultimately leading to a bigger ROI than an ad that will be just one more campaign that misses the mark of what everyday life is really like for individuals and families.

Has your business created an ad campaign that defies stereotypes? What was your experience like? 

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Beans graduated from Smith College in 2011 with a BA in History of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and has worked as a farmer, a cook on a food truck, and an archival assistant. Outside of writing and editing for CEM, Beans enjoys reading voraciously, watching space documentaries, and baking vegan treats. Currently, Beans lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

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