Do women hate online ads?

Our research finds that digital advertising is failing to deliver for women. Why is this, and what can brands do?
23 May 2019
Woman frustrated at laptop
kirsty cooke

Head of Digital Content

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Our latest AdReaction report focused on “Getting Gender Right”, and the challenge for marketers in appealing to women at every touchpoint. While our research didn’t find tons of differences between what appeals to men and women when you drill down into specific forms of media and advertising, we did find a few interesting deviations – and opportunities.

What women want in advertising

When it comes to creative, we know women are more likely to favour humour in an advert. Sadly, just 1% of ads show a woman being funny. Meanwhile, according to AdReaction, 68% of all ads in the UK and Europe show women as ‘likeable’ and/or ‘caring’. Very few present positive role models, with only 4% including an ‘authoritative’ female character. This is limiting campaign impact: we know that ads starring people in positions of authority outperform others, persuading more people to buy.

When it comes to channel, women are less likely than men to be compelled by online adverts. In 2018, they generated 28% less brand impact than among men, and fewer women find online ads to be reliably relevant to them. Women are much less impressed at how reliably digital targeting delivers relevant ads – 27% vs 31% of men (AdReaction). Separately, our global DIMENSION study found that women are more likely to say they find it intrusive when ads appear online. (But across the world they are less likely to use ad blockers – 18% always use an ad blocker, vs 24% of men).

Women much prefer shorter online video (10 seconds or less), and strongly dislike ad formats that don’t offer control, such as non-skippable videos. Globally, more women skip online video ads whenever they can: 65% compared with 58% of men.

Paid media campaigns in general have less impact on women. We see word-of-mouth and point of sale generally performing more strongly, while websites tend to have more influence among men, when it comes to helping consumers learn about brands.

The issue with online ads

Online ads rely on targeting, which in turn relies on segmentation. Display ads on websites have been placed there due to an assumption about the user – their gender, age, interests and propensity to buy leading a brand or algorithm to serve a particular advert. If segmentation is done lazily, stereotypes could prevail.

Our podcast recording with Angeline Martyn of UN Women notes the fact that women are often targeted based on just one of the many hats they wear – as “mothers”, for example – and their multifaceted nature is ignored. Depictions of what a “mother” might look like, and notions about what a mother cares about, are often not particularly nuanced. We noted this problem in Hold Her Gaze, a meditation on the future of marketing to women based on the cultural shifts happening now.

Over-simplistic targeting also causes problems at a category level. In most households, both genders are equally involved in decision-making: 93% of women and 87% of men say they are a ‘main buyer’ of groceries, according to AdReaction. However, 99% of UK ads for laundry products are targeted at women, as are 70% of ads for toiletries and food products.

Gender and media planning

“Digital effectiveness among men has stayed relatively stable over time, but there has recently been a decrease in effectiveness among women,” says Hannah Walley, media and digital expert at Kantar. “Understanding how genders respond to different ad formats can be used as a tool for optimising media targeting and improving ad effectiveness. Today, online ads are not reaching and engaging women as well as they could.”

Of course, part of the problem could be that brands aren’t thinking about gender enough. Hannah comments: “Whether or not gender is a key component of audience definition, using it as a profiling variable at the targeting stage of a media buy could actually improve the accuracy of placements – for example, targeting women in environments where skippable video formats are present.” Are brands testing digital ads and noting any gender skews? Digital is the easiest place to test and optimise, quickly and efficiently, as long as the right questions are being asked.

What next?

Engaging women more effectively online isn’t just about eradicating stereotypes. Brands can turn traditional stereotypes on their head by being more inclusive, diverse and aspirational. According to Hannah, there are several approaches marketers can take, along with deploying more aspirational and authoritative portrayals of both genders.

“Men and women can respond very differently to the same ad, so marketers should always view creative through different gender lenses, and look beyond unfounded assumptions. That doesn’t mean both genders always need to feature – the key is that the story resonates with everyone,” she says. “Consistent ad testing, which includes gender equality metrics, is crucial. Brands can understand how they’re perceived, avoid the worst mistakes, and learn how to optimise portrayals. Finally, marketers need to be culturally sensitive, and acknowledge that what might be a subtle message in one market can be a bold statement in another. Of course, a large gap cannot be breached with one sweeping campaign. Brands that make this mistake typically receive criticism for inauthenticity.”

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