Nov. 2, 2012 at 7:14 AM ET
It used to be that car seats were designed for babies, and pens were made for people.
But these days, it seems like everyday products from diapers to cars are being offered in a version “for her” – and that version usually comes in pink.
Experts say the proliferation of products aimed at girls and women makes some sense. That’s because women are avid consumers of everything from cars to gadgets, and they can be pickier than men.
“They want all the same things (as) men, and then some. They want more,” said Marti Barletta, a consultant and author of “Marketing to Women.”
But that doesn’t mean companies are doing it right when they create, and market, products for women. In fact, Barletta and others say, many companies are hurting themselves by adding extras they think women will want – rather than the features they’d actually like to have.
Then they add insult to injury by marketing them in a way that some women perceive as condescending.
“Women don’t like being called out as a separate market,” Barletta said. “They’re like, ‘Why don’t cars have what we want?’”
The penmaker Bic’s line of pastel-hued pens “for her” received a comedic lambasting from Ellen Degeneres and have been mocked mercilessly on Amazon.com, where hundreds of men and women have posted of tongue-in-cheek reviews poking fun at the very concept of a pen for a woman.
“I use these wonderful little pens to draw pictures of butterflies and rainbows while watching ‘Steel Magnolias’ and eating bon-bons. Thank you, BIC! You have your finger on the pulse of the 21st century woman!” goes one typical review.
The carmaker Honda also got some pushback in the United States following its plan to launch the Honda Fit She's in Japan. The small car comes in pink and includes a climate control system that the carmaker says will improve skin quality, along with UV-blocking window glass.
"Stupid name, awful color, everyone needs protection from the sun's rays, and if they want to market to women, they need to think leg to pedal ratio, especially clutch, so you don't have to scoot the seat all the way up to the steering wheel," one Life Inc. reader complained.
Barletta said there are things that women would like to have in cars, like a convenient place to put a purse. But they also want the things men want, like safety, power and maneuverability.
Also, while women may actually like to have a product that comes in pink, many are turned off when that’s automatically assumed to be the ladies’ choice.
“Women like pink,” Barletta said. “What they don’t like is the statement that women like pink.”
Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and author of the book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” said her research has shown that gender roles are somewhat innate but very much a product of socialization. That’s because people reinforce gender roles starting at a very young age.
Children tend to embrace gender roles because they want to fit in. That has led marketers to offer everything from toys to infant seats to diapers in both boys’ and girls’ versions – not coincidentally boosting their market size as they encourage parents to buy gender-specific versions of everyday items.
“Gender sells, there’s no question,” Eliot said. “It works beautifully for kids, and that’s why it’s been so hard to fight gender stereotypes.”
That continues into adulthood, and is especially true for teens and young adults who are dating and may feel more insecure about their masculinity or femininity, she said.
Some say boys and men are actually the bigger losers in the push to specify everyday products by gender.
For girls these days, there are many choices on how to be feminine: They can be an athlete or a tomboy or even a girly girl, Eliot said.
Boys, on the other hand, are subject to a much narrower definition of what is masculine.
“There’s more social pressure on men to be manly, and the sanctions for men being feminine are more,” said David Gal, assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University.
Gal said his research has shown that women aren’t bothered by purchasing a product geared toward men, such as a big truck or a phone with a "masculine" design.
But many men worry that they might accidentally buy something from the women’s department or choose a product with a feminine connotation.
"Even when I go to the clothes store, I'm looking for that sign to tell me that this is the men's section, so I know I'm not looking at women's clothing," Gal said.
Gal said some men were turned off when Sears, well-known for products like Craftsman tools and barbecue grills, launched an ad campaign touting its “softer side" in the 1990s.
By that logic, he noted, it’s actually surprising that marketers are spending so much time marketing to women, when men might be more receptive to a campaign that accentuated a product’s masculinity.
Some companies have picked up on that trend.
Soda makers have started creating low-calorie products for men without the word “diet” in them, like Coke Zero, since many associated diet drinks as being for women.
Others have introduced male-specific products like body washes for men. Philips even offers an iron designed to appeal to men.
That may be a marketing opportunity, but Gal said it’s not good news that guys feel like they need to conform to such a narrow definition of masculinity. He noted that some men don’t seek out mental health treatment because it doesn’t seem manly, and stereotypically manly foods like steak and burgers tend to be unhealthy.
Eliot, the neuroscientist, said she’s been heartened to see pro football players and other male athletes wearing pink in October, in a nod to breast cancer awareness. The trend seems to have trickled down to boys playing recreational sports, many of whom now can be seen sporting things like soccer cleats and accessories with bright pink accents.
“I think boys are starting to appropriate pink,” she said.
On the other side, Eliot said that things like plastic surgery are much more worrisome to her than a company that makes pens only for women.
“There are a lot worse offenses in terms of female objectification than buying pink pens,” she said.