With the rise of social media as a platform for activism, corporations have quickly discovered that engaging in social commentary can be an excellent marketing tactic. Businesses vie for the attention of consumers by attempting to align with trending social movements, in the hopes of going viral online and increasing awareness for their brand.
A movement that is often embraced by corporate entities is feminism, perhaps due to its increasingly widespread acceptance in mainstream media. While companies often support feminism out of a genuine desire to do the right thing, their actions do not always come across the way they intended. Occasionally, they get it very wrong, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding for the movement they are supposedly endorsing.
A more extreme demonstration of this ignorance occurred back in February 2018, when PepsiCo global chief executive Indra Nooyi announced the development of a new “lady-friendly” Doritos corn chip. The reasoning behind this gendered product was that supposedly, the original Doritos was designed for men, because “[women] don’t like to crunch too loudly in public”. Understandably, the announcement caused quite an uproar on social media and Doritos scrambled to backpedal, adopting a stance which should never have been challenged in the first place: that “[they] already have Doritos for women – they’re called Doritos”.
Many aspects of the modern world are designed for males, but this is a nuanced issue with an impact beyond quieting the sound of a snack. The biological differences between women and men have traditionally not been accounted for when manufacturing personal protective equipment, or when developing dummies for car safety testing. These shortcomings in conventional design techniques can potentially be life-threatening for females.
There is a key difference between creating crash test dummies for females, and creating a Doritos for females: one caters for biological differences, while the other only succeeds in perpetuating harmful stereotypes about archaic gender roles and traits. The female Doritos design spectacularly fails to understand the priorities of women and does nothing to increase the visibility of under-represented genders. It is absurd to even entertain the idea that consuming food too loudly is an issue that women should be concerned about, particularly because it can be associated with traditional beliefs that women should be meek and unassuming.
Unnecessarily gendered products are detrimental to society. A visible aspect of this harm is that it facilitates the charging of the ‘pink tax’. A 2015 gender pricing disparity study conducted in New York City concluded that on average, women paid 7% more than men for comparable products.
The other, perhaps more subtle, consequence of this product distinction is the cementing of rigid gender roles. Marketing an appropriate product for a specific demographic can be alienating. It can inadvertently dictate which genders are expected to be seen using which products, as well as the traits that should be associated with each gender. When pink packaging is used as a way to target females, it condones conventionally feminine characteristics. This packaging suggests two things: that this product is only for females, and that the feminine attributes represented should be possessed by all females.
A market that has traditionally been subjected to this gender-oriented segmentation is the personal care and beauty industry. Razors, moisturisers, shampoos and cleansers are only a few examples of items where there are still clear ‘for her’ and ‘for him’ distinctions, despite negligible differences in the core substance of the product. It is ludicrous to suggest that men have fundamentally different skin or hair compared to women, and therefore require different ingredients. Skin and hair types vary from person to person, regardless of gender. The gender-ised nature of personal care goods implies that it is emasculating to use specialised products because these are ‘for her’ - males are left with the simple, and often crude, ‘for him’ goods. Men who are seen to be investing more into their personal care are “perceived as high maintenance, weak, or gay” according to Dr Elizabeth Haines, a department of psychology professor at William Paterson University. Dr Haines suggests that this is a manifestation of the “cultural transmission theory … [the] idea that once you do something that works, people will continue to pass that down, and that’s what happened with gender stereotypes”.
Companies play an extensive role in establishing social norms through the products that are offered to consumers. Fortunately, the relationship between corporations and consumers is a 2-way street. Businesses ultimately exist to identify opportunities for profit, and will inevitably follow trends in consumer demands. If we, as paying customers, support the companies that are introducing gender-neutral product lines, we can demonstrate to corporations that these types of business models can be successful. Individually, we do not possess the purchasing power to have a seismic impact on an entire industry. Nonetheless, we can all take action and contribute towards a greater consumer trend, working to eventually put an end to this vicious cycle of gender stereotype perpetuation.