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Mixed Messages

How Men And Women Differ In Their Responses To Marketing Messages

Research by Joan Meyers-Levy

Marketers continue to seek the answers: which advertisements resonate with men, and which with women? In most cases, a single page of advertising with a bold headline, few lines of text and a simple image generally appeals to male audiences, while an ad with multiple images and lots of imagination-provoking detail and text is effective with female consumers. According to Chicago associate marketing professor Joan Meyers-Levy, this is no accident. In several groundbreaking articles, Meyers-Levy reports the findings of her own empirical investigations and explores evidence from decades of gender research. She contends that there are fundamental differences in how males and females process information.

Called the "selectivity hypothesis," Meyers-Levy's theory states that men eliminate and women integrate when processing information. Females tend to process information more comprehensively than men, picking up on relevant as well as so-called irrelevant and detailed information. This view both corresponds with and extends evidence found in other areas of gender research which states that females are more oriented toward relating to the concerns of both self and other, whereas males assume a more self-focused orientation.

"Females generally attempt to engage in a rather effortful, comprehensive, piecemeal analysis of all available information," says Meyers-Levy. "On the other hand, men are more selective processors of information, who tend to pick up on single, highly salient or personally relevant pieces of information that are quickly and easily processed. They disregard the rest."

A potential gender "hot potato," as it was for Meyers-Levy when she began the research in the 1980s, the selectivity hypothesis does not suggest which mental process for forming judgments is superior, male or female. "One way of processing information is not better than the other," says Meyers-Levy. "Rather, the 'best' way is that which is best attuned to and appropriate for that particular situation. While females may process detailed information more completely and extensively, men's stripped-down processing frequently may be faster and more efficient in a given situation."

The Search For The Source

Meyers-Levy believes that these processing differences -- that women collect much data and integrate it, and men eliminate and simplify – probably exist for any or all of three reasons. One theory concerning the origin of these gender differences dates back to the dawn of mankind, when sex roles were established. Men were originally hunters, charged with completing a single, clear task, while women were primarily gatherers, focusing on multiple, simultaneous tasks including foraging for berries, watching children and preparing meals in a communal environment.

Gender differences in processing may also stem from the alternatively structured environments provided for the genders. Studies reveal that boys and girls are still socialized in different ways, and their resulting behavior supports the gender differences in Meyers-Levy's selectivity hypothesis. Data suggest that these processing tendencies are maintained in adulthood.

Finally, biochemical and physiological factors may contribute to the differences between men's and women's minds and processing. Scientific evidence suggests that hormonal factors influence the formation of different brain structures among males and females, which "hard-wires" males and females to process information differently.

"Women appear to have more connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and they may use both sides actively when processing information," says Meyers-Levy. "With more connections between the hemispheres, women may be more adept or better able physiologically to do a variety of tasks simultaneously that draw on the powers of both sides. Men, on the other hand, rely more heavily on one hemisphere, processing information laterally. This may result in greater elimination rather than integration of the entire array of information presented."

Sending A Clear Message

Meyers-Levy maintains that it is very important for advertisers to recognize that men and women process information differently, because the success of their ad campaigns often depends on the judgments and knowledge consumers assimilate from the campaigns.

In advertising to men the rule is keep it simple. Make a single point. Men are less interested in taking in every detail and they may not be as prone to process layers of mixed or complicated messages and images. With women, advertisements can provide more information, encourage inference, and they don't have to be as literal. Women are more likely not only “to read between the lines,” but to read an ad or watch a commercial all the way through, and it is easier for them to remember and retrieve the message, assuming that they make many mental associations in the process.

Take shampoo advertisements as an example. In an ad for a shampoo found in a woman's magazine, several varieties of the shampoo are pictured, each accompanied by a detailed description of which hair-type would benefit from the product -- fine/limp, chemically-treated, and so on. Each shampoo is exemplified in visual scenes expressly designed to evoke distinct and rich images. For example, an airy scene of an exotic Hawaiian beach replete with luscious coconuts illustrates the position of Clairol's Cocomilk Essence shampoo as a mild hair cleanser and moisturizer. There is a lot of copy to read, and the advertiser is counting on women's tendency to read all of it and to engage in associative processing to differentiate between the products and to develop a positive brand identity.

In a shampoo ad from a men's magazine, however, the scene is much simpler: a Super Bowl quarterback is posed confidently in the center of the page, and at the bottom of the page, a shot of a single shampoo bottle is positioned next to a slogan about winning. It's simple, direct and it tells the reader that a Super Bowl winner uses this product. Successful advertisements aimed at men often tout self-expression, adhering to one's own values and beliefs in the face of adversity, or overcoming obstacles through determination and persistence.

A successful campaign for men could also involve a series of ads that focus on different product attributes provided that these attributes imply a single concept. For instance, in a series of advertisements for Coors beer, each ad focuses on a single but different product attribute. One ad states that Coors does not add anything artificial to its beer, a second ad discusses Coors's exclusive aging process and a third ad describes the measures taken during shipping and storage to avoid exposing Coors to heat. Though different in the claims they make, each ad is single focused in implying one concept -- quality. Further, each ad makes use of a common ad format to facilitate males' processing of the claims and their association of the claims with the Coors brand name.

Females' propensity to engage in elaborate processing implies different opportunities for marketers. Here, several concepts can be relayed in one ad, and the advertiser may use rich and ample cues to evoke positive associative thoughts and images. Women tend to use these positive feelings later to define the product. In a recent New Yorker article, Meyers-Levy describes the male/female difference found in popular Evian bottled water advertisements. In one ad, a beautiful picture of the French Alps is accompanied by the words "Our factory." Under that, text runs for several paragraphs and is filled with elaborate descriptions of this refined "factory." It's oriented to females, says Meyers-Levy, because they're using a metaphor -- our factory -- and to understand this, a person will have to engage in a fair amount of processing. All of the imagery, too, she says, encourages the viewer to build up the image of this brand. It's not just the French Alps; the text says it's "one of the most pristine places on earth." In other words, this ad works only if the viewer pulls together all the elements -- if the viewer integrates, not selects. In another Evian advertisement, Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Matt Biondi, who is shown by a pool drinking Evian, dominates the page. The caption reads simply "Revival of the fittest." This ad, from a men's magazine, has just 29 words of text. The woman's ad has 119.

Despite the differences that exist, Meyers-Levy says that it is possible to reach both men and women with the same advertising execution, but it will present a more challenging endeavor. In addition, says Meyers-Levy, being sensitive to the different ways that men and women tend to process information is important not only to advertisers, but also to each one of us as we learn to live and communicate with each other at home and in the workplace.

Joan Meyers-Levy is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

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