Men & Women Watching Ads – Different Markets or Different Species?

The more I look at the patterns of response to advertising revealed by facial imaging the more I’m convinced that the old “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” chestnut has validity. (Facial Imaging is the direct measurement of emotion via webcams – see if you want to know how it works).  In essence major contrasts in reaction are the norm in the ads we’ve studied and this seems to hold across cultures and is not confined to the obvious categories like cars or alcohol. Yes, MR studies have often noted gender differences, but I’m not referring merely to broad reaction to the ad but the fact that the level, pattern and type of emotional reaction to specific elements of the commercial can differ wildly.

Women (pink line) React To An Ad With Lots of Baby Shots. OK for a while, but get it wrong and you lose them.

Even when the overall  response of males and females is pretty similar (e.g. as measured by self-reported liking, impact etc.) the norm is that you’ll find that the build of emotion and reaction to specific scenes diverges markedly. While I’d be the first to admit we need to do a lot more systematic analysis to back up my initial assessments, I’m increasingly of the view that this has huge implications for advertising and research.

Let me give some examples (disclaimer: these results are based on case studies done for a variety of purposes, with samples that may not match the advertisers target market – they show that males & females react differently, not the ‘real’ performance of the ads).  The first thing here is the sheer difference in ‘level’ of response. Look at this example of female reaction to a Doritos super bowl ad featuring a couple of macho jocks, Rottweiler’s and ‘hot wild girls’ (if you don’t know it see here: ).  Now you’d probably pick this as one to go down better with males than females, but the measurement here is Disgust, and the pink line represents females. The divergence at the end is huge (when the branding occurs btw), and while I’m sure the Doritos marketers realise the ad won’t necessarily please all women, if you got that result in a ‘real-world’ test you’d want to be very sure that females had little purchase influence at all before using it.

It’s Disgusting: Women React to ‘Hot Wild  Girls’

Beyond simple divergences in level and type of response, we are often seeing differences in build and pattern of response. In the chart below, for instance, we look at another ad on a measure of overall emotional response (we call it Emotion Lift ™  as it reflects the degree the stimuli increases emotion compared to someone’s prior state).

Reaction to a Beverage Ad:
Build in Emotional Reaction Often Varies By Gender

You’ll see that the pattern of men and women’s emotional response at the end of the ad is very similar – both sexes get the story/ideas conveyed here. But at the initial stage females are less engaged and at 8-10s the ad just loses them. The chances of women switching off mentally or changing channel before they get to the key message and branding seem high.

Finally, look at the results illustrated in the results screenshot at the top of this post. It shows Happiness reaction and is from an ad featuring lots of babies. You may not be surprised that overall women react better than men. I think we’d have got that result in a conventional ad-test as well. But look at what happens towards the end of this ad – a certain scene or words seem to just lose the women and their happiness drops right off. The ad lost them. Assuming the aim was to attract women, an “average” reaction score to this ad could have been very misleading. Granular analysis of pattern of reaction turns out to be really important.

So what? Well firstly, please believe that the three ads I’ve chosen here are not atypical – indeed it’s now the case that we get surprised if we don’t see at least some significant difference in reaction between males and females! if I’m right, then the analysis of advertising needs a rethink. It may be researchers need to make the analysis of male and female differences in response more central – with a consequent need to increase sample sizes to drill deeper into the results for each gender. More importantly, we need to use techniques like facial imaging to help advertising creatives’ look at patterns of reactions to ads rather than just giving them potentially misleading ‘overall scores’.  We can help make much better, more effective advertising if we do this. For marketers, the implications are most challenging: making ads that work for both males and females may require much more subtlety than we thought, and in some cases it may almost be a matter of considering the need for quite different approaches. Certainly I’d now advise any marketer to avoid undertaking any ad campaign without a very precise feel for exactly how purchase decision-making and influence varies by gender in their category: you don’t want to please the end consumer at the expense of disgusting the person who actually has the brand veto at retail!


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