When women’s emancipation meets marketing issues

The change on women’s status in the society has greatly impacted on various areas of social life. In professional world and marital relations, the role of women changed and shook up the established standards. If marketing has adapted to new offerings for women, the stereotype of the « housewife under 50″ is difficult to erase.

A gap between aspirations and practices

How can we explain the continuation of ‘clichés’? Sometimes accused of being sexist, the world of advertising, is not the unique responsible for the persistence of these traditions. It sometimes reflects simply facts. For example, the sociologist Martyne Perrot (CNRS) highlighted the consistency of gendered tasks towards groceries.

« I found that women, especially mothers, continue to play a crucial role in this area, where they always behave like real nursing mothers. I admit, I was surprised to observe how it is stills the same”. She adds that, « young mothers are extremely depending on current hygienists’ injunctions, whether it is about diet, the need to eat food without pesticides, or marketing messages that relay it all. »(1)

Women plan, the men help

If INSEE said that the division of housework is more balanced, it remains that women are the main decision makers and they organize many activities. Martyne Perrot says: « (…) grocery shopping is actually the area where there is the least difference between the time spent by men and women. That said, where women provide basic supplies, men generally do the shopping they like. Certainly, they accompany their spouse to the supermarket, to help carry the bags, but they often disappear from the store entrance to go to their favourite alley (electronics, sport equipments, football magazines etc…) and only reappear at the checkout. Men are in charge of getting wines or cheeses. Some go to the market on Sunday because they love it and they take the opportunity to meet friends for a drink. They give themselves the freedom to say they will not take care of this or that shopping.« (1)

In this case, how do companies manage this brand halftone evolution?

Dominique Desjeux anthropologist working among others on the consumer decision process, gives us his point of view.

 In your opinion, what are the major changes in the consumer’s sector?

In terms of product offer, the last twenty years have known many changes. Let’s take one example among thousands; companies have changed the size of the packaging by offering smaller packages to adapt to people living alone. This mutation is one way to take into account the decrease of family sizes and the increase of single people.

The second development is especially economical with the rise of « fixed expenses » which households are facing and that businesses are making adjustments to, by lowering their prices. This constraint about the purchasing power was very strong between 1992 and 1997. Then it went down gradually from 2000 with the rise of commodity prices. It is especially visible from 2009 since the 2008 crisis.

In summary, the first constraint is the size of households, the second one is the buying power and the third one is the fear of dangerous medicines and food. This is why organic is a potential carrier sector, particularly for women. However, nowadays, organic food remains limited and a bit unpopular.

The role of women has dramatically changed in society. For example, they integrated the professional sphere. Have companies taken into account the women roles in the society are changing nowadays and are they taking them into account?

During the thirty glorious, companies have learned to take into account the changing role of women, especially when you consider the famous slogan « Moulinex liberates woman. » Since 1960, women have gained autonomy, with paid work, contraceptive pills which allow them to plan their pregnancy period, and electricity in the kitchen which allows them to gain time when cooking or doing the laundry. In 1980, the major purpose of consumption stabilizes then brands and advertising imagery becomes more important. With the new economic crisis usages become unstable. Advertising can no longer function as before because the limitation of buying power of the lower classes becomes even worst. Because of unemployment there is often not more than one salary in a home plus the cost of energy increases. We must therefore return to the anthropological observation of usage under constraints in the domestic space as SEB does it in France and around the world, or as I did with my team for L’Oreal and Chanel in China.

 When we look at advertisements on television, the shadow of « housewives under 50 years old » is never far away from that of advertisers and marketers do they really change their view on women?

That’s a good question. I often feel like the development of society and the work of advertising are two totally different things.

I feel that many companies do not know how to observe the uses and constraints of women in their daily lives. In few words, marketing or communications departments are overconfident in enchanting brand power. They act as if women had no stress and it was enough to seduce, which is a « macho » thing!

A part of advertisements is often far from everyday’s life. Those that seem closest are those of the supermarkets.

A good example of the difference between magic and reality was given to me by one of my clients who operate in the « breakfast » sector. He asked me to think from my investigations, and those of my colleagues, looking at what was happening in families between 6:30 / 7am and 8h30/9 in the morning. Looking at the observation of family practices in situations, it shows that we are far from the « Ricoré » happy family. Breakfast is actually a very stressful time for a woman, especially if she is the mother of one or two children. In an hour and half on the dot, you need to get the children ready so that they could leave on time for school; at the same time, you need to get yourself for work. In the evening you have to start the same process in reverse from 17/18h, with the return of school, homework, bath, dinner, TV and bed … This is a time where pressure mounts contrary to what is shown in advertisements. Although offering a promotional dream too far from reality can be cons-productive.

I wonder if the company should no more consider parts of reality through their advertisements, especially when the reality is harsh and stressful. New advertising seduction should probably focus more on the daily practices of the user-consumer-women than on the brand, in order not to become subject to auto referencing narcissism which makes the customers unable to recognize themselves in their real life and which could also chase them away.

According to you, have there been strong changes in marketing offers in traditionally feminine sectors (health beauty, fashion, etc.)?

We can list the luxury example. My investigation of cosmetics and body care allowed me to meet a striking fact. Recently, for maybe one, two or three years, companies offering cosmetic are realizing that women are taking some distance from cosmetics.

For women, beauty products are no longer just a way to be more beautiful, to build their identity, to have more confidence, but they could also be a risk. A portion of women is afraid of cosmetics. Like any product, a cosmetic product is ambivalent: it is both positive and negative. Companies are struggling to take into account this ambivalence because they only want to communicate the idyllic part of their products through advertisement and brand image, showing that the product gives self-assurance. I don’t know if today’s businesses are able to take into account this ambivalence, if they agree on publishing more realistic picture and less idealized of themselves.

It seems like a nowadays, there is a huge demand of healthy food pharmaceutical care. Companies therefore take into account that women’s and consumers demands, but powerful association. This is expressed through the Internet, consumer advocacy groups, the press and the political demand of « class actions » and criticism « obsolescence said to be planned. » The company must also manage the tension between R & D and marketing, regulatory constraints are linked to state, the power relationships with retailers and even the criticisms that are made by their scientific experts especially in the medical field, that the food or mobile phones and masts.

Is this new demand for women’s health, related to their emancipation, or to the fact that they now want to control their lives from beginning to end?

I’m not sure that women have regained control of their bodies. It’s a little fantasy for me. Makeup is often a constraint, and not always a release. In the United States, a woman told me, for example: « I think the makeup is not good for the skin but I can not go out on the street without makeup because otherwise I feel naked under the gaze of other. » This shows that there is a very high standard group that makeup becomes an obligation. Unlike in China, makeup remains a taboo in certain social situations. It is often not at home at the weekend for some Chinese women. On the other hand, it is recommended in professional life. The practice of makeup is part of a compromise between personal expectation and standard group.

Historically makeup and body treatments were developed from the 1920s in the U.S., years 1945/1950 in Western Europe in particular with perms for hair or sunscreen and in the 1980s in Brazil or in China, with L’Oreal for the upper middle classes and Chanel luxury. This means that the body care market in the broad sense is closely linked to the development of the consumer and therefore the offer.

I have found that makeup was historically developed at a time when the family and the couple were transformed, especially when divorce became possible.

This means women’s body which was considered in the past in rural societies, firstly as a family-owned and whose value was linked to its ability to have children, has changed value. Today the body is a new issue that depends on the value it has on the new « marriage market » which is an unstable market. The body becomes an aesthetic capital which must be maintained. Everything happens as if the cosmetic market was built in the new situation to help women retaining the value of their « body capital » at the heart of the competition prevailing in the market for couples. Makeup is a way to play in an unstable « market » the one of love life. It is both a means of releasing the woman and a means of social control. It is interesting to show how neutral the potential link between the evolution of society, the development of a market, the cosmetics, and possibly taken into account by the company in this market, even though the company often will not dare to do this societal link preferring to stay on the psychological level of pleasure and self-realization.

In the past, some sectors abandoned female target (such as banking, insurance, telecommunications, automotive) have they recently turned around to provide offers products / services to women?

This has changed from 20 to 30 years due to the feminization of many products. For example, motoring was typically a male market into the 1980s. However, from 1980 to 1990, the market has opened to women, and the cars are completely rounded. Cars have taken femininity signs following the conventional codes of Western semiotics.

From the year 1950/1960, women were able to obtain paid employment – women who always worked as farmers, such as saleswoman or mothers without salaries – saw their incomes increase. This is what Jan de Vries called « industrious revolution » and mark for the first time in the middle of the 16th due to the increase in women’s income and their new demand for consumer goods. (3)

From this financial independence, a specifically feminine demand was created and therefore a strategy to adapt supply to female’s new demand. This is the case for handy work. Now there is a market for female’s handy work (9%), lower percentage than the male market (34%), to take the 2005 figures, but is constantly increasing. The drills have become much lighter and shapes are rounding. This has increased itself probably due to the increase in single parent families, and therefore only women who must bear some male tasks. The feminization touches other key sectors such as mobile telephony. The design varies between neutral forms, male and female cell phones. To develop a market for marketing strategies and designers is to find new symbolic segmentations such as gender and therefore the feminization of products. This symbolic segmentation can be crossed with that of mobility and nomadism applied to female makeup, bag, catering, etc… The problem is that when the limitation of buying power is strong, as today since the 2008 crisis, the symbolic segmentation has even less effect. It is therefore necessary to re-explore the demands of women. Companies therefore take into account the evolution of women’s practices under limitation of the change in family lifestyle.

Interview by 


(1) Article Sciences Humaines Magazine, interview de Martyne Perrot, a sociologist at the CNRS, has published Going shopping, Stock, 2009, and we to believe in Santa Claus? Ideas about Christmas, The Blue Rider, 2010.
(2) D. Desjeux is Anthropologist, Professor at the Faculty of SHS-Sorbonne University Paris Descartes, PRES Sorbonne Paris Cité, CERLIS (CNRS), Director of Professional Doctoral degree, international consultant
(3) Jan de Vries, 2008, The Industrious Revolution, Cambridge University Press

 huarache femme

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