Gender Stereotyping in Ad Targeting


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  • Performance Content & Creative

Effective creative is inclusive, and you’ve probably thought this through with your agency partner.

Maybe you’ve removed gendered pronouns from your ads and made an effort to show diversity in the images of people that face potential customers. All steps in the right direction! But who sees these ads? In a digital marketing landscape comprising custom audiences and precision targeting, are we sure we’re following through on gender stereotyping in advertising?

Marketing Land recently summarized a research study from Kantar which found that digital ad targeting is “extremely skewed within specific product categories like baby products, laundry products, and household cleaners—where females make up 98 percent of the targeted audience.” Meanwhile, data shows that even in these stereotypically “female” categories, buying decisions were made jointly by men and women. Kantar also found that most TV ads are targeted at both genders. However, when they target a specific gender, it is usually women.  

Others are also considering the implications of gender-targeted ads. Megan Sullivan-Jenks of Choozle surveyed consumers about their attitudes toward gender-specific ads. Among her takeaways:

  • 50% of men and 68% of women said they would likely be affected by ads that break gender stereotypes.
  • 42% sometimes prefer to buy products for a gender other than their own

These findings imply missed opportunities.

Some kinds of gender-targeted ads may have legal implications. Last fall, an ACLU lawsuit accused Facebook of allowing employers to discriminate on the basis of gender. According to the New York Times, employers “appear to have used Facebook’s targeting technology to exclude women from the users who received their advertisements, which highlighted openings for jobs like truck driver and window installer.” One of the women bringing charges was interviewed for the story. She noticed during her job search that her husband saw different ads than she did—ads for the kinds of high-paying manual jobs that she sought.

At the extreme end of the discussion, what if gender targeting disappeared completely? In some states, including California and New York, a non-binary gender option will soon be available on state IDs. Digital News Daily interviewed several digital marketers about potential challenges.  While some argue that the elimination of gender-based targeting “could be extremely detrimental to any advertiser”, citing the potential for unqualified impressions and traffic, others aren’t so concerned. Shane Ragiel of Chacka Marketing summarized: “Advertisers have always placed their media in channels or locations and, now, with digital, targeting, interests, behaviors, and demographics that over-index with their products—advertisers should go where customers go.”


In effective advertising, #datadrivendecisions should inform targeting. Combating gender stereotyping aside (and clearly there is more work to do), any gender-based ad targeting demands scrutiny from an ethical, legal, andROI perspective. Who is making the buying decision? Who is influencing it? Is the potential customer better defined by a need or a solution than by gender? Does the product appeal to all genders?

Ad targeting is one of the most powerful tools in your agency’s kit. Make sure that the right individuals are seeing the right messages at the right time in their buying decision. And make double-sure that you’re not excluding any likely customers!

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