Are online ads sexist too?

October 11, 2015 by Martha’s Dad

womenscientist-4956236Female scientists aren’t geeks, they are just regular girls who happen to like science.  That was the message in a number of US campaigns designed to encourage girls to study STEM subjects back in the 50s and, by and large, that theme still recurs around the world even today. Gender-role stereotyping such as this has, of course, been studied in a variety of contexts for well over half a century.

A common research domain is that of television advertising, where it has been repeatedly found that men and women are still being depicted in somewhat sexist roles.  In a commercial for a painkiller just this evening, for instance, I again noted that the unfortunate headache suffer was a woman in a classroom surrounded my noisy children, while the all-knowing disembodied voice spouting pseudo-science in praise of a particular brand of pain relief was unmistakably male.

One would expect (hope?) that new media in the Web 2.0 world would have moved on from such practices, but this appears only to be partially the case.  In a short-but-interesting post on the Psychology Today blog, “Customer Experience Psychologist” Liraz Margalit reports the results of a brief experiment into web visitor behaviour.  Specifically, the experiment involved presenting visitors with factual information on a particular product or service, then inviting them to explore further by clicking on a link depicting either a male or female “expert” waiting to help.  Depressingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the male expert’s picture tended to trigger a greater number of ‘click-throughs’ by visitors, particularly to content areas offering more information on the company and its products and services.  At least in terms of encouraging customers to find out more about what a firm has to offer, a male image therefore still appears to have an effect similar to that often reported in studies of more traditional advertising media.

It is not all bad news, however.  Although Margalit plays this down a little, I think the fact that the female image triggered a higher number of clicks inviting customers to actually ask for a product demonstration is very encouraging.  Margalit suggests that this reflects a more cautious approach by visitors clicking the demo link – they want to see the product for themselves – but could it not equally be the case that the female expert is trusted to demonstrate the product more, whereas visitors faced with a male expert want to read more detail first?

Interesting, if somewhat inconclusive, experimental results…. Let’s hope that this is a sign of changing attitudes on the part of both advertisers and customers in terms of gender stereotyping, rather than just a blip!