If you’ve been on the internet anytime in the last twelve months, you might have noticed the growing discussion around gender binaries and their place in modern society. Movements such as Pride Month, held in June each year, and its widespread impact are a testament to how far we’ve come in the last 50 years. While the term ‘gender fluid’ may have once been met with raised eyebrows, it has become a well-known term to describe those who don’t identify with a fixed gender. Celebrities such as Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus, who identify as gender fluid, have become the faces of a movement encouraging non-binaries to embrace their identity. So, when it comes to the marketing universe, what’s next for an industry that relies so heavily on appealing to the masses?
There was once, and still is, a market for unnecessarily gendered products. I will always buy women’s razors, despite knowing I’m paying double for what is essentially the same product. Whack a frangipani graphic on the front alongside the word “Revitalising” in bold italics, and I’ll play the fool. But, as our social awareness progresses, companies will have no choice but to do away with gender normative marketing strategies, or risk appearing out of touch with the current generation. Already, we are seeing a rise in gender fluid fashion both in stores and on the runway. This tells us that brands are shifting to align themselves with these modern values. Facebook, one of the most progressive social media platforms, was one of the first big-name companies to support the transition away from gender stereotypes. The social network allowed users to select from 58 different genders in addition to male and female. From Agender to Two-Spirit (which a quick Google search revealed is an American Indian term for gay, lesbian or transgender), Facebook takes inclusivity to another level. In 2015 cosmetics giant MAC released a line of limited edition gender-fluid makeup, which proved so popular it made a return the following year. Neutral eye shadows and lip stains were featured in the collection, but the biggest point of difference buyers cited was the packaging, which includes a matte black casing.
Where there is a demand, companies are often more than willing to supply. But what about the most vulnerable audience when it comes to gender-stereotyped marketing? Gender binaries seem to remain dominant in the marketing of children’s toys and clothes, perpetuating a potentially damaging cycle of conformity. Any child diverging from this standard is less likely to question social ethos and instead, question their own identity. Gender distinctions at this early stage of life can prove damaging, as children use toys as a means of development socially and intellectually. Interestingly, however, the segregation of children’s toys into gender binaries is a relatively new phenomenon. Today, even toys that appear gender neutral are assigned gender-binary marketing techniques. Lego is the poster child of this fall from grace. The toy company was famous for their gender-neutral advertisements, but in recent years have reverted to the pink and blue segregation. It is especially disturbing that in most cases the contents of the blue packaged Lego are identical that of the pink.
We already know that young people are taking a more active and sympathetic role in the global community. As a generation of consumers, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to just about everything. With retail competition at an all-time high, brands simply cannot afford to remain stagnant in the face of societal progression at a time when the form of internet-bred social activism can spell out large scale boycotts. It didn’t take long for Pepsi to pull their latest commercial featuring Kendall Jenner from the internet after it received backlash for trivialising the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Social media provides a dangerous platform for consumers to vocalise their criticisms. In 2016, masses of people boycotted so-called “free range” eggs from 19 different brands when the lax legal definition of ‘free range’ was publicised. If consumers care enough about an issue, they wield a great deal of power. If companies don’t reflect the values of the current generation, especially regarding non-binary attitudes towards gender, their future may rest in the hands (and keyboards) of angry millennials.
In the future, it is likely that retail outlets will move away from the restrictive girl/boy/men/women labels, and embrace gender fluidity. Target stores across the US have already stopped using these labels for bedding and toys. But the labels go deeper than the male/female dichotomy. Men’s deodorant, for example, uses catchwords such as ‘masculine woods’ and ‘clean shaving smell’, with women’s scents described as ‘flirtatious’ and ‘floral’. When did we decide how men and women were supposed to smell? Or perhaps you’ve seen tissues labelled ‘man-size’, a marketing ploy which reaches new heights in the world of unnecessary product gendering.
During a recent trip to the ANU pharmacy, I noticed a lip balm that stood out from the peach-coloured, strawberry scented selection on the stand. The packaging was black and minimalist, and the sleek red font on the label said that it was ‘engineered for men’. That’s right: engineered. This lip balm means business. Perhaps a few decades ago, before images of the apron-clad housewife produced eye-rolls from this new and progressive generation, companies could rely on gender stereotypes in marketing. But as cultural norms shift, so too must the gendered approach to branding. The use of things such as internet memes as marketing tools (despite inciting a high level of cringe) tells us that companies, particularly those targeting millennials, are desperate to prove themselves. If this is the case, it’s time companies did more to embrace individuality, and less to reinforce outdated gender stereotypes. Our overexposure to various forms of media means that we are constantly consuming information in forms such as online ads, television commercials, online shopping and the subtle (and more recent) sponsored Instagram posts. If companies fail to acknowledge gender-fluidity, it will contribute further to a world already saturated with unrealistic standards for both men and women.
As history has proven, society changes over time. Our values and norms are constantly shifting, and gender binaries are a thing of the past. Instead of relying on outdated stereotypes, companies can appeal to our individuality as consumers, which hopefully provides a refreshing insight into the way marketing is headed towards the future.