When Targeting Women, Stop Thinking Girly

a maslansky luntz + partners initiative in collaboration with the Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group and SquareOff


In a world capable of facebook targeting, sophisticated segmentation studies, and something called “narrowcasting,” communicators and marketers are starting to wear out a lot of carpet pacing back and forth, wondering how exactly they’re supposed to use all this new data they’re collecting. A client recently wondered aloud, “Ok, but do we need a different message for rural moms in the Plains states?” She was not kidding. Much sleep being lost over those Kansas agri-moms, apparently.


Though it plays out in more finely-cut demographics today, the idea that we need to craft different messages for different audiences isn’t a new one. For example, we have a rich history of advertising stupidly—I mean, um, differently—to women. The theory being (kind of reductive here, but it’s a blog, so) “if men and women are different, they must want different kinds of appeals.” The trouble is, attempts to make ads more appealing to women often default to some, well, let’s say assumptions that may or may not be grounded in reality. So we decided to take a look at six campaign ads with a range of appeals traditionally viewed as more appealing to men and women, and see how women’s gut-level, moment-to-moment responses differed from men’s.

What we found will…

(If you’re a man) really surprise you!

(If you’re a woman) be frustratingly obvious, but at least someone is writing it down!

1. Take off the lacy pink kid gloves. We tested six different ads with about 200 people, split roughly evenly between men and women, with a wide range of political views. Overall, women are looking for—hope you’re sitting down here—the same things in political ads that men are. Or at least the things we traditionally believe men want. There were very few significant differences (which we’ll cover below) between how women reacted to and commented on our sample ads and how men did. So while there are certainly a few key issues that are more important to women than men—mostly dealing with reproductive rights and, this week at least, Todd Akin—there is not much credence to the theory that you need to talk about issues differently with women than men.

2. Facts: Not just for dudes anymore. Some of the prevailing palaver goes something like “men need facts, while women need emotional reasons for making decisions.” Elections are not a Mars/Venus thing. Women are just as likely as men to get a bad feeling about claims with no evidence, and just as likely to call out an ad’s lack of facts after they’ve seen it. The consistency with which we heard responses like those below—from both sides of the political aisle, regardless of who an ad was for—indicates that women are scanning ads for evidence pretty actively.


“[This ad] plays on emotions rather than facts.”

“Nothing in the ad was persuasive because it provided no facts.”

3. Women are busy. Get to it already. Another popular belief is that men react better to stark, declarative sentences. (e.g.: “I am opposed to hurricanes. Period,” rather than “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where hurricanes aren’t like tearing up our cities all the time, and such?”). Not true. Men’s and women’s moment-to-moment reactions to this particular rhetorical device track perfectly. And women are just as likely as men to explain they like that an ad “got right to the point” or “said clearly what [Romney/Obama] believes.”

“[The ad was] short, succinct and to the point.”

“Stop belly-aching and start putting out commercials that explain what you are going to do!”

4. There’s power in sacrifice. There are, however, a few things that women did respond to better than men. The first is talk of sacrifice. For example, in a recent Obama ad—trying to walk back comments about small business owners “not building that”—the President insists that “everyday, hardworking people sacrifice to make a payroll, create jobs, and make our economy run.” While men and women may find it equally true, women have a better instantaneous reaction to this articulation, that the integrity of small business is in the sacrifices they make—as opposed to, say, small business’ pride or independence or any of the other ways this could be framed.

It’s tempting to speculate that the idea of sacrifice is simply more resonant to women, who daily feel asked to choose among career, love, family, beauty and brains, etc. But such would, at this point, be speculation.

5. Community spirit. A second language insight gleaned from testing our sample ads is that women reacted slightly better to grounding results in communities than men did. A Priorities USA Action (a Democratic PAC) ad features a former factory worker standing in front of a factory closed by Bain Capital, sharing his story. Prevailing wisdom would suggest that women would identify more with this man sharing his personal story than men would, based on pop-psych theories about women being more empathic or something. Not so. Men found this ad disturbing (which is a good thing, actually, since that was the point) from beginning to end. Images of the boarded-up factory, and talk of turning the place from booming into a junkyard, were effective.

Women really had no reaction to this at all. The factory is not compelling in and of itself. Then the man delivers his final comment: “They [meaning Romney, Bain] don’t live in this neighborhood. They don’t live in this part of the world.” This last-second connection to the factory’s effect on the community registered a significantly stronger reaction from women.

6. Don’t rely on first ladies. We also tested an ad from a few months back from Restore Our Future (a Republican PAC) that highlights some attacks on Ann Romney by Democrats Hilary Rosen and Bill Mahr. The idea of the ad was to get women disgusted with Democrats because some Democrats attacked Ann Romney for “never working a day in her life” and “never getting her ass out of the house.” The tactic worked and backfired. While women—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—are disgusted by the attacks, they’re equally disgusted by the ad. Repeatedly, women told us “this has nothing to do with the election.” “Ann Romney isn’t running.” “Don’t attack her, and don’t run this ad.”


“I am not sure why there is even an ad about a candidate’s wife when there are more important issues to discuss.”

The ultimate takeaway from the women we heard from is probably a let-down for Democrats. The blue team seems to constantly be tearing hair and rending garments over the fact that women could ever be fleeced into voting Republican. But women aren’t looking for a kinder, gentler party. In fact, the things that differentiate women from men (stronger reactions to “sacrifice” and “community”) are appealing to people in either party. Perhaps the first party to axe the idea of “ads for women” will experience the bigger swing with that voting bloc.

Michael Maslansky (@m_mas) is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a language strategy and research firm, and author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.