Women Are Easy

Why TV Ad Agencies Take Female Viewers For Granted

On the other hand, some of what men and women watch in prime time is determined by who controls the remote—and hogging it is a well-documented male phenomenon. In a 1995 study, Susan Eastman, a media professor at Indiana University, wrote, "Most recent researchers echo earlier studies reporting gender differences, usually concluding that men graze more, enjoy watching two or more shows at a time, and dominate the remote as an expression of role power."

Given the gentleman's passion for remote control, and the fact that men are heavy surfers, it's easy to see why the ad agencies' eyes are on the guys. Getting their attention is presumed to be much harder than honing in on women, but that may not be the case. One reason why the money follows the men is that ad agencies rely so heavily on Nielsen data, which only describe viewing habits in terms of who's watching and who's not. But new surveys of audience behavior measure indicators of attention such as eye contact with the screen. The most exhaustive study of this kind found that men paid "complete attention" to the shows they watched 55 percent of the time, while women focused only 36 percent of the time. The research concluded that women are more apt to keep TV on in the background while doing other things, whereas men just grab the remote and go—making them easier to reach.

Even the adage that women watch more TV than men may need to be revised. During April, for example, women 18 and older watched five hours more TV a week on average than did men. But for working women, the gap shrinks to only three minutes. "Historically, the reason women have watched more TV is that they've had more time," says Webster. But with more women in the workplace, the time they spend watching television has declined by about two hours a week since 1985. Men, however, spend 27 minutes more time glued to the tube (perhaps because there are more reality shows and sports networks).

What's more, when it comes to spending—the litmus test for advertisers—women match men in dollar power, and in some areas outspend them. Total monthly credit card expenditures by women 18 to 34 exceed male spending by 2 percent, according to MediaMark, a top New York consumer research firm. Even in the car market—that most vaunted male domain—men now lead women by only one percentage point. Still, cars are overwhelmingly pitched to guys.

"There is still this sense that women are not such a big and powerful market, even though we really are," notes Jean Kilbourne, a feminist critic of advertising and the creator of the film Killing Us Softly. "This mentality still plays into advertising decisions. Some of it is really unconscious. People think they are counting the beans, but they may be influenced by an unconscious bias."

The stock market isn't the only place where perception determines price. Just as Internet IPOs are inflated by the hype, men are overvalued by a marketing and advertising milieu that is shaped by Stone Age logic. "For all the talk about market research, when it comes to gender, people switch from the local part of the brain to creaky nostrums about what works for men and for women, and what doesn't," says Susan Faludi, whose forthcoming book is Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. "There is such a desire to nail down these gender differences and insist on them regardless of the evidence. We think we have reached some stable place if we can determine what makes men and women different. To me, what's interesting is how they are similar—or such a complicated mix of things."

Yet most marketers still operate as if men can never come from Venus or women from Mars. As for old people, they don't come from anywhere.

As the networks presented their fall lineups, the shows that promised to deliver teenagers commanded the highest prices. "The thinking is that younger people are at a time in their lives when they are making decisions about brands," notes Effron, the industry consultant. But, as with gender, the skew to youth doesn't reflect the new economic reality. Among the most dramatic demographic changes is that this generation of older people is wealthier than ever and much more willing to spend money. But in the minds of marketers—most of whom are twentysomething—the aura of youth still sells better than the imprimatur of age.

"This is the way business has always been done," says Cheryl Russel, a demographer who studies consumer trends. "When the boomers were young adults, it made sense; now it doesn't, but the industry is the last to wake up."

The most entrenched cliché of advertising is that you can sell a young man's car to an old man, but not the other way around. "That attitude is what has so many marketers wondering why they are not seeing category growth," says Candace Corlett, a consultant specializing in the mature market. Corlett points to a national survey by her firm showing that 70 percent of people over 50 tried new brands last year, a rate she says is comparable to younger buyers.

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