Women Are Easy

Why TV Ad Agencies Take Female Viewers For Granted

For Madison Avenue and the TV networks, now is when the real money gets made. The fall schedules have just been released and agencies are buying ad time in a revenue-generating frenzy. This two-week spree is a period of such heady earnings that CBS president Leslie Moonves calls it "our lifeblood." This year was especially kind to TV execs. Advertisers were flush, thanks to the booming economy, and insiders estimate that TV stations could rake in a record $15 billion.

All that cash buys "eyeballs"—or viewers. But not all eyes are equal, at least not to the mavens of the marketing game. Networks charge far more for men's eyeballs than for women's, especially when it comes to prime-time shows. "This year, you could reach a thousand guys, 18 to 34, on a minute of network prime time, for 60 bucks," says Erwin Effron, a leading ad-industry researcher. "Women of the same age group would cost you $47."

This gender gap may seem unfair to women who were raised to believe "You've come a long way, baby." But it stems from the conventional ad-agency wisdom that women are easy. "More women watch television, and more are available in prime time," says Peter Chrisanthopoulos, president of broadcasting and programming at Ogilvy & Mather, "and that impacts on the cost to reach them."

If ad agencies begin with this shibboleth, programmers follow the same bouncing demographic ball. "Most entertainment shows are written with women in mind," says Chris Geraci, senior vice president for buying at BBDO. "So any time you have something young and male, it seems unique and more attractive. It's just not as easy to program for men."

The rule of thumb is that guys like sports, reality shows, and action movies, while women prefer comedy and drama. "A lot of what FOX does is obviously there to reach men," Geraci notes. "Many people consider Train Wrecks to be vulgar, but man, does it do its job." So does animation: King of the Hill, Futurama, and South Park all "do a fairly decent job of reaching men." Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its female lead, is brutal enough to bring in the boys (so much so that the network postponed its season finale last week because it involved violence at a high school).

James Hamilton, an economist and the author of Channeling Violence, argues that violent programming is part of a plan to attract male viewers, especially younger ones. Earlier this month, Hamilton told a congressional committee convened in the wake of Littleton that, "When Seinfeld dominated ratings, HBO had a strategy known internally as 'Testosterone Thursday,' in which it programmed low-quality violent films at 9 p.m. to attract male viewers." Today, FOX leads in the fight for males, a detail that hasn't been lost on the other networks, since commanding that market makes ad revenues soar.

"The fact is that there's more money chasing those rare male viewers," says one ad exec. Like his on-the-record colleagues, he insists that this emphasis on men is based on objective information about viewing and spending habits. But these stats don't tell the whole story.

"This is one of those industries where what you are studying has less to do with the truth than with the conventions of the business," says George Comstock, professor of communications at Syracuse University, whose exhaustive study, Television: What's On, Who's Watching, and What It Means, was published last month. These conventions include assumptions about what makes men and women tick that hark back to the era when men in gray flannel were the hidden persuaders.

Today's marketer or media buyer may well be a woman in Prada, reflecting the profound shift in gender roles that is also being acted out on the tube. The stay-at-home wife in Bewitched has been replaced by Buffy the weapon-wielding go-getter. But though the image of women is evolving, the economics of television remain wedded to an age when husbands controlled the purse strings and young men were the apple of the culture's eye.

This much is true: young women do watch more TV than their male peers—and they watch a much wider variety of shows, including violent ones meant to attract men. The ideal formula to entice young women as well as men is a bloodfest with a female lead. Buffy draws about seven men for every 10 women who watch. Women watch sports too: Monday Night Football grabs one woman for every two men. But most guys will run for the hills rather than watch a bad-hair makeover. Only three men tune in Oprah for every 10 women who do.

"TV is, after all, a group activity," says James Webster, a professor of communications at Northwestern University, "and along the lines that girls will play with GI Joes but boys don't play with Barbie, you find that women will watch what men want to watch."

And what men watch most, surprisingly enough, is other men. "We think one reason people are drawn to TV is the opportunity to compare themselves with others in terms of appearance and clothing—what psychologists call 'social comparison,"' says Comstock. "TV serves that purpose pretty well. Studies of eye contact with the screen show that people watch the same gender: females watch females, males watch males." Except, perhaps, when the comparison raises anxieties for male viewers. Gazing at an impossibly ripped Schwarznegger is one thing, but a parade of plausibly built lifeguards can be a painful reminder of missed gym days. In April, more women watched Baywatch than did men, suggesting that women may be more comfortable making comparisons between themselves and an ideal.

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.

Still, television targets a median age of 33, though the population's median age is 41. "What's missing from this media equation is the willingness to spend," says Corlett. "People over 50 represent 38 percent of the population and 55 percent of the country's discretionary income." Yet when it comes to the electronic marketplace, they are as undervalued as women. "I think there is a disconnect," says Effron. "Essentially, the industry is scared of change."

Consider last year's most lauded TV ad, Budweiser's talking frogs. Strip away the high-tech animation and the anthropomorphic charm and you've got three guys in a belching contest. An apt metaphor for a sophisticated industry with a primitive heart.

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