Saturday, February 21, 2009

Signs and the Single Woman

Before heading off to the Expo, Bill posted a recent list of digital signage news of interest. One of the most intriguing – the finding that single images appeal to viewers (especially those over 40) caught my eye. Having read over the full study and analysis by Photo Finish, I wasn't too surprised by the insights into age and income segmented markets – it seems a bit obvious that younger people who deal in a lot of interactive multi-screen formats would be more comfortable with collage and multiple images than older folks who prefer single shots with more emotional content. I’m also not going to bet my money on some of the right brain/left brain gender differences they cite, as that biological research has a fair number of flaws. Better to suggest that there simply are differences in the ways men and women approach the world than search for some flimsy baseline reasons why.

But one insight that caught my attention was one about single women: After slicing and dicing the over-40 market, they remind us:

Don’t forget single women! There are 13.1 million single women over 50. Only 3.6 million are low income. They’re known for girlfriend getaways and will buy fewer but better things. They should be included in your marketing, whether alone or in groups, and pictured as independent, capable and confident.”

Single or not, women are still more frequently the object on the billboard than the subject to whom content is directed. does a great job surveying buildings, design, and billboards in New York City. From their random samples and a general analysis of urban advertising, it appears that most big ad campaigns focus on the “sex sells” message. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se (although debates about the appropriateness of American Apparel, Calvin Klein, and other campaigns that push the edge are still, I think, important. We don't want censorship, but we do want to consider what's tasteful. Even though Absolut Vodka’s recent “ad” in Sex and the City reverses the gaze to the male body, these campaigns are still limited in their demographic appeal. Ironically enough, the depth of cultural gender bias in sexy ads is obvious in that I'm comfortable posting the Dove Real Beauty image, but I'm going to ask you to go find the racy naked vodka hunk through a link. It's worth it.).

For the most part, the basic idea of sexuality that’s being sold is still anchored around the “Will I look like that if I buy this product?” model of advertising. It’s extremely difficult to find major visual urban ad campaigns pitched at women that draw upon the insights that Photo Finish suggests.

But what of the insight that women are the largest consumer group today? That as the Boomer population ages, women (regardless of their marital status) will likely remain the larger statistically significant demographic group? That women’s employment rates will remain high – and most likely go up – as the current economic trend continues? That as women gather more income-generating power, the advertising has to appeal beyond the direct social roles as mothers, wives, girlfriends, sex objects? Certainly industry leaders in advertising are beginning to recognize this. And having women in positions to determine advertising content helps (see this great review of a recent history of women in advertising).    But the tech-side of the industry (read: digital signage) has been historically oriented towards men.

In looking over the current array of urban billboards and digital signs, it strikes me that in a desire to appear cutting edge, hip, and tech-savvy, marketers are forgetting basic research into what, as Freud would say, women want. Take a look at these recent billboards and think it through before you pitch your next campaign at June Cleaver or Claudia Schiffer.

(and by the way, the "Husband Wanted" billboard is real, while the "Dear Steve..." one is a promotional teaser for Parco, PI, a short lived reality show on Court TV.)

image sources: the New York Times photo archive,, and Australian News Service.

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