Is Diet Soda Girly?

Marketing companies take on gender contamination, the idea that when women flock to a product, men flee.

Marketers, as well as anyone who’s been to a Toys R Us in the last 10 years, are well aware that a common way to goose sales is to split a market by gender. If body wash is a product traditionally purchased by women, design a body wash exclusively for men. Persuade both genders that they’re better off with their own gender-specific stuff, and you could wind up with double the sales—households with two types of bath soap, two types of diet soda, two sets of nearly identical kids’ building blocks, with one set in pink.

Part of the reason this approach works so well is that men, apparently, don’t want to buy stuff strongly associated with women. This resistance has led to ads like one launched recently for Dr Pepper Ten, a diet soda that attempts to address the fact that male consumers think “diet’s kinda girly,” as one of Dr Pepper’s execs put it to me. The new ad showcases a mountain man who chews bark and canoes with a bear; the tagline is “the manliest low-calorie soda in the history of mankind.”

A few years ago, an ad for Verizon’s Motorola Droid painted the iPhone as “a tiara-wearing, digitally clueless beauty pageant queen,” a “precious porcelain figurine of a phone,” and “a princess.” The Droid, meanwhile, was a “racehorse duct-taped to a Scud missile,” fast enough to “rip through the Web like a circular saw through a ripe banana”—at which point in the ad a banana explodes in a kind of orgy of male satisfaction. Got it. And earlier this year, when Google’s Sergey Brin gave a Ted talk boasting about the eyeglass/smartphone hybrid Glass, he criticized traditional smartphones for being “emasculating,” which was apparently code for physically limiting, socially isolating, and just plain lame. Could this be the germ of a future ad campaign? When even soda and smartphones have a gender, apparently anything can.

Some time ago, professor Jill Avery at the Simmons School of Management in Boston set out to explore this gender-based squeamishness, which seems like a holdover from the ew-cooties! phase of preschool. Within the business world, this squeamishness had long been the problem that has no name; marketing executives and consultants I spoke with were well aware of the issue but didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. Avery had to borrow from anthropology to find the term “gender contamination,” which traces back to the kind of ancient cultural taboos that banished menstruating women to special huts for fear they’d pollute everyone else.  

Gender contamination captures the cultural disapproval that takes place when objects seen as having a strong gender identity are used by the wrong gender. Unilever’s vice president of skin care, Rob Candelino, told me that before Dove launched a cleansing bar specifically for men in 2010, the company’s research showed that men made up as much as a third of those using the traditional Dove beauty bar. But the original product was strongly associated with women, and as a result the men were using the product in a passive way, often letting their wives or girlfriends buy it, and “probably not telling their guy friends,” Candelino says. The beauty bar’s potential for growth among men was limited so long as it stayed a beauty bar.

Something similar can happen when women flock to a product designated for males. Avery’s 2012 paper, “Defending the Markers of Masculinity,” which grew out of her Harvard dissertation, explores gender contamination through the dramatic example of Porsche’s launch of the Cayenne SUV about a decade ago. The Cayenne faced an unexpected backlash by male Porsche owners who felt their beloved, hypermasculine sports-car brand was being corrupted by SUV-loving women. Avery documented the response in online communities; one Porsche fan characterized the new SUV as an “expensive strap-on for soccer-moms and effeminate stock-brokers.” Another envisioned a woman “driving the damn thing to pick up her kids,” as if there was nothing worse. “I wonder how many cup holders it will have???” the commenter added, invoking a kind of shorthand for what female drivers supposedly want. “Just shoot me now!”

One of Avery’s more surprising and urgent insights is that the theme of gender contamination—the idea that some products belong to men and some to women, and that women somehow ruin men’s products by using them—appears to be showing up more and more, both in advertising and in consumer responses of the sort Porsche experienced. Avery believes this is linked to marketers’ efforts to expand sales by “genderizing” products and also, counterintuitively enough, to the growing fluidity of gender roles in the culture at large. She points to other research suggesting that when a cultural hierarchy is threatened, it’s natural for those at the top to cling all the more tightly to symbols of their old rank. In other words, as more and more women become the breadwinners in their families, as men have lost their majorities on college campuses, their advantages in many blue-collar and white-collar jobs, their role as head of household, they can’t help but hang on to the traditional markers of masculinity. What do they still own if not their sports cars?

“As gender lines are blurring, we need our things to send clearer signals,” Avery says. These attempts at clarity run the gamut from Unilever’s Axe (those ads imply that the most nerdy and physically repulsive young man can become sexually irresistible through Axe body sprays and washes) to Dove Men + Care, whose ads for moisturizer, shampoo, and the like hit on often moving themes of fatherhood and responsibility.

The “Manthem” ad for Dove Men + Care, which ran during the 2010 Super Bowl, shows the trials and monuments of a man’s life (climbing a rope in gym class, getting married, changing a flat tire in the rain), and implies that, having been through so much, men can at last pamper their skin a bit—in a wholly masculine fashion. It’s a fine line Dove is walking, tapping into a traditionally feminine instinct but expressing it in a male idiom. “You’re a man, we know you’re a man, it’s OK,” is how Avery describes the ad’s message.

But it’s not just ads that demonstrate a product’s intended audience—it’s how the product is packaged, too. Everything from font to the color of the bottle matters. “You have to make sure you’re harnessing the right male codes,” says Cheryl Swanson, managing director of the Manhattan brand strategy firm Toniq. “In order for guys to even remotely check it out, they need to have permission.”

That means “masculine” colors (black and gray work well) and a nice clean typeface (sans-serif maybe) and perhaps even some variation on the phrase “for men.” The Dr Pepper Ten packaging even features “industrial rivets,” because, as Dr Pepper’s Senior Vice President of Brand Marketing Jaxie Alt explains, “What’s more manly than a guy and his tool belt?”

To some extent, “gender contamination” has always been an advertising concern. Marlboro was originally a woman’s cigarette. When Philip Morris rebranded it for men, they went overboard, choosing the strongest possible masculine imagery to reassure male consumers they could buy it. “The cowboy is an almost universal symbol of admired masculinity,” famed ad man Leo Burnett explained in 1955.

And back then, just as now, gender contamination flowed just one way. Burnett assured Philip Morris that there was no risk of alienating female consumers with an explicitly male message. “Women often tend to buy what they consider a man’s cigarette,” he wrote. That’s because then, as now, men risked denigrating themselves by shopping like women, while women were only too happy to aspire to the higher status and power associated with men, even as they are gaining their own power. This is why boys’ names like Ashley that migrate over to the girls’ realm can never return. And this is why two years after Dr Pepper Ten launched—with an original tagline of “It’s Not For Women,” plus a Facebook page with a “manly shooting gallery” game for blowing up things like lipstick and potholders—40 percent of its drinkers are actually … women.