Advertisers could soon see the influence of a third gender option now available on California driver’s licenses and IDs.
The California law -- SB 179, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in October -- took effect January 2019 and states that if a driver does not identify as either male or female, it will allow the person to tick the box to become a non-binary gender.
Marketers also can add New York to the states that will offer residents a third gender option on their birth certificates.
The move not only confuses enforcement made during vehicle traffic stops, but also could bring new challenges to advertisers.
“With full respect to the non-binary gender category, I will note the elimination of gender-specific targeting could be extremely detrimental to any advertiser,” said Jonathan Kagan, senior director of search and biddable media at Cogniscient Media. “The reality is that in search, social, display and video we target certain products and provide specific messaging based on gender. Same as we do with age and other customer-defining profiles.”
He advises against the prevention of targeting by gender. If advertisers stop targeting by gender to market gender-specific products, especially healthcare, they will likely see an uptick in unqualified impressions and traffic. Kagan said this will reduce the cost efficiency and ultimately undervalue the return on investment for campaigns.
Search Engines Under Bias Scrutiny
In 2018, fearful of gender bias, Google began blocking gender-based pronouns in an autocomplete feature it introduced in Gmail. The technology doesn’t suggest “him” or “her,” for example, when suggesting how to complete the sentence.
Google for years has been the target of gender bias in its search engine, not only with text-based queries, but image-based queries as well.
Some Agencies Say Yes
Not all agency executives are against eliminating “gender” from targeting options. Conductor COO Selina Eizik thinks marketers targeting based on needs, rather than gender, are likely to give consumers better content and choices.
Consider a brand that only sells to women. “If I sell dresses and I stop caring about your gender and care about how the dress makes you feel better, more than focusing on the people who care about dressing, it better allows me to expand my niche beyond women” -- who have been targeted by brands in the past, Eizik said. “I don’t think gender should play a role.”
Before joining Conductor in July, Eizik spent nearly 16 years at Acronym, most recently as the agency’s chief executive officer.
“We should be less focused on demographic targeting,” she said. “You see that playing out a lot in Google Ads. You have the gender targeting, but coming from the agency world, it’s rare for us to trigger targets by demographic data, even if we targeted by gender.”
Eizik said gender targeting, which is already imperfect, doesn’t work well. When targeting only women on the Google Display Network, the platform would go after the targets that would claim to skew more toward women.
Dr. Scholls, for example, did research on comfort, how feet are structured, and what causes pain. They made the research available to consumers, rather than just trying to sell them products. “I’d like to see marketing strategies go more toward need and less about audience targeting and gender,” she said.
The Bigger Question Around Gender
Checking the box doesn’t identify the person.
“The bigger question on gender has to do with traditionally female or male-centric products becoming ungendered,” said Shane Ragiel, digital media director at Chacka Marketing. “We’ve recently seen the toys we buy become less about our child’s gender. Even fragrance and skincare products have become a high growth category for men.”
Parental roles are not exclusively falling to women, and nail polish and makeup use, or lack of, can no longer identify a gender, he said.
Advertisers have always placed their media in channels or locations and, now, with digital, targeting, interests, behaviors, and demographics that over-index with their products—advertisers should go where customers go, Ragiel said.
He explains that’s why it is unlikely to see an ad for ShoeDazzle on ESPN.com.
“Not that women don’t watch sports, but it is more likely that you can find them elsewhere,” he said. “Advertisers are usually keener to find their customers because they focuses on the end user and less on their gender.”
If ShoeDazzle began seeing that their female or male customers were making the move to ESPN.com, they would begin targeting them at the site because it's less about feelings and more about data. It becomes less of a question about gender because men can also wear heels, and more about finding their next potential customer, he said.
Advertisers will need to begin asking whether the brand’s product gendered by advertising and promotion or by actual use.
“We are in an age of inclusivity and while individual usage from a specific gender may be limited, they could have amongst a product’s highest lifetime value and influence,” Ragiel said.