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By Reshma Gouravajhala

I try not to pay that much attention to commercials. Whether we’re talking about ads for fast food or fast cars, I tend to criticize and overanalyze.

There’s been a recent flurry of commercials, though, that have left more people than just me feeling anything but amused.

Take, for example, a recent ad campaign by Societe Bic, a French company that manufactures and sells disposable consumer items around the world. In an effort to attract more female consumers, the company has recently released new pink and purple-colored ballpoint pens as part of a campaign entitled “Bic for Her.” According to the company’s marketing, the new pens are “designed to fit comfortably in a woman’s hand,” and even include “a diamond engraved barrel for an elegant and unique feminine style.”

Yes, because if there’s anything the regular blue and black pens I’ve been using all my life have been lacking, it’s a diamond-engraved barrel that can really earn me style points.

I’m sure there are quite a few people out there wondering why I’m angry about this. They’re just pens, and if I don’t like them, I don’t have to buy them, right? After all, there are hundreds of products labeled “just for him” or “just for her,” and I don’t seem to be complaining about them.

So let me be clear: I’m not talking about products that need to be differentiated based on gender, like body lotions, deodorants, etc. But, really, pens don’t come under this category for me. If Bic had wanted to sell slimmer pens with fancy engravings, they could have done so without perpetuating the idea that women need dainty pink products whereas men are fine with the regular kind.

I came across the story of Bic’s new ballpoint pens while watching “The Ellen Show” a few weeks ago. In her trademark way of addressing real-world problems with perfect comedic timing, Ellen DeGeneres commented on the pens, saying “‘Designed to fit a woman’s hand.’ What does that mean? So when we’re taking down dictation from our bosses, we’ll feel comfortable and forget we’re not getting paid as much?”

DeGeneres is not the only one who finds the campaign to be rather sexist. Thousands of reviewers on Amazon have written hilariously snarky comments about the new line, expressing their elation in finally being able to buy a sparkly pink pen to write down—what else—recipes and cleaning tips.

For the record, Bic hasn’t come out with a statement regarding this new line of pens, even though the controversy has been going on since late August, which leads me to believe that they’re hoping the whole thing blows over pretty soon. Offended customers can look elsewhere for their pens, and we can all pretend that a campaign for pens didn’t become a battleground for people wanting complete gender equality.

Bic isn’t the first company that has gotten a marketing strategy wrong in such a sexist way.

In the U.K., Cadbury is currently under fire for its new chocolate bar, Crispello, which, with its purple packaging, pre-cut pieces and low calorie count, is being marketed as solely “for women.” Because, clearly, women are obsessed with their weights and, beyond that, need to have their food cut for them.

If you’re looking for another example, just look at Dr. Pepper’s “manly” diet soda called Dr. Pepper Ten. The ads for it, explicitly stating that the soda was “not for women,” came out a few years ago, and left a lot of people feeling outraged.  I mean, with a commercial that ended with the line “so you can keep your romantic comedies and lady drinks,” what could go wrong?

Falling sales ratings in the days after the Dr. Pepper Ten commercials aired revealed that the “men only” campaign wasn’t well-received by either men or women—turns out, neither group appreciated being singled out and told what they could (or couldn’t) buy. What a surprise.

But if companies want to go down this road, why stop at pens and soda? As pointed out by NPR writer Linda Holmes, there could be a whole market for items that are split by gender when they needn’t be. In her tongue-in-cheek article, Holmes herself comes up with a few products, ranging from light bulbs for her (entitled “Watt-A-Beauty!”) to smartphones solely for women (ingeniously called “Droid XX”).

In all seriousness, though, have we really gotten to the stage where companies feel the need to create a gender distinction for products when there doesn’t need to be one, all to score a higher profit? I hope advertisers realize how ridiculous it is of them to carry on with inane stereotypes and generalizations, especially in this day and age.

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One thought on “Investigating gender-specific marketing: pens, soda for her?

  1. Pingback: Words Mean Things IV | Apace of Change

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