“Products for women should be engineered, designed, colored, cushioned, and patterned to actually fit women and what we want; our music, our movies, and every sound.” This is the statement, smilingly recited by three women over a jingly, tambourine-laden indie rock backdrop, that surrounds SkullCandy’s launch of “headphones fine tuned for women.” And by fine-tuned, they don’t just mean color-coordinated and resized for comfort: they mean scientifically engineered to cater to differences in women’s hearing. Oh rly?
I take issue with a number of things here. The first is somewhat low-hanging fruit that, given past highly-publicized kerfuffles, one might think companies would avoid; the manufacture of products for the finer sex when use and enjoyment of said products is not actually dependent on gender. I had not realized I needed to coordinate my chromosomes with my choice of headphone or that the androgynous set I’m currently rocking isn’t adequately serving the “cleaner bass and very natural sounding vocals that… ladies prefer.” Thank goodness someone’s got my lady-like auditory predispositions in mind!
But diatribe be damned; I’m, for better or for worse, very used to sexism-masquerading-as-gender-catering in marketing campaigns. I won’t add to the slew of articles bemoaning this phenomenon. Instead, I’ve got a much more specific bone to pick.
Full disclosure: I’m an ad woman through and through. I watch commercials on my computer and trawl the net for neat print ads and interesting interactive executions. I’ve encountered my fair share of aggressively anti-female advertising that Skullcandy doesn’t begin (and wouldn’t want) to hold a candle to, as well as insipid, veiled appeals to femininity that some might argue more insidiously reinforce notions of gender divides. Despite my transient residence in the ivory tower, my stance on these sorts of things is less ideological and more pragmatic. Segmenting a market and defining a product’s target audience in part by gender is, in my book, not so objectionable. I don’t think marketing to women is bad or wrong, nor do I believe that explicitly labeling things as “women’s” products is inherently problematic. Advertising is driven on emotions and fulfillment of desires and needs; one’s portfolio of wants can be impacted by gender or sex. Sometimes, appealing to that angle is the smart path to take.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to frame and phrase advertising. Exceptional production values aside, I think Skullcandy’s missing the mark. They’re close—so close—to knocking this thing out of the park, but there’s a tactical judgment they’ve made that has the potential to unravel the campaign altogether. What I’m referencing is the umbrella-strategy that undergirds the flowery patterns, exhortations to “#RAISEHELL,” and website callouts that read “you know you’re a dime”: identity marketing that explicitly articulates perceived beliefs of the target audience and, in doing so, reflects imagined needs and stances that may not align with what the target actually believes or wants.
Right. That last clause there is tremendously un-sexy and perhaps not immediately clear. Allow me to quickly illustrate what I mean via a statement that appears at the bottom of Skullcandy’s female-centric landing page:
Note the first person plural. It’s no accident. What we’ve got here is a positioning statement that outlines the premise of the entire offering: female empowerment through product “customization” (though, interestingly, you can’t actually customize the headphones). And, if you’ll take Skullcandy’s copywriters at their word, it’s something that all young women are on board with. We want our products to be made for us!
This is a great insight. It might even be true. In articulating it, however, the brand takes a step in a dangerous direction. As a consumer, I may broadly agree with the notion that what I buy ought to reflect my identity or that I value brands and products that take my desires into account, but this doesn’t mean I’ll be receptive to a paragraph dropped at the bottom of a page that tells me what I—sorry, we—want. The phrasing is so, so obviously self-serving, and not even in a way that capitalizes fully on how self-serving ads are allowed to be. And it simultaneously gets pretty damn specific and accusatory, implying that other products aren’t engineered with women in mind and that only those that go from R&D to store shelf with our chromosomal components front and center could possibly do.
“Women” is a big, big category and—to state what is patently obvious—Skullcandy doesn’t actually have all women in mind. How could they? Further, why should they? That’s like saying that I’d like to target all adults or all Americans. There are very few products where such broad strokes in positioning would leave the brand a fighting chance. To put on my grad school hat for a hot sec, we live inside a culture of networked individualism in which we’re connected, surely, but charting and expressing specific and segmented interests and ideals. A one-size-fits-all approach to ads just won’t cut it.
Skullcandy’s brand team obviously recognizes this, given the lingo they’re slinging and the choice of putting rainbow-haired pixie Chloe Norgaard center stage. In fact, the visual identity and emotional thrust of this campaign relies on ownership, empowerment, and celebration of one’s unique delightfulness and self-worth. In other words, the branding premise revolves around young women stirring up trouble and claiming the respect and attention they deserve. “We are the headliners and the hell-raisers,” reads one photo on the brand’s Instagram page, which itself bears the write up “This space is fine-tuned & engineered just for you.” On a purely logical level, how can mass-produced (and non-customizable) items created specifically on my and simultaneously every other girl’s behalf possibly exist? And on a tactical level, when pushing the brilliance of self-expression and empowerment, why even bother trying to speak back the beliefs of the collective? Shouldn’t they be able to do this themselves?
Skullcandy is after a very particular type of woman with their #RAISEHELLs and day-glo hair shots, one who does not recoil in a mix of horror, amusement, and confusion when Norgaard, in a video labeling her “Model/Gypsy,” spouts off, “to be feminine is to have that little bit of princess in you that you’ve had since you were a little girl, and also just being proud of being a woman and standing for that.” This may not be the type of woman who takes apart every marketing message with a fine tooth comb (though my aesthetics are somewhat aligned with what they’re selling, so who knows?). Again, their photography is lovely, the site is well-designed, and a lot of their copywriting is on point. But to tell one’s consumers what they want in such an explicit and self-serving way, particularly when the “want” the brand is really getting at is far broader than a sick new pair of headphones, feels unnecessarily risky.
It’s worth noting that, in August, a paper by a number of respected researchers in this field—Amit Bhattacharjee (Dartmouth College), Jonah Berger (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), and Geeta Menon (New York University)—is going to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research that makes a similar, research-backed claim. Going in for the kill and telling consumers what they supposedly believe isn’t a strong sell and can actually hurt a brand’s cause. I’m not saying that it can’t be done; Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign took a similar insight and made it work by absolutely nailing the articulation, framing, and execution. The whole point of good advertising is that it taps insights and expands them in a way that puts the product center stage and makes its selection emotionally synonymous with a particular lifestyle, value, or view. That’s a challenge, but it’s one that creatives should be rising to.
TL;DR: to quote an old boss of mine who himself was paraphrasing someone else, “To suggest is to create; to name is to destroy.”