Shopping for sex appeal

Gendered marketing campaigns – such as Bic’s pens ‘for her’, with pastel‑tinted, thinner barrels ‘to fit a woman’s hand’; or PepsiCo’s ‘Lady Doritos’ for women ‘who don’t like to crunch too loudly’ – are both controversial and pervasive. Until now, most research on the phenomenon has focused on the mechanisms by which it spreads, such as social pressures or marketing influence, rather than understanding its root causes.

Starting with the simple idea that humans use consumer products to manipulate the impression they make on others, Sylvie and Jean-François suggest that gendered products can become a cultural feature of the owner’s extended phenotype that signals exaggerated masculinity or femininity to increase the physical attractiveness of their owners.

The concept of an extended phenotype was introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1982 to explain how organisms manipulate their environment to increase reproductive success. Spider’s webs, bowerbird nests or beaver dams illustrate how an organism’s biological traits can be extended to include features of the external world.

More specifically, gendered products would act as flashy signals of exaggerated sexual-typicality, a form of cultural extended supernormal stimulus. Nikolaas Tinbergen (1953) discovered that a natural stimulus can be artificially exaggerated and produce a supernormal stimulus to trigger a supernormal response. For example, oystercatchers prefer large artificial eggs to their own normal-size eggs. Sylvie and Jean-François’ novel suggestion is that gendered products also act as supernormal stimuli, exaggerating sexually dimorphic human body features that act as sexually attractive cues.

“Gendered products can be completely arbitrary but their design can also be inspired by human sexual dimorphism,” Sylvie observes. “For example, products with bulky proportions, angular shapes, dark colors, rough texture or heavy weight seem to reflect male sexual dimorphism. While smaller, rounder shapes, curvier lines, lighter colors, smoother textures and softer surfaces seem to reflect female sexual dimorphism.”

In three experiments, the Toulouse researchers found converging evidence for their prediction. In the first study, participants were asked to look at a masculine or a feminine car. They were asked to imagine they had stopped at a traffic light and could not clearly see the male (for female respondents) or female (for male respondents) owner/driver of the car behind its tinted glasses. Participants then rated the driver’s femininity/masculinity, body appeal, sex appeal, and partner appeal.

The following studies used pictures of identical twins: sisters for male participants, brothers for female participants. Each twin was described as having a favorite set of gender-typical or genderatypical or gender-neutral products (such as earplugs, toothpastes, or coffee mugs), shown with their picture. Participants were asked to click on the twin they would rather date, and to rate how attractive they imagined each twin’s body to be.

In the results from first study, the imaginary owners of a gender-typical car were pictured as having a nicer body, more sex appeal, and higher mating success. This study also showed the role of increased femininity or masculinity in the desirability of owners of a gender-typical car.

In the subsequent studies, both men and women who owned gender-typical everyday products were pictured as having a nicer body. Overall, the results suggest that gender-typical products improve their owners’ attractiveness.

“Our findings are connected to research on consumer products that allow direct manipulation of secondary sexual characteristics; such as cosmetics, high heels or clothes that exaggerate feminine facial features, gait, or the hourglass figure. The novelty of our findings, though, is that the gendered products we studied can increase physical attractiveness and desirability without any impact on physical characteristics.”


As well as her 2019 research described above, Sylvie has published various papers on women in advertising and is now focusing on gendered AI.


> See

From IAST Magazine #15, Winter 2019 (read the whole magazine)

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