In the long-running annual series Oh, The Humanities! National Post reporters survey academic scholarship at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which has gone entirely virtual this year, hosted at the University of Alberta from May 27 to June 4. Over the coming days, Canadian academics will share their insights on such diverse topics as the origins of English names for sushi rolls and what’s behind the rise in student cheating during the pandemic.
To illustrate her research on gendered multivitamins, to be presented next week at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Sydney Forde of Penn State University, compared the packaging of two versions of the same vitamin by the same manufacturer, one meant for men, the other for women.
“All men deserve a supplement that can keep up with their daily active lifestyle,” said the men’s version, in an obvious blue colour scheme.
“Ladies, this one’s for you!” said the other, in pink.
“There’s a lot of those,” Forde said. “The narrative changes quite a bit.”
Her research on the multivitamin offerings of a major Canadian drugstore chain revealed more than the obvious colour scheme that is uniformly blue or pink.
It showed that the gender split in multivitamins gets down to the level of what marketers tell people the vitamins will actually do.
The upshot, according to numbers she will present to a panel on “visual cultures of advertising” for the Canadian Communication Association, is that men are sold multivitamins as energy pills that strengthen their muscles and help them work better, while women are sold multivitamins as metabolism boosting weight loss aids that improve their hair and make them look better. Same stuff, different pitch.
With Brittany Melton of Brock University, Forde catalogued 25 multivitamin products, 10 for men and 15 for women, and coded the information provided both on the packaging and the product description provided online by the manufacturer.
In an interview, they said they excluded the fine print, and that vitamins made for a special way to measure gender stereotypes in advertising because they exist in a “grey area” of regulation, not quite drugs, but not simply personal care products.
This segment of the retail market is “really interesting, because it has legitimacy of being in pharmacy section, but little regulation of what goes into the messaging.”
Muscle function, for example, was touted on 50% of men’s vitamins, but just 20% of women’s. Metabolism was touted on 60% of women’s vitamins, but 40% of men’s.
“Thus, while masculine characteristics were presented through building and improving muscle, feminine characteristics were instead aligned with metabolism – the chemical process of breaking down food that is often positively affiliated with weight loss.” according to a written summary of their research.
Melton describes this as a difference of emphasis, which presents men as “professional” and women as “decorative.” Men’s vitamins claim to improve eye function, muscle performance, cognitive function, and the immune system, while women’s claim to improve hair, nails, and skin.
“They’re just very restraining gender roles,” Melton said, recalling one pink package decorated with an image of a woman with lustrous flowing hair. Even the vitamins themselves were pink.
Melton said these stark differences are interesting because women are also concerned about, for example, cognitive and eye function.
“Those are all genderless issues, yet they were predominantly marketed towards men, in order to make room, we argue, for this decorative performance of women,” Forde said.
The flip side is that men also worry about their hair, and yet this is similarly sidelined in the marketing pitch.
Women’s vitamins do often mention bone health, but only as the exception to the general trend focused on beauty. For example, 33% of women’s vitamins mentioned hair, which no men’s vitamins mentioned at all, and 67% mentioned skin, compared to 30% of men’s, according to the research.
Energy was mentioned at comparable rates, but women’s vitamins placed greater emphasis on energy as a question of metabolism related to weight loss.
“We found that “masculine” products are more likely to be marketed through benefits promising muscle function and prioritizing active professionalism and physical health, while “feminine” products are more likely to promise improvements to physical appearance and prioritize a decorative, passive role,” they wrote.
Forde said she did not see any intentional malice in the differences, but noted that this research is in line with the broader trend in retail known as the “pink tax,” in which women’s products are sold at elevated prices over men’s. This is a theme of their future research.
She said the gender difference reflects an assumption that it is “easier for consumers to make sense of things when they are divided by oversimplified categories of gender appeal.”
It is mundane, Melton said, but it shows “how we are told by marketing to exist in the world.”
Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques