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The commercial sector – and the use of gender as a marketing tool in the supply of goods and services

Updated on July 11, 2012

Fighting for legal and social recognition outside the gendered societal structure

14 February 2012

From perfume brands to power tools to domestic appliances – the use of gendered roles by commercial enterprise in the process of defining a ‘target’ market for consumer goods is big business and a continuing theme that spans the breadth from the obvious to the subliminal.

As an example, a whole range of scented toiletries and paraphernalia – shower gels, body lotions etc – can appear on the market under a particular brand name that is ‘packaged’ to be marketed at women, while a subtly tweaked version of what is essentially the same thing can be marketed under a different brand name, with a completely different product image and having been launched through a separate advertisement campaign can be targeted towards a male consumer base (and towards women who purchase for men).

And tradition from the past still determines whether the model that fronts a television advertisement will be male or female (ie. lawnmower: male; food items in a domestic setting: female).

It is evident that, more than this being a case of the advertising industry and the clients they represent appearing slow to keep pace and unable to recognise changes within society and move with the times, in many respects the commercial sector has a strong vested interest in maintaining a sociological divide based on the gendered roles of male and female. They can package a lifestyle – and market their produce – around the perception of gendered roles. The perception is often idealised and unrealistic (such as those sumptuous perfume ads) but target marketing that is based on the gendered role of an assumed customer base has proved to be a business formula that works.

Before a new product or service is released it has already undergone an extensive period of trial and testing behind the scenes in order to predict whether the consumer reaction will be favourable. At this stage the decision will have already been made as to which particular group within society the product or service is aimed. When deciding on a new brand name, it inevitably comes down to whether the product in question is to be targeted at the male or female gendered role, where names with romantic connotations tend to be used to represent products or product ranges with a female target market whereas a more sporty name would indicate the target is male.

Business and the advertising industry moves slowly in its embracement of societal change, and the signs of progress are inevitably long and drawn out. However, and I speak primarily from a United Kingdom perspective which possibly does not always align with progress from other countries, I noticed the emergence of racial diversity in advertising campaigns from the 1980’s and then in the 1990’s ads began appearing that – very discreetly – featured gay couples in their natural habitat for financial service products, furniture and similar ‘homely’ items (admittedly the fictional couples were invariably male and the ads appeared late at night). Nowadays the industry is not so coy and ads featuring gay couples might appear at other times other than the graveyard late night slots (although the couples are still usually male, probably due to the perceived economic advantage of being male).

But the industry has to date failed to embrace the transpopulation as a potential customer base and transpeople do not feature in consumer marketing campaigns, unless one counts the primarily outdated tendency towards those unfunny ‘comic’ ads that feature moustached men wearing wigs and dresses. However the portrayal of transpeople as subject to ridicule is neither inclusive nor helpful and these offensive ads do not count.

Fundamentally, the visible emergence of gendered transpeople has begun to challenge the mainstream perception of gendered roles and the commercial sector appears once again to be lagging behind in its acknowledgement of societal change.

The emergence of socially invisible non-gendered transpeople will inevitably present further challenges to the commercial sector and these challenges will almost certainly be resisted by corporations that have a huge financial interest in maintaining a bi-polarised status quo where the gendered roles are amplified – even fetishised in order to present the dream, the ‘ideal’.

It is little wonder therefore that gendered roles play a part in the more personalised form of target marketing to a direct client base.

Notwithstanding a preference that gendered roles did not exist at all, I can accept that within a gendered societal structure certain modes of establishing identity (such as travel documentation) might, based upon western cultural tradition, require a gendered role and all I ask for is that provision is made for non-gendered people (which in the case of travel documentation is the internationally recognised ‘X’ indicator). Furthermore, the requirement to declare a gendered role with provision of a third non gender-specific option is beneficial to a certain extent in that the non gender-specific provision raises awareness of the issues and can only increase the visibility of non-gendered identity.

The commercial sector requirement for a gendered role on a form that must be completed in order for the consumer applicant to access goods and services is, on the other hand, totally unnecessary. There is no justifiable reason or legal requirement that demands a potential customer should provide a gender when applying for a credit card for instance.

When everything was hard copy format I would frequently ignore this offensive question in the knowledge that someone in an office would most probably ‘assign’ a gendered role to my non gender-specific response. Of course this was totally unsatisfactory but at least I was spared from completing the form myself. I was spared from performing an act of necessity that caused me to deny my own identity (colluding in my own social invisibility) by answering this irrelevant question.

Now that much day-to-day activity is transacted online there is no getting around the problem if one is confronted with this question as a mandatory field requiring a response and provision is not made to enable a declaration as anything other than male or female.

I have held a personal banking account with the same bank for twenty-five years and nowadays I spend much of my time on the internet – either working or organising my life – and, when it comes to paying bills, it would be a logical step for me to use the internet and take advantage of the online account facilities provided by my bank and avoid the necessity of arranging bill repayments via a number of different payee sites. But I do not have an online banking account.

My reluctance to avail myself to the convenience of online banking is not due to anxiety that someone might access my details. I have concerns about online security and I’ve considered all the reasons most frequently cited for not using the internet for financial transaction, but none of those would ultimately have deterred me from opening an online account subject to adequate reassurance that my data was as secure as possible and that I would be compensated for any losses incurred that resulted from the fraudulent activity of others.

I cannot access online banking facilities because my bank’s registration procedure includes an unnecessary requirement that account holders provide a gendered role as part of the registration and setup process.

I have to admit I do not remember whether I was asked this offensive question when I originally opened the branch account (note: this question is offensive because a gendered role is assumed when there is no provision for non-gendered to respond to the question – negating my identity and negating my status as a human being).

And, at the time I opened the account, I was partially indoctrinated into the gendered societal structure myself. I lacked the self-awareness to embrace an identity that was not recognised within the mainstream and not part of the societal structure which I had been led to believe was an absolute rather than a system that could be subject to change. There were times when I just could not find a way around the problem and standing at the counter in the branch – yes, they had branches in those days! – and on the basis that I needed to have a bank account, I would most probably have been intimidated into answering the question in the required manner.

But now – in the present – this is a fundamental issue for me. My core identity is non-gendered and I am required to deny my identity – and collude in my own social invisibility – in order to register for online personal banking services. And, having been open about my identity for many years, I just cannot bring myself to do that.

Businesses will argue (as some have done in the past in response to my written communications) there is a need to address customers correctly and therefore the organisation needs to know the gender of that person. Whereas the first question on most forms of application or registration – for just about anything – is that the applicant selects a title. And once a title is selected that person can be addressed correctly in future correspondence (notwithstanding the dismal choice of titles on many websites). The assertion that a gendered role is necessary for the purpose of correct address does not make sense because the person is addressed by their title, not their gender.

My title is ‘Pr’ (pronounced ‘per’) by the way. I also use ‘per’ as my non gender-specific pronoun. I’d like to claim the pronoun was my own invention but the pronoun was actually inspired by science fiction (Woman on the Edge of Time: Marge Piercy, 1976). The title ‘Pr’ was my origination because none among a plethora of non gender-specific titles that are currently used and shared by other non and bi-gendered felt right for me. I will add that I do not claim exclusive rights to ‘Pr’. I would be THRILLED if others decided to adopt ‘Pr’ as their title.

But back to the formative issue of dubious necessity to enter a gendered role, one has to ask why does an organisation require a gendered role from a potential client or customer in order to avail its goods and services to that person?

If one discounts any assertion this is for the benefit of being able to address the customer correctly, there are no discernable reasons why an organisation should need to know the gendered role of their client base.

Moving on from the financial services industry and their ‘traditional’ approach, there are a host of other online facilities where a registration process demands a gendered role before permitting a user to register with them. Social networking sites are a prime example, where systems will not allow a non-gendered user to bypass this offensive question.

The mighty Google however have changed their system and offer ‘Other’ as a legitimate option (similar to the Indian passport authority that, in accordance with ICAO standards, provides ‘Others’). It is a shame Google have been coy about the reason three choices are provided and state this is to appease customers who do not want their gender details displayed. I have to be careful here due to the Google associations (and I don’t want to be barred from ‘Hubbing’ before really getting started) but I believe Google have made a brave and positive step forward in making provision for human existence outside the gendered societal structure but I’d much prefer the organisation would admit it!

But while some online service providers are moving forward, the corporate sector maintains a strong commercial interest in the separation and streaming of a projected consumer base in order they can target market in accordance to gendered roles.

This is evidential in advertisement campaigns through to the requirement that applicants must declare a gendered role before access to goods and services is made available.

Where do socially invisible and disenfranchised non-gendered people feature in this?

Date 12/07/2012: I have investigated the registration process for online banking facilities at two competitor banks and found that neither demand a gendered role in their online registration process. Armed with this information I have written to my bank and demanded they remove the inappropriate and unnecessary requirement that customers enter a gendered role to register for online banking facilities.

I will update further - either my bank changes its discriminatory policy or I change my bank.

The denial of existence is the worst act of discrimination by the gendered majority against the non-gendered

Copyright ©2012 Christie Elan-Cane

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