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Friday, Aug. 31, 2007 at 10:15 am

What Are Your Ad Images Saying to Women?

By Holly Buchanan
August 31st, 2007

When a man looks at an ad, and a woman looks at that same ad, do they see the same thing?

We all have internal biases, life histories, and sensitivities. These personal experiences influence how we see the world around us, including how we react to different advertisements.

When I saw this banner ad, it instantly told me this is not a learning institution for me.

Click Here for Gender Bias

Graphic Design and Business are the two areas of study that interest me, but those have male icons. The ad says to me, “You should be interested in female work, like Education or Health and Human Services.”

Am I reading too much into this? This particular learning institution* may have facts to prove the majority of students in their Business and Graphic Design programs are men. So, it would make perfect sense to have male icons next to those fields of study. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Am I being too sensitive? Maybe. But at the end of the day, the ad is still sending me the same message: “DO NOT CLICK!”

I’m guessing that’s not the reaction the advertiser hoped for.

[*Editor's Note: As further evidence that the banner didn't work, Holly was so turned off that she didn't even click through out of marketer's curiosity. If she had, she'd have realized that this ad is for; an online education affiliate network, not an actual learning institution.]

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Comments (15)

  1. Hilarious, good point Holly- and those people icons look like they’re out of the early 80′s or something… combine that with the hideous red and black diagonal border, plus the dismal click through rates of banners in general, and you’ve got the perfect formula for failure!

  2. Ermmm… what banner ad? Has the link been taken down?

  3. Anton, I can still see it after the fourth line in this post.

  4. perhaps Anton is using a banner blocker?

    Holly- perhaps they only generated single-sex personae for each category!

  5. Holly:

    I don’t think you’re reading too much into it at all. It’s funny how these things are so subliminal and only if you’re really paying attention do you see them.

    I think as women we’re socialized to pick the “soft” jobs and almost everything that surrounds training and education supports this.

    The best thing is to be aware and alert. And, also to use your voice, as you have done here, to point out:

    “Hey, even if you didn’t mean for this to appear this way, this is how this looks to me.”

    Women are always being told we’re too sensitive or that we read too much into matters. I like to think of it as an on-board B.S. meter and we should use it as often as we can.

    That doesn’t excuse the fact that this company clearly didn’t have anyone with at least one marketing brain cell review this ad before they launched it.

    On second thought, maybe they did…

    Thanks for honoring yourself (and us) by speaking up.


  6. Holly,

    I agree with you. Using human images for icons on the Website was a big mistake. The icons convey gender stereotypes about various professions. Who says all psychologists are men or all educators are women?

    Some stereotypes are so engrained in our society that people are no longer aware of them. Little by little, we’ve been bombarded by media images and stories indicating which professions are appropriate for which genders, and over time people have begun to believe those stereotypes without question.

    But many of us are only too conscious of those stereotypes, and we question them and want nothing to do with companies who promote them. I think companies need to be more aware of the subtle messages they’re sending their audiences. Females who visit the Website may not consciously think, “Well, I guess I can’t get a Graphics Design degree because the icon for the degree has a man on it.” However, they may get an uneasy sense that things are not exactly kosher with the company and decide to leave the site.

    As a usability professional, I always tell people, “Web visitors are smart. They may not know exactly what’s wrong with a Website or a company in terms of the wrong fonts, the wrong images, the wrong colors, or the wrong message — but they will sense that something is not quite right and go elsewhere.”

    Companies need to learn to be more careful of those “unconscious” messages they’re sending out with their content and their images!


    Martha Roden

  7. “Web visitors are smart. They may not know exactly what’s wrong with a Website or a company in terms of the wrong fonts, the wrong images, the wrong colors, or the wrong message — but they will sense that something is not quite right and go elsewhere.”

    Stellar point, Martha! Excellent!

  8. I didn’t even notice the ad until I realized that was what the story was about. We’ve become so desensitized that ads, especially badly designed, cheap-looking ads like this, are ignored. The gender bias is practically irrelevant if nobody looks at it in the first place. And jeez, clip art? What were they thinking?

  9. [...] recently read this article about gender biased advertising, and it definitely got me thinking about some of the overtly [...]

  10. Oh come on, don’t be such a baby about it. If one of the jobs was “Ballerina” should there be pictures of both men & women beside it? Surely there are male ballerinas somewhere in the world, I just don’t get the big deal.

  11. I think you’re over-reacting to a harmless banner. it’s just icons, what would you rather see faceless, colorless, hairless circles?
    Why don’t we just X out any ads with ppl all together, and just put text out there… that would be sooo interesting to overlook and walk on by

  12. I went on this site today because I teach a preschool classroom. One of my girls was dancing like a ballerina and a boy tried to jump in. Her response was “you can’t dance you are a boy” so I came on this site to show her men dance too. The only thing is I cant find any pictures to prove this to her.

  13. If a site has lots of banners it makes the site look cheap and ugly and it makes me think that the person is just there to make money instead of sharing information.

  14. ad opp. would love too have you on [ barber and beauty salon]

  15. This is the most hilarious banner I ever came across. I would think they must be out of their mind to design such an irrelevant stuff..LOL

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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