Professor of Marketing
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Stefano Puntoni, Steven Sweldens and Nader T. Tavassoli, ‘Gender identity salience and perceived vulnerability to breast cancer’, Journal of Marketing Research 48, no. 3, June 2011.
A common assumption among advertising executives is that, when it comes to early detection of breast cancer, the best way to increase women’s perceived risk of contracting it — and therefore the need for alertness — is gender-specific advertising. As a result, most of the advertising surrounding the disease features pictures of women, the use of the colour pink and phrases such as ‘if you are a woman’.
Indeed, a sample of 16 British advertising executives found that the strong majority held the belief that stressing gender was the right approach for such ads. In fact, only one executive predicted that such an approach would, actually, turn women away. Given that several theoretical studies take the same position as the majority of these ad executives, one would think that the case was closed.
There has been, however, a dearth of research when it comes to the link between identity, vulnerability and risk perception. Because of the importance of encouraging women to act in their own self-interest when it comes to breast cancer (one of the world’s leading causes of death), Nader T. Tavassoli, Professor of Marketing at London Business School along with Stefano Puntoni, Associate Professor of Marketing at Rotterdam School of Management, and Steven Sweldens, Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD, decided to conduct a series of experiments aimed at discovering whether the generally held assumption was correct.
Their first set of experiments demonstrated that increased gender identity salience lowered women’s perceptions of their vulnerability to breast cancer, reduced their donations to research aimed at female cancers and made it more difficult for them to process such advertisements. This approach led to a decrease in women’s memory of the ads. Why did this happen? The professors concluded that people tend to exert a great deal of effort to deny negative characteristics connected to themselves and that the threats that result from these characteristics tend to trigger defence mechanisms that lead to minimising the perceived threat.
They then conducted further experiments to determine how these adverse effects might be mitigated. They found that self-affirmation (such as ad copy that boosted women’s sense of self-worth) and getting women to voice their fear of the disease were useful in reducing the impact of defence mechanisms.
Although saving lives through campaigns aimed at alerting women to their vulnerability to breast cancer is a critical goal for health agencies, governments and charities, the current focus of such campaigns depends too heavily on gender identity. Rethinking the content and style of ads can make a difference. Of the 16 ad execs first surveyed, the lone dissenter to the gender-specific ad campaigns turned out to have been prescient, and these professors’ argument for a whole new approach most compelling.
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