As Doritos learned, not all lady publicity is good publicity

The proposition of “lady crisps” made headlines at a time when companies are moving away from gender stereotypes in advertising. 

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On Monday, as Britain was gearing up to celebrate 100 years of women getting the vote, a curious story appeared in the Daily Mail. “Doritos is making ‘lady-friendly’ tortilla chips that are quieter to eat, less messy and come in a packet designed to fit in handbags,” the newspaper declared. The idea had been floated by Indra Nooyi, the global chief executive of PepsiCo, which owns Doritos, on a podcast. Women, she said, “don’t like to crunch too loudly in public”. Nooyi suggested that what would soon be dubbed “lady crisps”  designed to fit in a purse were in production and likely to appear soon. 

A backlash ensued, with many calling the idea sexist stereotyping. The company sought to play it down by denying such products were in the pipeline, stating: “We already have Doritos for women – they’re called Doritos.”

Embarrassing for Doritos? Perhaps. But from a marketing perspective, creating a stir is what it is all about these days. If a brand can link itself to a topical story, then the press and public can take over and spread the word much more effectively than the company could ever do. And in today’s 24/7 news cycle, for a story to be noticed it has to be quirky or even controversial in some way. 

The risk, of course, is that such campaigns can go too far and offend or alienate the same people that they are trying to attract. This was the result of the Booking.com advert of 2015. “You got it booking right,” the voiceover declared, substituting the word “booking” for a swear word. “It doesn’t get any booking better than this.” Booking.com received over 2,000 complaints through the Advertising Standards Authority, and no doubt alienated many more families in their target audience. 

A similar marketing strategy to the one that Doritos perhaps inadvertently embarked on was very deliberately run by Yorkie. Its iconic chocolate bar was clearly identified on the packaging and advertised as “not for girls” in 2002. This promotion ran for nearly ten years, despite some public backlash, and then was quietly dropped, probably in recognition that it had run its course. 

So what is going too far? All marketing has an element of stereotyping. It enables the company selling the product to set the scene quickly and gets the attention of the right target audience. However, there is a fine line between speaking directly to consumers and offending them, and a campaign is likely to fail if the stereotype implies negative characteristics. 

In the Doritos lady crisps launch-that-wasn’t, the concept implied that women lacked confidence and don’t want to bring attention to themselves in a public place. Although this may sound rather trivial, there is evidence that people are influenced by stereotypes and can change their behaviour to fit with expectations. So, taking the argument to its full conclusion, the outcome could be women feeling forced to eat quietly because society expects them to do. 

Of course, despite the controversy of lady crisps, the marketing of gendered products is all around us, from “girl toys” to “lady” pens, tissues and drinks.  Interestingly, the ASA is bringing in a rule in the next couple of months to address harmful gender stereotyping, reasoning that such stereotypes can “restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults”. 

It is unlikely that “lady crisps” would fall under that category, but Doritos’ backtrack suggests that this is not a climate in which advertisers can freely offend.  The ASA has just announced its 10 most complained about advertisements for 2017, and they were all seen as offensive. This contrasts with the statistic that over 70 per cent of all complaints received by the ASA are about misleading adverts. The most regular offender is MoneySupermarket.com. Its advertising has been in the most-maligned top 10 for the past three years, because some consider it to be overtly sexual in content

Meanwhile, some of the largest companies are moving away from relentlessly gendered marketing. Unilever, the second-biggest advertiser globally with over 400 brands, announced last summer that it is going to remove all sexist stereotypes from their adverts after research revealed that only 2 per cent of the women in their advertisements were portrayed as “intelligent”. While past adverts for Lynx, a Unilever male grooming brand, showed women lusting after men and were regularly banned, the latest ones show a young man surrounded by friends because he smells nice. PepsiCo, the owners of Doritos, may wish to follow in its footsteps. Meanwhile, we should grab a bag of whatever crisps we like, crunch loudly, and lick our fingers at any opportunity while celebrating our rights that were so fiercely fought for 100 years ago. 

Dr Kathleen Mortimer is a senior lecturer in business at the University of Northampton. 

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