Stay Tuned/Selling Female

From Eccentric Flower

 



stay tuned
 

There was no column for 14 September 97, so I have put this, originally a sidebar item, into the space.



Selling Female
22 June 1997


I'm getting a little tired of the webgrrrrrrrrl thing. I mean, really, I didn't need to be told that women are technically competent and sharp and witty and not ashamed to carve out their own ideas of what the Web should be. I already knew all that. Sometimes all this self-affirmation sounds like someone trying to talk themselves out of self-doubt to me.

But, having said that, I like most of these grrrly sites, surf them compulsively, and regard them as a Good Thing. I'm just a little cranky anytime I see a fun idea becoming buzzworded.

And believe me, the corporations are catching on. They're slow, but they get there eventually.

In corporate-think, you are either an older woman who is just getting used to this techno thing, or you are a young, wired to the gills, preciously hip woman, or you're a little girl. Those are the three categories.

[20 February 2007:] When I last updated this page, in February of 1998, I noted that "very little in this article has changed." Nine years after I wrote that, a lot of things have. I'm leaving my original comments as historical artifacts, as I have above ... but at the end of each section, I'll provide a latter-day update as I have here, prefaced by the date so you can tell the old from the new.


Women's Fink

Women's Link, a frontispiece for Bristol-Myers Squibb, will serve as our nadir in today's little examination.

BMS owns Clairol, and MeadJohnson, makers of fine artificial baby formulas. They also make drugs and some health products under their own name: AlphaKeri, Ban, Excedrin, Bufferin, and Comtrex are the ones which are most recognizable. But the Women's Link site is slanted toward the Clairol and MeadJohnson angles.

The site purports to give helpful advice to women in all stages of life. It refers to itself as "Bristol-Meyers Squibb's cyberclub for women." That's a "club" in the sense that a Tupperware party is a "get-together"; true on the face of it, but ignoring the real motivation. The "advice" that this site gives is generally along the lines of: buy our stuff.

This still isn't a hanging offense. What riles are the implied messages of inferiority plastered throughout. Dissatisfied with your life? It's because you're not beautiful enough. Change your hair color and not only will you look exactly like our model, here, but all your problems will be solved.

Going to be a new mother? Don't even think about breast-feeding. You are simply not up to the task, and besides, it's such a pain! Buy our fake milk instead. It's scientifically formulated to be realer than real. Also, we have this artificial market to support.

[20 February 2007:] Women's Link no longer exists; its URL has become a matchmaking site (and has been removed). BMS's site is still at the right place. BMS has apparently been upgrading its image in recent years and is getting commendations - or so they tell me - for "diversity," which in this case, I suspect, is not as much code for "hiring minorities" as for "hiring women."

I'd love to credit that with the demise of the Women's Link site, but that was far more likely a result of BMS narrowing its focus dramatically over the last ten years. BMS no longer makes any OTC drugs or non-drug products, with the exception of the MeadJohnson line. Clairol was sold to Procter & Gamble in 2001. Ban is owned by Jergens as of 2000. Excedrin, Bufferin, Comtrex, and the Keri line are owned by Novartis as of 2005 (in a $660 million sale), when BMS made it explicit that they were stripping down to focus on ten core disease-treatment areas.

By the by, I'm no longer as unhappy about baby formula as I once was. I've seen a couple of counter-examples where mothers got so fixated on breast-feeding that if it didn't work or wasn't possible for some reason, they took it as a personal failure - which is just as bad an outcome as not trying to feed the kid breast milk at all. I do still dislike it when someone tries to sell formula with the "better than breast milk!" pitch - but I haven't seen any of that in recent years.

Also, the Clairol site is pretty decent these days. It has a good toy for trying out hair colors, if you don't mind registering; it does not omit material for men; and the people shown on the site look more or less like normal people and not models.


The Power Of the Purse

As I say, this is the nadir. There are sites such as Parent Time which seem to have genuine good motivations and no overt product plugs whatsoever ... this illustrates the distinction between a "sponsored" site and a "promotional" site. Parent Time is probably the apex.

In between, there is a large range.

Clearly, the web sites which are most likely to be directed at women are for the products that are almost always purchased by women. In the dark ages gone by, that would mean that almost all food and household goods would be directed exclusively at women. If a site tried something like that today, they'd drown in hate mail.

No, even the corporations have figured out that men are just as likely as women to be buying the groceries, cooking, or vacuuming the floor. Most of the sites for other consumer goods I go to are carefully pitched to be gender-neutral - with rare, and usually obnoxious, exceptions.

But, apart from the baby formula, there are two things that men don't generally buy: makeup and tampons (or other "feminine hygiene" goods).

[20 February 2007:] Parent Time seems to still have pretty sound advice (unlike a whole slew of other parenting boards which are full of misinformation), although the site is now full of Google-style side ads. An interesting thing is that their "about" page claims they began in 2003. When this article was originally written, Parent Time was explicitly, and subtly, "sponsored by" Procter & Gamble. It sounds like the 2003 date is when the site was cut loose from its corporate sponsor, which probably means that's about the time the ads began to appear.

Although I don't think there's a major reversal of the trend described above - a careful neutrality - I have definitely seen an increase in websites which seem to have female buyers in mind as their primary audience. In 1997, women who were frequent and heavy web users were still not nearly as common as men. The small "hey, women are here!" revolution referred to in the first paragraphs of this article is now a laughably obvious conclusion. Gradually we are all becoming heavy web users, and this is making it safe for companies to try gender-specific pitches more often ... but I think the corporates have also become more aware of how fast internet backlash can build if they misstep and piss people off.

The I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! site is still obnoxious.


Surfing For Makeup

One thing about cosmetics sites; no one really enters them blindly. If you disapprove of wearing makeup, if you are busy railing against promotion of unrealistic body images in women, then you're probably not visiting cosmetics sites anyway.

Although I am one of those railers, I also don't disapprove of cosmetics; I am more inclined to pin the blame on the fashion and perfume people than the makeup people. That may be narrow-focus of me. Anyway, here's the rundown.

The Cover Girl site has the usual glut of too-young, too-skinny models, but if you can get past that, the site is decent. It's certainly well-designed (this was the first time I'd ever seen the use of two-color images as placeholders for the full-color ones during loading).

It has what I have come to regard as the standard list of information for a cosmetics site:
1. a "virtual makeup" or "choose your colors" item,
2. a set of really lame beauty tips,
3. information on the products they're currently pushing,
4. and one item of frivolous entertainment which has nothing to do with anything else on the site.

Bear that model in mind; if you actually visit these sites, you'll see it over and over again.

The Revlon site looks like the same thing, but with Cindy Crawford and less product info. I say "looks like" because their site is so slow and eats so much memory on my computer that I have not yet successfully gotten more than two pages deep into the thing.

The L'Oréal site is very French-looking, highly stylized and a far cry from the relatively no-nonsense approach of Cover Girl. (I'd expect Maybelline, the workhorse of American cosmetics, to have the most down-to-earth site of all, but alas, although they own the domain, there is no site.) One thing about the L'Oréal site: they don't use models extensively, which is kinda refreshing after looking at all those kidlets on the Cover Girl site. Another thing is that they admit the existence of other cosmetics companies; their survey has choices for all their competitors' products as well.

The Clinique site gets the "most visibly health-conscious" award, and is also the only site in this list to have material other than a short product list which is directed at men. And they have translated the little gizmo with the multicolored sliders (seen, and played with by kids, in every department store in the nation at some point or another) into HTML form!

There's also Lancôme, Mary Kay if you dare, and Avon. The folks at Avon, bless 'em, don't have the luxury of drugstore sales, so when you think about it, it shouldn't surprise you that Avon is the only one of these sites that's set up to do online shopping.

And for those who like a little Goth in their cosmetics, there's always Urban Decay. I'd love to send you to a MAC website, but they're purists. Anyone who won't print a paper catalog because the colors don't reproduce properly is obviously not going to have a website.

[20 February 2007:] Cosmetics sites change a lot. Cover Girl's site is not so cleanly designed as I remember, but it's still fairly well-done, has a number of fun toys, and even if its spokesmodels are not real people like us, they are well-chosen - not the little girls I remember from last time, and not anorexic stick figures. (Christie Brinkley has had kids and been around the block a few times and come back, for heaven's sake, and Queen Latifah is not petite. Of course, they may not be there by the time you next look at the site.)

Cover Girl still goes for the squeaky-clean approach; they're not about the sin and sex. Used to be you'd go to the French for that, but strangely, at this time the L'Oréal site I get from the link above is entirely in French, and though it still has their usual gloss, it seems to consist mostly of movies of makeup demonstrations and how-tos. (That's actually useful - what fun is that?) By the by, I was not aware in 1997 that L'Oréal owned Maybelline, although at that point they had for a year.

The Revlon site has become much cleaner (they had already improved it substantially when I checked in 1998), and has a very nice "real people" touch - normal humans who have sent in their photos and descriptions of the "looks" they have created for themselves using Revlon products. The Mary Kay site is less frightening; in fact, all these sites show design which is easier to navigate and more visually cohesive than I remember from ten years ago. Which either means that we've all learned some things about web design in those intervening years, or my memory is deceiving me.

Clinique's site is still one of the only ones which admits they have something for men - although see the comments about Clairol above. Avon, of course, has always had a men's line and is not especially coy about it, but then, Avon has always done things differently from these other companies - and the line, until a couple of years ago, was mostly colognes and soap-on-a-rope. Even Mary Kay admits to having scents for men.

The reason this is a matter of interest is because there was much speculation a few years ago on when the "cosmetics wall" would crack, when Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido began selling a men's line that went beyond what was previously considered acceptable. Since then, various companies such as The Body Shop have entered this territory with success. Despite some backlash, it is reasonably acceptable for a man to use moisturizers and other "skin care" products now - but concealer is still not quite acceptable (assuming you get caught at it!)

Oh, yes, and MAC eventually did give in and create a web site. You can even shop online there. Maybelline caught on too - which illustrates the most important lesson of the last decade: If you don't have a web site, increasingly, you don't exist.

The bottom line on the cosmetics sites is that I looked around a fair bit in 2007 for one which I felt was wretchedly excessive, where I could gripe about the models or the methods or even the site design, and I didn't find one. I suppose this is a good trend, and yet somehow I feel suspicious, like the other shoe will drop any moment.


"Feminine Protection"

Now let's talk about something which is a little more controversial.

Oddly enough, tampon manufacturers don't show the same coyness about their products on the web as they do on TV. So we'll give them a quick round of applause for that.

That may be the only applause today for Tambrands. Actually, the Tampax people have decent web content ... if you're over 30. The Body Matters site has decent information on issues such as menopause, childbirth, and such ... but no information for the young woman who is just starting to menstruate and is scared/confused/curious, or worse, the adult woman who has been menstruating for years but, for whatever reason, never got decent information about what was going on.

For those concerns, the Tampax people will refer you to the oddly-named Troom, an insidiously saccharine site which buries the good information under tons of cloying copy.

The fact that the young girls who go there manage to have real conversations about real problems in Troom's chatroom, despite a smut filter and all the sticky trappings, gives me great hope for the future. If you can find the BBS section, have a look. For anything else, go to Kotex's site. Despite the trying-too-hard-to-be-hip language, the information is better, more matter-of-fact, and has a genuine sense of humor.

It'll be interesting to see what will happen to Tampax's content, if anything, now that Procter & Gamble have purchased them. Memo to P&G: scrap the T Lounge or give it some content.

[20 February 2007:] I don't know if we can credit P&G with this, but in the intervening years this little chunk of the web universe has really improved. Both of the first two links go to the same place now; since P&G's corporate information is elsewhere, the reproductive-health and information aspects have been allowed to essentially take over the Tampax site. The product push is extremely muted. The site no longer has the over-thirty skew (if anything, it skews too young now, but then, they may feel that is where most of the advice needs to be directed).

Troom is gone; the site for teens is now BeingGirl. (The T Lounge link also now goes there.) I can't say the site is improved - the copy still gives me hives, although as before there is useful info hidden among the treacle - and the intelligent conversation that occasionally broke out in the Troom forums is now gone. (One hopes it moved somewhere better, like Scarleteen.) I suspect that the audience of target age is more jaded now and less likely to fall for the claptrap, but that may be optimism.

Meanwhile, Kotex continues as before - they still have the occasional problem with too-cute language in their copy, but in general they present information in a matter-of-fact way ... and in recent years have added something really unprecedented: A section of their teen content is aimed at teen boys. Applause for the people at Kimberly-Clark.


Whew

That's all the women's commercials I have the patience to surf today. Please note that I didn't mention any of the great ongoing controversies, like music sponsorship by Virginia Slims; I'm tired of hearing and screaming about those for now. I've run out of righteous indignation for a little while.

If you have not yet run out of righteous indignation, I'm sure you can find something here to exhaust the rest of it upon.

[20 February 2007:] So, in summation, have things gotten better or worse in marketing aimed at women? I'd say it's gotten smarter; that's neither better or worse, just different. I think that corporates have become aware that their consumers are more aware, and not as susceptible to the old lies and tricks. In some cases that means they have chosen to become more straightforward; in other cases it means they have chosen to come up with new lies and tricks. And in some cases, like the ever-reliable Cosmo, they simply choose not to care and go on offending in exactly the same ways they have always offended.


and now back to our program


The material on these pages is copyright © 1997-2007. All rights reserved.

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