Marketing Executive (and all round Queen of Content), Paige Swandale, dissects the recent furore around sexism claims in the advertising and branding world.

Anyone who owns a computer, a mobile phone (or even a brain) has seen/heard what is going on in the Twittersphere with Kleenex’s “mansize” box of tissues.

Twitter has gone into meltdown following a tweet sent by one female twitter user. She claimed that her “4yo son” had asked whether other people who weren’t men could use the branded tissues and that they should be renamed simply “very large tissues”. Kleenex, seemingly fearing a raft of negativity, have since responded saying that they are in the process of renaming the product!

Global giant Kimberly-Clark, owners of the Kleenex brand, said it “succumbed to growing public demand to change the name, despite not itself believing that the Mansize branding suggests or endorses gender inequality”.

But, were Kleenex right to drop the “mansize” label?

There are lots of potential thought processes behind the brand taking the position of labelling their products like this in the first place. Perhaps the “mansize” label was first put in place to encourage men that it was ok for them to get ill, or to cry, due to the stereotypes that the world had previously put in place. Maybe “mansize” was used to encourage men to be more like the strapline Kleenex used to promote this specific box of tissues – “confidently strong, comfortingly soft”, pushing a brilliant example of masculanisation of an essentially gender neutral product. In 2009, Kleenex released a television advert which featured men including actor Tom Hardy and former England manager Sven Goren-Ericson crying:

One question being asked by the media is: why has it taken 60 years of these tissues to be on our supermarket shelves for someone to get offended by the term “mansize”, and has it ever REALLY stopped a female from picking the box up and buying the product?

There have been a wide range of examples in the press recently which demonstrate that certain advertising rules don’t have to follow the same guidelines as they did 50 years ago, and that the age of the gender-specific product may well be coming to an end. Many of you may remember Yorkie introducing their famous ‘it’s not for girls’ advertising campaign in 2001, positioning their chocolate very firmly in the ‘male’ market. After some very minor negative PR (this was before one tweet could shake the world!), they followed this up in 2006 with a tongue-in-cheek version in pink wrapping ‘for women’. It wasn’t until about 2011 that they dropped the increasingly controversial slogan, but many still remember it. This campaign would likely cause similar uproar to Kleenex today if they were resurrected. However, a recent survey by The Independent shows that around 60% of people consider these statements to not be sexist as they’re just “silly slogans for a chocolate bar”. This whole situation may be more of a commentary on society’s changing sensitivities, than it is a battle of the sexes.

Another school of thought would suggest that, technically speaking, Kleenex should have dropped that label a long time ago for false advertisement. If it really was “mansize” then surely it would have to be the size of an actual man? No?

As society becomes evermore sensitive (some might say hyper-sensitive), are the days of targeting and positioning your brand based on gender over? One of the most common ways of segmenting your audience, demographically speaking, is by male or female. Anyone who has ever worked on a digital, social or paid media campaign will tell you this is step one of dissecting your target audience. It is hard to avoid the fact that some products are meant for men and some are for women. But getting the distinction between “promoting a product to one sex” and “discouraging one sex from buying the product” is of paramount importance.

These kind of changes further endorse the wider backlash against unnecessarily gendered products, which has seen other campaigners criticising manufacturers of products including razors, confectionary and even pens over “outdated” gender stereotyping: “BiC ‘For Her’ pens”, which are smaller and have a pink floral design unlike the standard ballpoint pens, have recently faced the wrath of this backlash.

CNN have reported that “removing sexist branding such as this is just sensible 21st century marketing. But we still have a long way to go before using lazy stereotypes to sell products is a thing of the past”. As marketers, we completely understand that it’s 2018, and we are all working towards a more equal and fair world one step at a time, but is renaming a box of tissues really the way to go? And where do we draw the line on what is “sexism” and what isn’t? Would Kleenex have been better off replying to the original complaint with: “of course anyone can use them, it’s just a name”?

This is certainly true of some commentators on the subject:

Of course, it pays to be sensitive on specific issues, but we shouldn’t go overboard otherwise we will find problems in basically, everything. Some responses to the online backlash around the Kleenex story have asked whether “Mothercare” should be renamed “Everybodycare”? Or whether “Burger King” should become “Burger Monarch”? We’d like to think that these tongue-in-cheek ideas won’t come into effect as the general public hasn’t gone insane (yet). We’re pretty sure everything is going to be ok, even with those names the way they are.

That being said, you will never be able to please all consumers with your branding decisions, especially in today’s climate of polarised opinions and the speed with which outrage can grow on social media platforms. Instead of trying to make everyone happy, we’d suggest companies work on being true to their brand’s promise, and what they aim to achieve within their advertising. Whilst bad press is still press, it’s good to take on and consider all types of feedback for positive change.

The debate will continue, and at Wonderful, it is at the heart of our brand values to be considerate and sensitive when working on design, branding and advertising projects for our clients. If anything, this story is testament to the changing ideologies and perceptions of today’s consumer and now might just be the right time to consider your brand’s positioning. Is your brand in need of a considered re-fresh, or evolutionary change? Do you need an experienced partner to guide and advise on your next advertising campaign? Feel free to give us a call on 01622 686228 or email [email protected] and find out how we transform brands.

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