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Gender Marketing: A Look At Virgin America

02/06/2012

Gender-based marketing for boys and girls has often been a hot-button debate issue. This was recently showcased by the negative response to LEGO Friends, a new line of LEGO toys marketed for girls that features more realistic body types, girlish locations and significantly less blocks than a traditional LEGO set.

The product and its marketing essentially created a gender separation between boys and girls for  a product that didn’t need it. Both girls and boys play with LEGO, regardless of whether or not it’s marketed to them. It’s largely a gender-neutral product.

Sadly, this trend of gender-based marketing toward products that need no gender separation doesn’t end at childhood. Case in point: Virgin America’s “A Breath of Fresh Airline” advertising campaign.

I’ve had a problem with this ad campaign ever since it came out last year. While I’ve usually found Virgin’s tongue-in-cheek ads rather clever, this campaign really pushed it for me.

There are four commercials I’m thinking of in particular. Two of them are centered around a single male character, while the other two are centered around a single female character. Let’s look at the male characters first.

The first would be a comically overweight man, a la Zach Galifianakis, who is channel surfing through different channels that change his appearance, such as a ballet and ninja video. Finally, he lands on a sports channel and begins cheering, despite the fact that it’s making the people around him visibly uneasy.

Just look at the woman behind him in the second pic. She’s looking over in consider bewilderment at his overjoyed enthusiasm, as if to say, “What the heck is he doing?” But of course, he doesn’t care one bit.

The second male-centered commercial is about a man discovering “Party Rock Anthem” while on the plane, and proceeds to dance; again, despite the fact that it’s making the people around him visibly uneasy.

The common thread in both these videos is the fact that man can entertain himself with the many pleasures of Virgin America’s amenities. Both men do so in spite of the people around them; because, for them, the most important thing is to make sure they enjoy themselves and have a good time during the flight.

Now, let’s look at the female-centered commercials.

The first would be the one where a woman is ordering a spicy chicken wrap — except the spice is coming from the Latin lover wrapped inside it. As she interacts with the spicy man wrap (quietly of course, so at not to cause a scene), she soon goes from bored to saucy and sexually charged, including making kitty scratches and “meows” in response to his advances.


The second is the one where a woman is chatting with a guy who changes appearances drastically as the lights turn on and off. When the lights are off, she is charmed by his handsome looks and charming personality. When the lights are on, he turns into an inhaler-using nerd with frizzy hair and a terribly annoying voice.

Note: This is the only commercial where two people are sitting next to each other. Apparently, Virgin America is only half occupied all the time — at least according to the commercials. 

In contrast to the male-centered commercials, the female-centered ones are about a woman interacting with a man. They are not entertaining themselves; they are being entertained by someone else. In addition, the women are not behaving in a way that garners negative response from the people around them. Nobody looks up or reacts during their activities.

I find these gender differences in the commercials completely insulting to both sexes. It turns what should be a gender-neutral flying experience into one that relies on stereotypes. I’m going to explain my main problems with the commercial in bullet points, because bullet points are awesome:

THE MALE-CENTERED COMMERCIALS ASSUME:

  • Men are loud, rambunctious and without self control at a moment’s notice
  • Men act in a way that annoys the people around them
  • Men don’t care whether or not the people around them are affected by their actions

THE FEMALE-CENTERED COMMERCIALS ASSUME: 

  • Women need to interact with a man in order to enjoy themselves
  • Attractiveness and sexuality are the most important qualities a woman looks for in a man
  • Woman do not act in a way that annoys the people around them

If the commercials had decided to mix it up by having one of each style (one solo and one interacting with the opposite sex), I would have found them much more interesting. After all, they are well-made commercials. A little tweaking would have made them great, instead of offensive.

There is no reason to create gender differences in marketing where there originally are none. Men and women don’t fly on airplanes for different reasons — it’s to get from one place to another. In addition, both men and women find value in an airline’s entertainment amenities AND the opportunity to meet new and interesting people.

Much like LEGO Friends, Virgin America’s “A Breath of Fresh Air” ad campaign creates an unnecessary gender separation. It didn’t make me want to fly Virgin America — instead, it made me actively look elsewhere to book my more recent flights.

After all, Virgin America doesn’t want to entertain me, because it’s assuming a man will do that. A man who’s busy annoying me by dancing around in his seat. Not a good combination.

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