The One Test That Popular Commercials Keep Failing

By Amy-Willard Cross

Think about the last few advertisement you saw that targeted women, and try putting it through the Buchanan Test for stereotypes.



Did the ad feature a woman:

1. outside the home

2. in a role other than "mother"?

3.  not doing yoga?

The answer to those three questions is probably not.  An extremely small and shocking number of advertisements can pass this very simple test. In fact, not one of Adweek's 10 Best Commercials of 2012 did. The only woman protagonist included in the list an Olympic athlete's mother. 

The Buchanan Test was created by Holly Buchanan, author of The Soccer Mom Myth and an expert in marketing messages to women.  Buchanan was inspired by the now-famous Bechdel test about women in films, which poses three simple criteria to pass: Is there more than one woman? Do they talk? Do they talk about something other than a man? 

While the advertisements of some companies such as Underarmour’s, Michelob Light, and Tide Superbowl have passed her test, Buchanan has found that the subservient mother role is the most popular portrayal of women. She points to drug commericials, for instance, in which men are typically shown doing exiciting things like mountain biking, whereas the women were shown buckling children into a car or doing yoga. Do women not do anything else in their lives, she wondered. Hence the origin of the Buchanan Test.

"Of course, there’s nothing wrong with mothers," Buchanan added. “God bless ‘em, moms are the saviors of the earth.”  But not all women have children, and those who are moms have many other roles besides life-giver, food prep worker and Stain-Remover-in-Chief. It makes sense that women might want to see other images of themselves.

It’s not a conspiracy, Buchanan says, “The industry wants to change, it wants to create more effective advertising to women.  It’s just not aware of how much it stereotypes women.”  Both men and women are guilty of perpetuating stereotypes. Of course, having more women creating ads helps; right now just 3% of creative directors are women, which means the target audience is not at the table.  There isn’t the same blatant sexism of the 1950s, but a more subtle version. Back in the 'aughts, Buchanan noticed gender differences while testing ads used in internet marketing.  When breaking down ads by gender, there were vast differences in how people responded.  But companies weren’t actually testing the effectiveness of ads in both genders.  Earlier, she had written for radio:  messages crafted for alt rock directed to young men, were vastly different from ads running on adult contemporary stations. Now most ads seem to be unisex, which doesn't always work.

So why do we still see so many offensive commercials--like the Superbowl ads that were collectively booed on Twitter.  Buchanan explains agencies often want to be edgy and accept that some people will be offended (just 50 percent of the population). Ads do affect us said Buchanan, and often negatively. She cited a study that shows after watching massive amounts of TV, boys had increased self-esteem, whereas girls or children of color had lower self-esteem. Those who complain are seen by the industry as “crazy feminists or women’s studies majors” who need to lighten up; meanwhile some marketers claim they’re getting great publicity.  So, any tweet is a good tweet.

"What I’d like to see, is a more positive, realistic portrayal of women and their lives, so women will want to engage with a company’s products more and engage with companies, Buchanan said. Can actions like Miss Representation’s #Notbuyingit campaign have an effect? Buchanan says, “If women really want companies to create better, more positive advertising, you’ve got to be organized and have specific measurable actions.”  

The protests against Susan B. Komen worked because women bonded together, they moved beyond tweeting, such as donating to Planned Parenthood.  And donations rose to  $3 million.  She thinks it’s a good idea to let companies know what you think--whether you hate their ad, or love it.

Buchanan sums it up, “At the end of the day it’s about money and it’s about sales.”

image:  Ssoosay via flickr