The jokes write themselves, but hardheaded consumer packaged goods marketers are concerned about young shoppers who are averse to buying gender-differentiated products and young families who want to simplify shopping lists by pruning "his" or "hers" versions. Bic has just expanded its "Made for You" line of razors by introducing unisex grooming products (face lotion, body lotion and shaving cream) and research supports the decision. More than two-thirds of consumers between 18 and 24 approve of such things. Nearly half of them have used genderless beauty products and the rest would be interested in trying them. Meanwhile, fewer adult consumers in general admit that their purchases of hair- or skin-care products are positively influenced by gendered positioning.
Happily, engineering and biology seem to be no obstacle to the unisex trend, at least razor-wise. The technical aspects of shaving around an ankle are pretty much indistinguishable from those of shaving a chin. Ditto for shaving under an arm and under a chin; men and women both tend to reverse blade strokes to go against the grain. Ergo, one tool can do it all.
But not always, because in some cases, men and women do have distinct preferences the bases of which have yet to be understood. For example, men generally don't like to use oil on their faces whereas women don't mind. To cope with the difference, Care/of, a recent startup, added a gelling agent to its Non Gender Specific "Everything Serum" to make it less runny and the serum became as popular with men as the gel-less version was with women.
Today's shift away from gender-positioning might be related to the notorious pink tax which burst into prominence after NYC's Department of Consumer Affairs found that personal care products positioned for women cost 13% more, on average, than similar products positioned for men. On the other hand, Bic says women who switch to its unisex "Made for You" razor from the female-targeted Soleil razor will end up paying 15-to-20% more because the handle is longer and sturdier and the shaving experience is better.
Here reportage endeth and quibbling beginneth.
If anyone can buy any product, how can it possibly matter to the celestial judge that some products are marketed to women and others to men? Surely clever consumers of either (oops, "whatever") gender will simply find products that suit their needs and buy them regardless of the positioning. After all, who could possibly believe that a man who uses a pink razor rather than a blue one will have to start buying man-bras? Or that a woman will stink by lunchtime if she uses Axe or Lynx after her morning shower instead of Secret?
And with regard to the pink tax, why should marketers be blamed if consumers have preferences based on gender? If marketers deserve blame for that, then surely they are also culpable for selling luxury goods to "irrational" consumers at markups that can't be justified by higher costs of production.
Nevertheless, however irrational they might be, gender associations CAN shape thoughts in surprising ways. And not just gender associations. Indeed, there's some actual (social) science to consider. To wit, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that the language we speak influences the thoughts we think. David Shariatmadari, author of Don't Believe a Word of It: The Surprising Truth About Language, provides some striking examples.
For one, Swedish and Finnish are two entirely different languages despite the two populations having lived cheek by jowl for millenia. Swedish allegedly is better suited to describing movement while Finnish is better suited to describing static relationships among things. As it happens, the rate of fatal industrial accidents among Finnish-speakers is 31% higher than among Swedish-speakers. So, the thinking goes, perhaps Finns design industrial processes worse than Swedes. Hmmm. Of course I'd want to be sure we weren't comparing Finnish loggers and sawmill workers to Ericsson or Bofors factory workers instead of using Nokia for something more apples-to-apples.
A more persuasive example is based on comparing gender-inflected languages like Spanish and German. In such languages, the assignments of nouns to genders is largely arbitrary, as Mark Twain highlighted by joking that a young German maiden is neuter while a German turnip is feminine. Or perhaps this says something profound about Germans. But never mind. In an interesting study, researchers used the word "bridge," which is masculine in Spanish but feminine in German to study differences in the way speakers of Spanish and German thought about bridges. When asked what qualities they associated with bridges, Spanish speakers said "big," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering," while German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "pretty," and "slender." So the arbitrary assignment of gender to a bridge affects the way it is thought of.
And, therefore, maybe the damned advertisers, or the non-linguistic culture itself, have infected us speakers of non-gender-inflected English with a bunch of gender-inflected ideas about things that undo the beautiful gender neutrality of the language. Hmmph!