Behavioral Targeting and the Gender Divide

My last column garnered a comment from a gentleman who works for a cosmetics brand. Almost immediately, I thought about how behavioral targeting tactics for his company (which presumably focuses largely on targeting women) will differ from a brand dealing with a very disparate audience (e.g., a company that sells hunting equipment). After all, gender specification of a target audience remains one the most basic and key elements for market segmentation.

So, how might gender differences play a role in shaping behavioral targeting campaigns? How would these differences affect the nature of messaging and targeting efforts?

ClickZ columnist Andy Chen explored similarities and differences in online behaviors between men and women in the column, “The Great Behavioral Divide.” Research has found that men and women exhibit similar interaction patterns when it comes to search behaviors. But what leads to such observable behaviors in the first place?

Because behavioral targeting is all about delivering products and services that cater to unique needs and aspirations of varying consumer segments, segmentation based on gender must address differences in men and women. And for these differences to be addressed via effective messaging, marketers must understand the origins and psychological makeup of males and females. Let’s take a closer look at information processing differences between the genders and implications for behavioral targeting and marketing communications.

It’s in Our Nature

Behavioral and information processing differences between men and women can be explained through a combination of biological and social factors. On a biological level, the most compelling theory to account for differences in the sexes lies in brain lateralization, or specialization of the two hemispheres. During development, lateralization starts in one hemisphere (usually the left, which is responsible for verbal activities), followed by specialization in the right half of the brain, which specializes in spatial perception. It’s been suggested that the timing of this lateralization process affects the development of both verbal and spatial skills.

Developmental studies suggest that lateralization starts earlier in girls than in boys. As a result, females tend to have superior verbal skills while males have superior spatial relations. Additionally, female brain hemispheres are more symmetrically organized, while male hemispheres show larger differences in specialization. Since these biological differences exist, they create some interesting implications for advertisers. The more specialized processing in male brains suggests that nonverbal cues (e.g., images, sounds) would be beneficial as reinforcement to verbal information in advertisements. Conversely, female brains’ more integrated and symmetrical processing suggests that verbally descriptive messages might be more useful for conveying product information, according to research published by Sanjay Putrevu, then an associate professor of marketing at Brock University in Ontario, Canada.

But What About Nurture?

As with most social research, biological explanations are only part of the story. Since males and females of almost any culture experience disparate socialization processes, the concept of gender-role identification is considered a major influencer in the development of behavioral differences. As children grow and develop, they learn to identify with a particular gender (usually one that matches their biological predisposition), then seek to validate this identification. They do so by matching their own traits to “the standards of behavior, motivations, and feelings that they perceive to be appropriate to the gender,” according to Putrevu’s research. Thus, social behavior and patterns of cognitive ability are affected by the process of gender-role identification.

Many theories and findings have arisen from studies on the gender-role identification process that can help ads and messaging. One theory suggests that individuals have differing levels of masculinity and femininity, which vary based on the social situation at hand. These varying levels of masculinity and femininity aren’t influenced by the person’s biological sex, either. Overall, people operate on a continuum of self-identified masculinity and femininity. For example, people who classified themselves as masculine preferred masculine advertising and used more products that were perceived as masculine.

This finding definitely has some interesting implications for advertisers. For one, the traditional image of the described product and the actual sex of the perceiver don’t have much influence on consumer preference for products. Instead, consumers will choose products with descriptions that match gender attributes they consider important or characteristic of themselves. Here’s a sample scenario: you have a line of designer jeans with an industrial edge and street-cred vibe. Your target audience consists of women 25 to 35 years old. It is highly probable that your jeans will appeal to women who self-identify as more masculine (and thus have the appreciation for the industrial, hard vibe). Instead of using an ad strategy that is historically successful with women as a general category and have a highly feminine messaging focus, you might want to employ messaging techniques typically used for males with a more masculine focus.


A combination of biological makeup and social factors drive gender differences in information processing and behavior, which should draw the attention of marketers and advertisers alike. Some research findings that can be relevant for consideration in messaging campaigns include the following:

  • Each gender is biologically and socially conditioned to value traits common to one’s own gender (e.g., males prefer advertising messaging that feature competition and show dominance).
  • As a result of brain lateralization, females have a more symmetrically organized brain, which suggests that more verbal descriptions in advertisements can lead to deeper processing of information and better recall.
  • Males, who have greater specialization in each of the brain’s hemispheres, can benefit from nonverbal reinforcement in advertisement to complement the verbal product information (e.g., pictures, charts, music, etc.).
  • Both males and females respond more favorably to messages that are in line with their self-specified gender attributes.

These research-supported implications are a minute sampling of the abundance of information out there that can be relevant to behavioral targeting practices. As the industry continues to advance technologically, marketers should continue to think about ways to incorporate the social sciences into tactics for enhanced campaign effectiveness.

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