This past Sunday while watching pro football I could not help but notice two television ads introducing two new mobile phones, Verizon’s Wireless Blackberry Storm 2 and Motorola’s much hyped, Droid. Here are links to the spots if you have not seen them.
What strikes me most is how overwhelmingly masculine both ads are.
The BlackBerry Storm 2 spot is loaded with testosterone. The dark and stormy setting, male voice-over, hard rock soundtrack, and masculine hand seen using the mobile device tilts decisively toward the male consumer. But many of the features boasted in the spot–the apps, texting, responsiveness–are exactly the kinds of things that women are more likely to do with their mobile phones.
Male iconography–ranchers, shots of the open prairie, and a squad of stealth fighter jets—defines the Droid spot, too. Between the two spots only one woman appears. I know it’s pro football and the presumed audience, rightly or wrongly, are millions of adrenaline-filled men rooting for their favorite teams and eagerly awaiting their fantasy football results. But as I thought about the multi-million dollar roll out for these campaigns I could not help but think: are these types of campaigns dated, culturally out of synch, and, ultimately, off-message?
A decade or so ago it was fairly common to associate all things tech with men, call it the “boy toy” syndrome. That was certainly the case with the early marketing and selling of video games, an industry that up until recently all but ignored the fact that girls and women play games, too. A 2006 Active Gamer Benchmark Study by Nielsen Entertainment found that 64% of online gamers are women. Women, according to the study, generally seek out gaming experiences that are casual, recreational, and social. These styles of play represent the next era of gaming.
When you look at the data on who uses social media technologies the BlackBerry and Droid spots are out of touch.
Some of the more interesting gender differences related to technology use begin to form just as teens use of mobile phones and social network sites intensifies. When the Pew Internet & American Life Project produced its first report on teens use of social network sites, Social Networking Websites and Teens, clear gender patterns emerged. Among both young and older teenagers, girls used social network sites more than boys. Seventy percent of older teenage girls, ages 15-17, had used a social network site compared to 54% of older boys. Similarly, older girls were more likely to have created a profile on a social site, 70% to 57%.
Teen girls use of the Web, generally speaking, tends to be more social than boys. In a report titled Teen Content Creators and Consumers, Pew found that a quarter (25%) of online girls age 15-17 blog, compared with 15% of online boys of the same age. Pew’s data suggests that while boys are consumers of online content girls are sharers of online content. In other words, when it comes to participation in the online world boys take, girls give. Pew writes, “just 29% of boys ages 15-17 share their own creative content online, compared with 38% of girls in that age group.” Pew characterizes girls as “power content creators.”
These trends persist as teens grow into young twenty-somethings—an age segment my research focuses on.
At a recent conference in Chicago I spoke about how young people are using social network sites to maintain different types of relationships. When we began surveying college students about their media behaviors three years ago women stood out as the most innovative and intense users of social network sites. With the exception of massively multiplayer online games women are more actively engaged with social media platforms than men. For example, in our survey women were much more likely to use two or more social network sites, suggesting that they were using social sites to manage a diverse sphere of friends, acquaintances, and social contacts. Also, women were significantly more likely in our survey to rank “managing my personal profile” as one of their top three SNS activities. In some other data that we have gained access to we know, for instance, that women are much more likely than men to post and share photos in their online networks. Photo management is a main source of activity and social expression among Facebook’s youngest users.
The idea that women are more social in their use of technology is actually consistent with what we know, more broadly, about men, women, and expressions of intimacy and engagement with others. In his book Bowling Alone political scientist Robert Putnam writes, “women make 10-20 percent more long-distance calls to family and friends than men, are responsible for nearly three times as many greeting cards and gifts, and write two to four times as many personal letters as men. “ Putnam adds that, “ even in adolescence, women are more likely to express a sense of concern and responsibility for the welfare of others.” Women’s engagement with friends, family, and acquaintances compels Putnam to claim that they are “more avid social capitalists than men.”
Of course, platforms like Facebook are ideal tools for practicing many of these expressions of sociability including communicating with friends, sending friendly greetings and personal notes, long distance communication, and expressions of intimacy and caring for others.
Sociologist Claude Fischer came to similar conclusions about men and women after analyzing American’s use of the telephone in the early twentieth century. Women, Fischer found, were much more likely than men to use the phone for casual communication and conversation. This particular use of the phone was actually discouraged by telephone industry executives. They thought it was silly, a waste of time, and an inefficient use of the technology. Needless to say, they were wrong! The use of the phone as a primarily social tool—think AT&T’s old ad campaign “reach out and touch someone”—is one of the most enduring features of the technology.
Though technological innovations are often accused of making us less social, less intimate, and less community-oriented they can have the opposite effect. Today’s social media platforms are being used to expand how we build and cultivate personal and professional connections as well as manage friendships that are close by and far away.
With all of this in mind I can only scratch my head when I see ads like the ones currently in rotation for the BlackBerry Storm 2 and Motorola’s Droid. Both spots overlook the fact that in an age where media use is increasingly social women are crucial in terms of both cultural and consumer trends. It is time to do away with ads and attitudes that assume that social and digital technologies are the primary domain of men. If anything, the data suggests that in terms of social use and innovation these technologies are increasingly the domain of women.