Are women their own worst enemies?


I’m writing some features at the moment for a newspaper about women in business, and have spent a good chunk of this week asking various brands, marketing experts and advertising types “How do you sell to women?”

As a blogger, I’m finding the discussion fascinating – all the professionals I’ve interviewed agree that women and men have different ‘triggers’ that persuade them to make a purchase or support one brand over another. For women, consensus and conversation seem to be important, which maybe explains why brands are interested in social media.  For men, it’s more likely to be strength and achievement.

But an ad exec I spoke with yesterday said something I found really interesting – and a bit shocking.

“The key to selling to women is tapping into their desire to criticise one another.”

Just think about that. What the advertising exec was saying was that if you want to sell something to a woman, one of the most effective ways of doing this is not just to persuade her that in buying Brand X she will be better than the woman buying Brand Y, but to persuade her that the woman buying Brand Y is inferior in some way.

The ad exec said that’s why campaigns often incorporate the idea of ‘blemished perfection’ – so ads will typically show a woman who is just like you, only a little bit "better". Thinner, richer, prettier, more successful at work, sexier, whatever. She is a reflection of the you that you’d like to be. Except she will always have a flaw. She’ll always be open to criticism.  

There’s an argument this is just about making women in the media relatable – after all, I don’t want to be friends with smug, perfect types in real-life and that sort of person wouldn’t persuade me to buy a product, either.

But I do sometimes suspect women are far more judgemental of each other than men are of other men.

In my professional experience, I'd say you have to work a lot harder to win over a woman than a man. And women can be incredibly hostile to other women in situations where (if it was a man) it would all blow over. Ultimately, I suspect most men don’t particularly care what other men are getting up to, where women (myself included) can't help but keep measuring up, comparing, worrying if we’re good enough.

What do you think? Are women naturally critical of one another? Or are we more supportive than some parts of the marketing industry gives us credit for?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 18th November 2010 / 10:30 am

    I think most ad campaigns aimed at women are patronising and shallow. Most of them have me yelling at the telly to be honest. So I don’t have much time for an ad exec’s opinion. That said, I guess the ads do work otherwise why would they be made in that way. And that’s a dperessing thought in itself. I think women are critical of each other but no more than men. People on the whole are critical of each other but in different ways.

  2. angelsandurchinsblog
    18th November 2010 / 10:33 am

    Very interesting. Obviously we’re all perfect, but some of us are more perfect than others…! I agree that women compare themselves to other women, but I think men do the same thing. What’s different is the yardsticks they use. I couldn’t care less which car someone else drives, but do notice things like weight and handbags, both things I doubt most men would register.

  3. 18th November 2010 / 11:15 am

    I do think women can be very critical of each other esp in competitive situations but at the same time I do feel that we are openly far more supportive of each other in general. Taking that into account it is no wonder people sell the way they do. Personally I don’t care whether my product is socially superior to someone else’s I actually want the blessed thing to work! That is why I think the social media (liek word of mouth) works so well. If the product is good and people I trust can recommend it then I am far more likely to listen than if I saw an ad on the TV or in a magazine.

  4. Kate
    18th November 2010 / 1:21 pm

    I suspect a lot of it relates to just how critical we are of ourselves e.g. have the kids had their 5 a day, will I get that promotion this week, is the Christmas shopping all done, wrapped and bagged up in alphabetical order etc etc. We tend to judge people according to our own insecurities and unlike most women I know, I don’t think men look all that hard at themselves.

  5. 18th November 2010 / 1:23 pm

    I think it depends on the environment we’re in, particularly at work. I work with a company which – by accident, not by design – has a majority of women in senior positions, including the CEO, and it’s an unusually supportive (and highly successful) business. Perhaps when there’s nothing to prove, women support each other. But when we have to fight to be heard, or work in an environment where we’re considered insignificant, we get pitted against each other, and respond accordingly. I’d bet men would do the same, in the same circumstances.
    Sadly, young girls still often judge themselves, and therefore their peers, in superficial terms (am I attractive, thin enough, wearing the right brands etc). Maybe some of this stays with us as we grow up.

  6. 18th November 2010 / 1:45 pm

    I think women are much more critical of themselves than men, and I think that comes out in criticising others – “I’m fat…Am I fat?… Well I’m thinner than her so it’s not all bad, and while I’m at it that top she’s wearing is AWFUL”. We are always looking to compare (and that will involve, inevitably, an element of criticism. I agree too that men don’t do this so much – if we all go swimming as a family, I’ll come out of the changing room feeling better or worse about myself as a reflection of the other women I’ve seen (and, yes, checked out). B will just come out in the same mood he went (and his swimming trunks).
    But whether that is reflected in the purchasing choices we make, I’m not so sure. Equally I don’t think it’s reflected in how supportive we can be of other women we meet or come across, whether socially or in a work environment. I’ve certainly found that the woman in a senior position looking to put down junior women is a very much rarer breed than a senior woman actively looking out for juniors and promoting their careers in a male dominated environment. But maybe I’ve just been lucky.

  7. 18th November 2010 / 1:53 pm

    Having worked with mainly men for the majority of my early career I find that women are different, many women do fall in to cliques, so I am not that surprised by the advertising woman at all. There is a herd mentality amongst people and it isn’t necessarily wrong, but I have never felt that I need to be the same and I am bringing my children up the same way hopefully.
    I think woman are far more judgemental when in groups and also far more supportive.
    I would hope with the rising popularity of social media that this categorising would reduce rather than increase!

  8. Nikki
    18th November 2010 / 7:18 pm

    Gosh Sally – a bit of a deep blog post lol. I prefer the snot on dressing gowns ones – you know, the ones I don’t need to think about :-))
    On this subject, I agree with the ad exec in that – that’s exactly what they do and exactly how it comes across. About time it changed!

  9. 19th November 2010 / 9:54 am

    I am also a shouter at the TV and it’s one of the reasons I don’t let Flea watch television. But yes, these tactics obviously work, which is sort of depressing.

  10. 19th November 2010 / 9:56 am

    I am exceptionally perfect, it’s true 😉
    I don’t know whether men DO criticise other men in quite the same way though. I’ve never heard a man hiss criticism of a passing bloke on the basis of his clothes, or job, or hair, or how he’s looking after his kids. Women – do this sort of thing all the time. Or am I being blind?

  11. 19th November 2010 / 9:57 am

    Hmm. I’m always suspicious of someone who says ads don’t influence them at all. Do you think any of your consumer choices are influenced? Even the clothes you wear, or the websites you use?

  12. 19th November 2010 / 9:58 am

    Yes, I’ve heard some interesting things around word of mouth being far more important to women than men, although research suggests it works best as a marketing strategy when combined with mainstream advertising, apparently.

  13. 19th November 2010 / 10:00 am

    It’s a good point about having something to prove driving competition and therefore criticism. I see this a lot in my work life, too.

  14. 20th November 2010 / 10:13 am

    an ad that asks a viewer to make a judgment like this is inviting and encouraging that judgmental reading between women.
    i find it quite an unpleasant form of advertising. it’s not one which is product based but social. if we fall in line with it, it is shaping our judgments according to a market.
    i think i would say it’s a little bit more social manipulation than social media.
    i also think that the further you come away from that culture, the less you’re affected by it.

  15. 22nd November 2010 / 7:22 pm

    But I think the issue of whether we’re influenced by advertising is so pervasive it’s about more than not buying the latest fashions. It’s about how you chose your bank account, which utility service you use, where you bought your children’s beds from, what computer you use, what ISP you use, what beer you prefer, versus beers you’ve never tried.
    To an extent, I think, there’s almost no decision made on a daily basis that isn’t tainted by advertising. Given the sheer number of consumer choices we face, one might say it’s a convenient shortcut – who’s got time to test 200 washing powders and independently choose the best one, after all?

  16. Sebby
    28th November 2011 / 1:50 am

    Interesting post, and especially interesting to me because I took the photo. 😀 I found this through google image search checking if my free photos had gotten around the way I intended them to. Anyway, about the topic: without a doubt women are more critical of each other than men are – not only each other, but men, too, and each other’s men. (Hence the reason for this photo!) Men can be critical of each other, but they are rarely petty about it. Men don’t bitch about each other for the FUN of it – women do. I’ve sometimes heard men say negative things of other men, and it seems it almost causes them pain to say it, but once they reach the point when they can’t no longer hold it in, they vent, but not for the JOY of it. (Although I’ve met men who do that, too, just generalizing.) I’m not without blame here either, but having said that… I don’t respond well to advertising, but sometimes if an advert makes me laugh, I’ll knowingly buy the brand over another because I liked it. I’m not immune to advertising, but I don’t think I go for the “I’ll be better than her if I buy brand X” -approach.
    Oh and another angle… The way to impress a woman is to tell her exactly why he likes her over another woman or women… That works for ANY woman, I’d be willing to bet. (At least if you tap into her own values: “I like you because you’re smarter than the others…”)

  17. Anna
    30th November 2011 / 12:51 pm

    That is an interesting take. I have to say I’ve seen this manifest itself particularly in the work place. Often it is considerably exaggerated if the gender balance is bias towards women. The competitiveness of the work environment seems to help fan the flames of being over critical ever higher.