For decades, environmental activists have struggled against a curious problem: Men simply care less than women about conservation. Studies have established that men litter more, recycle less, have a larger carbon footprint and feel less guilt about leading a wasteful lifestyle. The question is: why?
Researchers have explained the discrepancy by pointing to inherent differences between men and women. On the whole, women tend to be more empathetic, altruistic and better at understanding multiple perspectives on an issue. They are more future-oriented and more concerned with health and safety issues, which dovetail with greater environmental awareness.
For Mendoza Marketing Assistant Professor James Wilkie (MARK ʼ05), however, believes there may be more to this story than just differences in the dispositional styles. Over the years, Wilkie, a consumer psychologist, had developed expertise in the area of gender perceptions and their effects on the shopping decisions of men and women. For example, he is credited as one of the first to discover the psychological phenomenon that people systematically perceive even numbers as feminine and odd numbers as masculine, and has explored the consequences of such perceptions on consumer behavior. He also has published work on how male shoppers place greater importance than female shoppers on how masculine or feminine the products appear to be.
“We’re socially conditioned to think of things in gendered terms from a very young age,” Wilkie explained. “Studies have shown that beginning at five or six months, children can start distinguishing a man from a woman based on their voices. From there, they begin to observe and learn various other differences, such as what activities they tend to perform and what objects they are typically interested in. Those who follow these norms will tend to receive some sort of reward, while those who don’t are punished.”
Wilkie, who has a longstanding interest in environmental issues, wondered if he could apply his knowledge of gender-based consumption patterns to the environmentalist gender gap. His hunch was that eco-friendly products were perceived as being more feminine than ordinary products, making men less likely to buy them. What if marketers could learn to package these products to appeal more to men?
To test his hypothesis, Wilkie and his four co-authors designed a series of psychological studies aimed at gauging different gender responses to eco-friendly products. In the first study, the researchers used a widely accepted procedure designed to test whether people hold a specific set of associations or stereotypes in memory. They found support for their idea that both male and female consumers tend to automatically associate green products with femininity. Another study demonstrated that participants perceived people as more feminine when they engaged in eco-friendly behaviors, such as using recyclable grocery bags.
Having established a strong link between the concepts of greenness and femininity, Wilkie and his co-authors next looked at ways to potentially mitigate that association. One study showed that men who were given positive masculine affirmation were more open to purchasing eco-friendly products. Under a cover story that the researchers were interested in examining how accurate an algorithm was in judging personal characteristics about a writer, male participants were asked to write an essay about what they did the previous day. Half of these males then were provided with false feedback that they write in a very masculine fashion, whereas the other males received no such feedback. The team found that those who were told they were “masculine” writers tended to find a green product to be more appealing than the ones given no feedback.
Perhaps of greatest interest to advertisers, however, was the next study, which examined whether masculine branding would reduce men’s inhibitions toward green behaviors and products. Participants were asked how likely they were to donate to a nonprofit based on its name, logo and mission statement. The first nonprofit, Friends of Nature, had a green-and-tan logo with a tree symbol, a frilly font and a mission statement that called for preserving the natural habitat. The second nonprofit, Wilderness Rangers, had a black-and-blue logo featuring a wolf, and described its mission as preserving wilderness areas.
While men and women were equally likely to donate to the Wilderness Rangers, men were distinctly less interested than women in donating to the Friends of Nature. This supported the researchers’ earlier findings that masculine branding has far less of an affect on women than feminine branding has on men.
Wilkie said he had seen this discrepancy over and over again in his research. “I think if we were to have done this project before the feminist movement, women would have been acting the same way on the other side of things,” he theorized. “But through that social movement, society kind of redefined what’s OK for women to do. For me, although there’s some movement in that direction for men, I don’t feel it’s to the same degree. The direction hasn’t been symmetrical.”
The reason, Wilkie suggests, is that men pay a higher social cost for acting in stereotypically feminine ways than women do for acting in stereotypically masculine ways. “Think of going to a bar and ordering a ‘girly’ drink,” he said. “Personally, I find these types of drinks to be delicious and I will often order one. But in doing so, I know that, at the very least, people might make fun of me or challenge my ‘manhood.’ This type of social threat can often make men hesitate. In contrast, at least within our present society, females could order a very masculine drink and face less of a negative reaction. Women typically don’t incorporate the gender cues of a product into their decisions as much as men. In this sense, female consumers are a little more free than men to make choices in the marketplace.”
Are men less interested in conservation because of innate biological differences, or because of the cultural stereotype that environmentalism is feminine? According to Wilkie, it’s a little bit of both. “I’m not saying that the argument about biology is invalid. I’m just saying that there’s another piece of this that hasn’t been examined,” he said. “The interesting thing about this new research is that it’s low-cost in terms of what advertisers can do to change people’s behaviors. It’s a lot harder to change something that’s hardwired in people versus something where you just change what you call a product.”
Plenty of companies have had success marketing products once perceived as feminine to men. After conducting research showing that Diet Coke was shunned by men because they associated the concept of dieting with women, Coca-Cola launched Coke Zero, which also had no calories but came in a black can with ‘Zero’ spelled out in a tough-looking font. Coca-Cola’s competitors quickly followed suit, with Pepsi launching Pepsi Max and Dr Pepper introducing Dr Pepper 10.
Could masculine rebranding make environmentalism macho? Wilkie is optimistic. After all, he pointed out, with global warming well underway and environmental catastrophes cropping up around the world, what choice do we have?
“It is difficult to get people to change their behaviors,” said Wilkie. “I believe, however, that this difficulty is often due to not having a greater understanding of the various psychological mechanisms that bias us to behave in a certain way. My hope is that the realization that something as simple as labeling a product “for men” can make a positive difference for everyone.”
James Wilkie’s study, “Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and its Effect on Sustainable Consumption,” was co-authored by Aaron Brough of Utah State University, Jingjing Ma of Peking University, Mathew Isaac of Seattle University and David Gal of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The research was published in the August 2016 edition of The Journal of Consumer Research.