Marketers have long known that product choice cannot be predicted reliably by knowing someone’s sex. Multiple factors — ranging from age and income to lifestyle and family preferences — influence purchasing decisions. Now, there’s another variable to add to the list. Recent empirical research suggests that digit ratio — the relative lengths of the fore and third fingers — is linked to the product choices of men.
The ‘2D:4D’ ratio — the ratio of the length of the index (2D) and the ring finger (4D) — is an established biomarker for the level of testosterone to which individuals were exposed before birth. It reliably differs by sex: on average, males have a lower digit ratio than females. (Their third finger tends to be longer than their forefinger.)
Research has found that individuals with lower digit ratios display more pronounced masculine and less pronounced feminine behaviours than are typical for their sex. It’s also found that lower digit ratio predicts visual preferences for masculine toys in a laboratory setting.
Can digit ratio, therefore, be linked to product choice? A study from Aalto University School of Business in Finland and Rotterdam School of Management investigates by observing consumers at a shopping mall in Helsinki.
The researchers looked at two dependent variables: purchases at a vending machine; colours worn by consumers. They focused on choice of branded cola beverages, which are reliably associated with distinct gender images. (Regular Coke is supposed to be a more masculine product, Diet Coke more feminine and Coke Zero more neutral.) And they categorized dark and cold colours as masculine, light and warm colours as feminine, and white as neutral.
After choosing a product, consumers were approached by a research assistant and offered a small reward in return for taking part in the study. Index and ring fingers of the right hand were measured from digital scans with image-processing software. (Digit ratio cannot be estimated fairly by the naked eye.) Controls were used for gender identity and identification (eg. the extent to which participants identified with the adjectives ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’) and demographics.
The results for product choice showed a clear link with digit ratio — but only for male consumers. They suggest that men with a lower/more masculine ratio are more likely to choose and use products with a more masculine image — and that the reverse is true for a higher/more feminine ratio. The results were the same for the clothing variable, if less pronounced.
Why aren’t the findings consistent for both sexes? The researchers suggest two reasons: “It is possible that males’ gendered traits and behaviors are generally more driven by biological factors, whereas women may be more likely to be influenced by situational, social, and cultural factors. Alternatively, the pattern could be explained by the fact that women are more likely to experience cyclical shifts in sex hormones that might overshadow the effects of prenatal testosterone.”
The fact that similar patterns were found for very different products — a soda beverage and clothing — suggests the results of the study might generalize to other categories.
Marketers are increasingly interested in more subtle gender image-based strategies. Products that appear more feminine (eg. pink shirts, decorated watches) are increasingly sold to men. This research confirms there’s a masculinity/femininity spectrum — and that ‘binary’ approaches to gender imaging are inadequate.
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The implications extend beyond sales and marketing and product design, though. The study is a reminder of the folly of seeing someone’s sex as the biggest determinant of their personality traits and preferences and their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders and HR departments need to see the person — not the stereotype.
Naturally designed for masculinity vs. femininity? Prenatal testosterone predicts male consumers’ choices of gender-imaged products. Jaakko Aspara & Bram Van den Bergh. International Journal of Research in Marketing (March 2014).
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