Social Web Makes It Harder for Marketers to Target (and Manipulate) Girls

But Capture Their Loyalty, and You'll Strike Generational Gold

By Published on .

Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
Feminism? That is sooooo 1973.

Even-post feminism is getting a little bedraggled; the Carrie Bradshaw ethic of being both sexy and independent turned out to depend on the maddening linchpin of male commitment. And those fabulous Manolos were at least as enslaving as they were empowering. Men got an eyeful. Women got bunions.

But what if there were a place where women could live and prosper on their own terms, according to their own wishes, desires, tastes, proclivities and especially needs? A place where the dominant worldview was a girlview? An enchanted, vaginacentric paradise engineered, like wheelchair-accessible restrooms, to be a post-post-feminist utopia?

Rejoice! There is such a universe. It is called the internet.

No, not all of the internet. Not the porn part, or the cyberbullying part or even the Gizmodo part. But at least one stubborn advocate sees social networks as a nexus of safe havens for girls to be girls – and an opportunity for marketers to stop preying and start paying attention.

Heidi Dangelmaier
Heidi Dangelmaier
"Blogs, videos, Facebook . . . they are learning to express their thoughts and ideas," says Heidi Dangelmaier, founder of the New York consultancy GirlApproved, which focuses on females born since 1988. "They are learning to express their thoughts and ideas. They're practicing self-expression, and they're practicing creative self expression."

Yeah, so is everybody else -- but the lack of obviousness behind Dangelmaier's observation is less obvious than it may first appear. First of all, if you buy into the work of psychologist and ethicist Carol Gilligan, you have to begin with the understanding that society strangles the self, or at least the voice, out of girls from about the age of 9. As they reach adolescence, they are increasingly rewarded for looking pretty, pleasing men and keeping their silly thoughts to themselves. This pattern is so ingrained, Gilligan has demonstrated, that even their dysfunctions get short shrift in psychological research and literature. (Female thinking is scarcely even reflected in the baseline.) Throw in the sense of shame instilled in women by the world's leading religions, and the constant Madison Avenue litany of the many ways -- from hair silkiness, to size 0-ness, to genital fragrance -- in which they fail to measure up and it is no wonder low self-esteem is an epidemic.

Self-expression may be guaranteed by the first amendment, but not by Hearst, Hollywood or even home. Now, though, there is a parallel universe online, rich with shared confidences and shared creativity, and there Dangelmaier's Post88s flock.

"They're seeking likemindedness, places where they feel at home," she says. "They're training themselves not to take as a default 'What's wrong with me?'"

This is surely a boon to an entire generation of digital natives. It is also a historic opportunity for the very marketers whom till now have prospered by persuading young women how inadequate they are. "Post88s are a critical market to master, as they are a brand's ticket to the future," GirlApproved's website declares. "Capture their loyalty and you will own generations of females to come."

Dangelmaier asserts an opportunity for "exponential growth," a bit of hyperbole perhaps untoward from a Princeton-trained computer-science PhD who should know what an exponent is. But chalk that up to euphoria at seeing the digital world create conditions such as she's dreamed of her entire career. As a videogame designer in the 90s, Dangelmaier was perpetually frustrated by the testosterone-laden assumptions of the industry that made creating games for girls a practical impossibility -- from the design of central processing units to the standards of fun.

"The properties of gaming were very masculine," she says. "The men were isolating and destroying. Girls wanted to socialize and create. It was almost an opposite desire." When she herself floundered with the man toys, she reflexively concluded "I suck. I don't fit in." Then she had her epiphany: "It's not me. It's your fuckin' game."

And thus launched her digital production house, Hi-D, where she worked with such clients as Samsung, Time-Warner, and Capitol Records. But still she ran into limits of technology and imagination. Truly connecting with girls, she sighs, "Is not about making it in pink or licensing a cute character."

On the contrary, it was about -- as USA Today was once widely ridiculed for observing in a front-page headline -- "Men and Women: We're Still Different." Those differences have been widely documented by such scholars as linguist Deborah Tannen, not to mention every standup comic who has ever lived. Yet they were never widely internalized by industry. And for her part, though she found herself on "every design jury and every panel out there," Dangelmaier despaired of marketers every truly seeking what she calls a "female reference point."

How generous of the internet to cultivate one for them.

In early 2006, buoyed by the new reality forged by social media, Dangelmaier created a consultancy then christened 3iying (reflecting eastern notions of feminine energy) flogging the concept Girl Approved. That reflected not just a philosophy but a methodology, involving deep, psychoanalytical interviews with young women to plumb their relationship with the world. Her work is a social-scientist's nightmare, lacking randomness and statistical rigor. But she swears she wasn't looking for science; she was working by intuition, foraging for insights.

"What I immediately started to notice was that we'd all look around and see the same problems. Their ability to find flaws was mindblowing. Mindblowing. I hate to say it but their perceptions of what would be successful and what wouldn't were far beyond any of the agencies I was working with." More importantly, "The universality of their feelings was striking. People would have looked at my team and seen them as 15 markets, yet they were as one. There were so many shared needs, so many shared desires, so many shared feelings."

Now some of this thinking smacks of so-called "essentialist" feminism, the subject of many an academic catfight about the nature of women in a patriarchal society -- the chief criticism being that the alleged universality is largely limited to affluent white women. Dangelmaier counters that her Post88s are far more ethnically and socio-economically diverse. What they do have in common, she says, is a conviction that the stuff out there for them to buy doesn't reflect their needs. "Sometimes it's a communications need, sometimes it's a product need, sometimes it's technology, sometimes it's just a visual need." Across the board -- technology, beauty and fashion, housing and décor, education, financial services -- marketers are pressing all the wrong buttons. And now that the internet has empowered Post88s to compare notes and validate one another's hitherto-suppressed girlviews, inventing insecurities to exploit will no longer do the trick.

"The post88 person is least likely to be manipulated. You can't persuade them. You have to find their need."

And if you do, you both expatiate past sins and de-commodify whatever category you are laboring in. Which may or may not translate to "exponential," but providential -- you got that right, girlfriend.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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