Do men and women react differently to advertising?

By Paul Walker 23/09/2013

The short answer, at least for political advertisements, seems to be yes.

A recent article at looks at Heterogeneous response across genders to tonal variation in messaging: Experimental evidence. The column by Vincenzo Galasso and Tommaso Nanni looks at how the perceived tone of a product or political advertisement affects public response – even holding constant the content of the message. The column provides evidence that men and women react differently to positive and negative tones in electoral advertisements. Negative advertising increases voter turnout among men but not women; positive advertising tends to win women’s sympathy but alienates men. This should inform gender-specific tailoring of targeted advertisements.

Given that Galasso and Nanni run experiments the first question has to do with their experiment design.

We implemented our experiment by providing four surveys to an online sample of about 1,500 eligible voters. Respondents to the initial profiling survey – conducted at the end of March 2011 – were randomly assigned
to two treatment groups and a control group exposed to neither campaign. There was one treatment group each for the positive and negative campaigns.

Individuals in the positive group were exposed to an electoral campaign with a positive tone by the main opponent, and those in the negative group to a campaign with a negative tone. Both treatment groups, as well as the
control group, were exposed to the actual (non-randomised) campaign by the incumbent. The incumbent’s campaign was mainly perceived to be negative in tone by subjects in the control group.

Since actual political campaigns consist of various communication tools which potentially reinforce each other, we expose individuals in our sample to four devices of political persuasion:

  • A video interview with the candidate.
  • An electoral slogan.
  • An open letter to the voters; and
  • A video ad endorsed by the candidate.
  • Each of these items was presented to the two treatment groups in a positive or in a negative tone. Both positive and negative ads addressed the same issue, with the same format, and in the same setting (i.e. video images,
    length of the letter).

The initial two treatment tools (the video interview and campaign slogan) were provided with our second survey, run at the end of April 2011. The last two tools (the open letter and video ad) were provided with our third survey, run in the week before the election. After administering each of the four tools, we used the corresponding survey to measure their instantaneous effect on the perceived credibility and approval rate of the candidates, as in a standard survey experiment. All campaign ads and videos can be watched on the experiment website. The ’in the field‘ component of our experimental design comes from collecting (self-declared) turnout and voting choices through a fourth survey, run in the days immediately after the 15-16 May election. These responses enable us to evaluate the overall effect of our randomised campaigns on electoral behaviour.

What then were the results?

Our empirical results show large differences in the gender response to political persuasion strategies. In fact, male and female voters respond in opposite ways to the degree of aggressiveness of the opponent’s campaign.

  • Negative advertising increases men’s turnout by about eight percentage points, but has no effect on women.

Gender differences are even stronger for electoral choices.

  • Women vote more for the opponent (by eight points) and less for the incumbent (by eight points) if exposed to the opponent’s positive campaign.

Exactly the opposite happens for men.

  • Men vote less for the opponent (by 11 points) and more for the incumbent (by 12.7 points) if exposed to the opponent’s positive campaign.

Overall, these effects amount to persuasion rates ranging from 21% to 24%.

Galasso and Nanni’s concluding comments,

The diffusion of social networks and the ability to process the huge amount of information collected in large datasets have allowed sellers and politicians to precisely identify their preferred targets: undecided, potential buyers, and swing voters. Our results suggest that since the ads can now be targeted to the right receiver, the message should be tailored to persuade her or him.