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What Do Thinking Women Want?


What women really need is a motorcycle with a mirror better angled to check your lipstick. Then, the engineers can tackle what riding one does to your hair.

Whenever the marketing world pitches up another product for women–a motorcycle for women, a lawnmower for women, a pool table for women–I brace myself for an insult, as I am sure all of you do, too.  But I am intrigued by the subgenre of products designed for “for the thinking woman.”

Consider the recent announcement of a thinking woman’s line of underwear. (Yes, underwear.)  Three sharp young women came up with the idea that your panties should have a shield to repel the odd menstrual accident. These ladies also say “confidence” doesn’t have to be ugly.  So, they have designed pretty, sexy underwear from fabric that wicks away disaster. And because this is supposed to be “thinking woman’s underwear,” the brandname is Thinx.  The video is smart and, pardon the pun, cheeky.

So, what is the cognitive element?  These young ladies put thought into a good design–one that you have to ask, “Why did no one think of this before?”  And I guess they are trying to save you from that sudden chilling thought, “Oh my god, I’ve sprung a leak.” I concluded that the thinking woman was supposed to appreciate both the utilitarian and the aesthetic functionality. The left and right sides of your brain should be happy with these panties.

"Rational" advertising usually has diagrams and cross-sections like these.  However, such scientific claims can also be pretty weird and misleading.  Guys in white lab coats, "secret ingredients," and the like.

“Rational” advertising often has diagrams and cross-sections. However, scientific claims can be pretty weird and misleading. Guys in white lab coats, “secret ingredients,” and the like.

The fabled “economic man” (may he rest in peace) is supposed to make a rational decision based on a comparative analysis of the costs and benefits. Aesthetics are not usually thought to be part of a rational economic decision; the right side of your brain is to be suppressed when buying.  Instead, we are to use the left side to consider functionality and concrete stuff like ingredients.

A perfect example is the new Nurofen.  One of my wonderful new doctoral students, Astrid, came into my office and smacked a box down on the desk: Nurofen for women (menstrual pain, obviously).  She tells me in a suitably indignant tone that this box is double the price of the “regular” Nurofen and it has the same ingredients. But the pills are pink.  It seems to be another of those blatantly sexist appeals of the “for women” variety. Obviously, no thinking woman would buy that product.

Would they?  I’m imagining myself in deep periodic distress, walking into Boots and dragging up to the painkiller pegboard.  I see this Nurofen box hanging there, claiming to do the very job I need.  I can tell by looking across the pegs that it costs more.  Do I then turn over all the packages and compare ingredients?  No, because my cognitive state is too snarly and, anyway, I don’t know enough chemistry to discern what the words mean. So, I rest, perhaps uneasily, on the social safety net that regulates advertising claims and rationalize that if there weren’t something different, they wouldn’t be able to put the words on the box.

70 pence more per pack for the secret ingredients and pink color.

Double the price for the pink color and placebo effect?

I think, “OK, I will try it this one time and if it doesn’t work, I will never buy it again.” Angry decisions made on the first day of your period are irrevocable, as we all know and so does the manufacturer.  It is a basic reality of fast-moving consumer goods that they can’t survive without repeat purchase.  So the question is whether enough of us will think Nurofen for women works to buy it again.  This leads to another cognitive risk, even for thinking women: the dread placebo effect.  There is always a real possibility we will think an over-the-counter drug works, even if it has no functional ingredients. But. . .  I guess if you think it reduces your pain, that is the same as reducing your pain, right?

Cognition is not a cut-and-dried sort of thing, you see, and it does not always conform to what classical economics tells us is rational.  Let’s look at the recent scandal of the Bic pen for women.  Ellen DeGeneres was asked to plug for this silly thing and responded by making a hilarious commercial spoof.

I especially love the line where she says “and it comes in both lady colors, pink and purple.” I can remember shopping the boys department for my daughters’ clothes because I just could not bear turning around to look into the back seat of my standard-issue Jeep Cherokee Momcar and seeing them sitting there, dressed yet again in the pink/purple/turquoise scheme that girls are meant to live in. It was like trying to escape a sensory deprivation tank–too much sameness.

A few days after watching this video, I was pondering the consumer conundrum of “lady colors” in the bath, which is where I do my best thinking.  So I was staring at my toes coming out of the bubbles (a whispering thought trying to break through my theorizing to tell me it was time for a pedicure).  Suddenly, the background shifted into foreground as I noticed the pink disposable razor on the side of the bath.  “Oh no!” I thought.  It is true: they come in dark blue, bright yellow, and pink, but I always pick the pink if it is available. And Bic makes it.

“Why do I buy the pink razor?” my inner sage asked. “To avoid the blue and yellow,” was my lame excuse.  To be honest, I do the same thing with pens.  I just get tired of the blue and black, same as not wanting to buy any more pink and purple girl clothes.  People do regulate their sensory input because the mind cannot take too much sameness or too much difference.  So, I guess, at some level, these choices are “rational.”

But, truthfully, it’s hard to qualify “I’ll take the pink one,” as a very deep thought.  It’s more of an impulse.  And, ok, I admit it:  I do like pink and will pick that color as a novelty (even with painkillers). It’s a terrible private confession to admit you will pick the pink one, a bit like admitting you seldom wash your sheets or something.  But there it is.  And  we can complain we have been insulted by Bic, but they probably, actually, already know this terrible secret about us.  They learned it on the razors.

"This little bot of mine" is the slogan for Jibo, a "family robot" developed by Cynthea Breazeal and her team at MIT.

“This little bot of mine” is the slogan for Jibo, a “family robot” developed by Cynthea Breazeal, in the photo here, and her team at MIT.

Mary, one of my senior doctoral students, sent me a story about Jibo, a new “family robot” concept coming out of MIT.  Very cute.  Speaks and moves like a cartoon character.  In the video, Jibo is taking pictures at parties, remembering appointments, and ordering takeout. (I wonder if it will choose birthday gifts and send thank you notes?) Jibo basically acts as an outboard cogito. Like many others in these days of information overload, my attention is reaching its limits. Jibo could take over some of the burden of thought. I want one.

Because, honestly, the real problem is that I have more to think about than the color of my razor.  I have a lot of writing to do and calculations to crunch and speeches to compose. But, even more to the point, I am always engaged in work that is challenging to the existing power structure–and that inevitably means I am dealing with pushback. Which causes an ongoing backdrop of mental stress.

When you’re engaging in a contest of wills, you need an anthem to steel your nerve, boost your energy, and remind yourself who and what you are fighting for. You know, like Rocky. So, I maintain a playlist of “go girl” music that acts as a mental soundtrack.  A few weeks ago, my daughter Liza  sent me a whole playlist of country-and-western “strong woman” songs.

I bought this car when Caitlin was born in 1984. My thinking was that I would have a jeep instead of a station wagon, at the time the stereotypical car for stay-at-home moms.  Apparently, hundreds of thousands of new moms had the same idea that year.  They also named their daughters Caitlin.

I bought this car when Caitlin was born in 1984. My thinking was that I would have a jeep instead of a station wagon, at the time the stereotypical car for stay-at-home moms. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of new thinking moms had the same idea that year. They also named their daughters Caitlin.

A song on the list, Shania Twain’s, “Man, I Feel Like A Woman,” reminded me of Liza’s angsty teenager era. We could set aside thoughts of our bruising emotional issues by piling into the Cherokee Momcar (by then on its last leg), getting on one of the endless highways of rural Illinois, rolling down the windows, and blasting our singalong strong songs.  We sang that Shania Twain song together and bonded over Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” as close to a girl Rocky song as you can get.

The real fighters in the consumer arena right now are the thinking mothers who have formed Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.  They are using their spending power to push big chains like Kroger to ban people carrying guns from their stores. “What?  Guns in grocery stores?” you may ask.  Yes, it is outrageous.  Unthinkable, you might argue.  But this is America, where guns are an everyday accessory and fighting is done with your wallet.  Help them out. The hashtag is #GroceriesNotGuns.

I have wondered why women haven’t organized to boycott on this issue.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving was a powerful force in changing attitudes and enforcement.  Now I think American women need to turn the same kind of thinking against Hobby Lobby for causing this horrible block against birth control.  I think the hashtag should be #ShopMichaels.

In the end, I guess what matters about the things “thinking women” buy is how they fit into the subjective experience of life: interrupting the same old flow of colors, stopping the perception of pain, easing the endless barrage of appointments, pumping up our mental energy, bonding our memories to others, and focusing on good causes. Our choices are sometimes, but seldom, about the cost of ingredients.

Most of the time, though, thinking women just don’t want to think about products at all. So, like everybody else, they just pick up what they bought last time, a handy heuristic that keeps the cognitive engagement with shopping to a minimum.  And, yes, that “take it off the shelf without thinking” habit is what keeps the big brands. . . well, big.  But it is also what keeps human thought focused on what’s important–and it’s not shopping.


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