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Sex Toys: Marketed to Men or Women?

Merchandising, brand positioning and advertising are everything when it comes to marketing and influencing consumers. They are the essential components that affect our decision to buy. Wine bottles and perfume are wonderful case studies of this. In fact, half the research for branding wine goes in to the design of the bottle rather than the wine itself. Unless you know exactly what bottle of wine you like, you’re likely to go for the varietal, a certain price point, and then a specific style of wine label. Similarly, you might generally stick to one brand of perfume, but you’re likely to gravitate towards new bottles that match your style. Design sells in the same way that sex sells. Branding and design vary based on demographics, especially when it comes to gender.

Sex toys have been around for centuries, dating back, surprisingly, to the ice age. However, until the last couple of decades, they were predominately marketed to – and made for – men. It was not until the late 1800′s when the first vibrator was created with women in mind. However, it was created to cure women of hysteria rather than as a form of pleasure or gratification. Eventually brands like Sears and Roebach caught on and sold them to women in their magazines beginning in the 1950′s–but men still represented the majority of purchases.

In the last 20 years, there’s been a monumental shift in the sex toy buyer demographic. Sex toys have gone from the silent taboo friends hiding in our bedside tables to the guests of honor at what some call the new tupperware parties, to being championed by female celebrities and touted in best-selling books. Sex shops have morphed into sex “boutiques”, and collections such as sex toys by Adam & Eve have gone from standard variety phallic shaped items to multi-coloured, multi-functional, sleek and friendlier looking items. The industry has shifted from being completely male dominated to female dominated. In fact, one in every two women in the US now reports owning a sex toy, which is due in large part to the mainstream acceptance of toys.

However, while the toys themselves continue to evolve and become more mainstream, a disparity still remains in the merchandising of the product. More and more sex toy merchandising is being aimed at women. Yet, many toys contain imagery of sexy women in scantily clad outfits in highly sexualized positions. Perhaps this makes sense with bondage kits, sex swings and other toys that might need illustrative photos, but what about simple vibrators and dildos? What function do these illustrations serve, beyond reaching out to entice the fantasies of the male heterosexual client? Are we expected to channel this specific female stereotype? Does this not exclude and antagonize the girl-next-door client? I would argue that this is appealing to your typical male and reinforcing aged stereotypes of what they seek sexually, all of which is interesting considering the growing impact of women on sex toy sales each year.

No doubt, market and branding research is done on each of these sex toys in order to determine the most fitting labels and design, but I still wonder why products made for women end up on the shelf seemingly to attract male buyers. Does female empowerment simply dissolve when it comes to sex? Over a hundred million readers of 50 Shades of Grey would suggest this, but in fact the marketing picture is hardly that simple.

While many consumers will say that it is the product that they are buying, not the packaging, they would tend to be alluding themselves. Just like the wine label that sells the wine to all but the serious drinkers, when it comes to sex toys, and this is particularly relevant for novice buyers, the packaging sets the tone and sometimes makes the sale. A woman who comes to buy a toy but still feels jittery about how using a vibrator will change her sexual experience, is more likely to make that purchase and even to spend slightly more when the toy of her choice appeals to her style as well as her perceived needs. Still, style means that there is a market for classy, a market for saucy and many versions in between. The future of this fascinating, evolving facet of the sex toy industry remains to be seen.


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