Is our Finance sector tone deaf?

April 26, 2019
Industry News
Content Provided By:

Mike Underhill
Group Director, Kantar Insight Division, Hong Kong
[email protected]

A review of HK’s banking and insurance ads show a skewed portrayal of women. But new data suggests this may be more than just a stereotype.

In the past few years, propelled by long term growth in women’s earning power as well as recent phenomena such as the Me Too movement, most people will have noticed a surge in advertising campaigns built around female equality and empowerment, at least globally. Is the same happening in Hong Kong, or are we lagging behind?

As context for Kantar’s recent study “Winning with Women in Finance” (2019), we looked at digital advertising in Hong Kong’s finance sector to see if it shows women as empowered equals or, for that matter, whether there is bias in how women are portrayed in ads by banks and insurance companies.

Women feature equally, portrayed differently
In terms of how often women and men feature in ad campaigns, things look well balanced.  Financial services ads show slightly more women than men, and many campaigns feature both male and female characters.
Proportion of ads that… Percentage
Feature only women 39%
Feature only men 32%
Feature both men and women 29%
However, the ads tend to portray women very differently from men. 
Women / men in ads are portrayed as… Women Men
Smiling 42% 20%
Consuming / shopping 17% 0%
Healthy 25% 21%
Beautiful / handsome 33% 31%
Authoritative / knowledgeable 8% 29%
Serious 8% 60%
(Based on a review of 31 banking, insurance or finance campaigns currently running in HK)

Not surprisingly, as in most sectors, plenty of financial services ads show male and female talent that are good looking and healthy. But that’s where the similarity ends.  Women are much more likely than men to be portrayed as smiling and shopping, while few, if any, ads depict men enjoying a retail experience. Meanwhile, more than half of the commercials show men looking serious, often authoritative and knowledgeable. Among the ads that were reviewed, very few showed women in this way.

This raises some questions.  Is the portrayal of women in these ads a stereotype that Hong Kong’s male-dominated finance sector does not realize it is perpetuating?   Or are there fundamental differences between genders that these ads – knowingly or otherwise – tap into, which truly reflect reality?

Kantar HK’s 2019 study “Winning with Women in Finance” helps to shed some light on this.  In it, we asked 600 Hong Kong residents, split equally between men and women, how they feel about financial matters, their ownership of various financial products and services, and how they interact with financial services brands.  

In many fundamental ways, women want the same thing men do and this extends to their interest in financial services – 77% of women (vs. 81% of men) express a high interest in the products and services offered by banks and insurance companies. But when asked if they feel a degree of uncertainty or worry about things such as retirement, kids education, house prices or the stock market, more women will admit to feeling anxious. There are profound reasons for this.

Wired differently 
Many studies have shown that male and female brains function differently.  Male brains have more wiring connecting the front and back portions of each hemisphere, which optimizes their brains for motor skills and movement. Whereas female brains have more wiring that joins the hemispheres,  enabling their brains to combine a greater variety of inputs.  This results in familiar differences in how men and women behave.  
  • Communication. Each day, women speak more words and use more gestures
  • Work. Men tend to compartmentalize and focus, while women find it easier to multi-task
  • Stress. Men produce stress hormones differently and deal with stress more easily than women whose stress response lasts longer
  • Logic and Intuition. Men display better logic skills, while women integrate more sensory and contextual information from outside the immediate situation
Women are more inclined to consult someone they trust 
The key point is that women and men have different strengths. In the context of financial products and services, a female target will pay more attention to risk (the potential downside) and to the wider context (her family) than a male target would. Meaning that for any financial decision they are more predisposed to consulting their partner. Advertisers who try to appeal primarily to the strength of just one gender are losing the opportunity to appeal to both.   

Ads for products that involve borrowing for the long term (eg. mortgages) should probably reflect the fact that this is usually a joint decision, for both men and for women; to not show both genders or to show them being differentially involved in the decision could cause half of the relevant decision-makers to disengage from the message that the brand is trying to communicate.  The opposite is true when it’s one’s own money – few women or men feel the need to consult their partner or family when it comes to managing their own daily finances – implying that ads for such products probably will work better by appealing to the individual desires and needs of the target audience (possibly with male / female versions of the creative).
I would make decisions about this jointly or in consultation with my partner Women Men
Every day banking (eg. current account) 24% 20%
Investment products (eg. stocks) 34% 25%
Long term loans (eg. mortgage) 79% 55%
Information threshold for women is higher 

The cross-hemisphere wiring that makes a woman more aware of the wider context means they anticipate more kinds of risk than a man would, and (rightly or wrongly) more ways that a good financial offering might not work out.  In a sector where offerings are very rationally communicated, information about the product is the foundation of perceived high value or low risk.  Women are less inclined than men to say that they have a “good understanding” of a financial product or service because they have a greater need for information.  
I have a good understanding of… Women Men
Every day banking (eg. current account) 28% 36%
Investment products (eg. stocks) 19% 30%
Long term loans (eg. mortgage) 25% 39%
For advertisers this is likely to mean that more information needs to be made available and communicated in a way that engaging and motivating to women, especially when it relates to higher risk, long term or jointly-decided products and services.  
Implications for HK’s banking and insurance advertisers​
  • Women perceive more risk and more kinds of risk than men do.  Female customers therefore have a greater need for information from finance and insurance brands before being won over.
  • Financial solutions that offer the benefit of risk reduction are likely to resonate better with women, while those that offer better returns will have more appeal to men.
  • Both men and women feel less individually confident when it comes to borrowing, and are more likely to jointly consult with their partner or family. Ads for lending-related products may make better sense to audiences if they show men and women together.
Portrayal of women in ads – a responsibility or an opportunity?
Women and men are not the same.  There are clear differences between them in terms of their attitudes to finances and modes of decision-making, so they probably should not be portrayed uniformly in ads.  

Compared to men, women do tell us they feel less knowledgeable on financial matters, so the more frequent portrayal of men as being authoritative might not seem strange to most people. But the propensity for women to anticipate greater risk would suggest that in many cases it may make sense for the female character in an ad to be given a somewhat more serious demeanor, since this may resonate better with the majority of female customers when considering financial products.
Some financial brands already regard the depiction of women in their ads as core to their responsibilities as corporate citizens.  Our data suggests that there may be additional commercial benefits for brands that leverage gender differences in their product offerings and communications.  When we also consider the homogeneity of most consumer ads in Hong Kong’s finance sector, this would present opportunities for banks and insurance companies to optimize. Insurers and banks that are ready to refocus and refine their portrayal of women in ads stand to win by getting more attention from female audiences, more differentiation from their competitors and more positive response to their offerings.   
For more information and a free copy of the “Winning with Women in Finance” report, contact [email protected] or [email protected]


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