Pink Tax: Marketing tool or discrimination?

By Isabelle Coetzee

Consumers marched through retail stores this month with their cameras in hand, ready to capture the discrimination on the shelves known as ‘pink tax’.

This is the additional amount that products marketed at women cost as opposed to the same products marketed at men, where the only notable difference is the colour pink.

According to Andrea Desfarges, PR and Marketing Specialist who has run agencies in London and Cape Town, we are brought up believing women cost more than men.  

She explains the easiest examples are found in toiletries, where women’s shaving gels cost 30% more than the men’s version – but the only true difference is the fragrance used. 

An American study found that products marketed at women cost more than men’s products 42% of the time, while men’s products only cost more 18% of the time.

Price based on what consumer will pay

This practice has also been called product differentiation, which is the marketing of similar products at different prices.

Examples include selling items in bulk at a discounted rate, such as 12 toilet rolls rather than just 4, and targeting certain groups, such as students, the elderly, or women.

Desfarges explains products are priced based on the maximum amount consumers are willing to pay.

Research shows consumers consider higher priced items of better quality. If consumers are willing to pay R2 more for a differentiated product, companies will supply it.

Desfarges refers to the South African wine industry where, following slow sales figures, wine estates increased the price of their wines by R25. As a result, they flew off the shelf.

“Add this trend to the fact that the average woman is prepared to pay more for health and beauty items than the average man, and the reasoning behind the differences start to become obvious,” says Desfarges.

As a result, marketing strategies for women are updated annually, and something as small as the addition of a new ingredient will change the entire advertising campaign.

Using colour as a marketing tool

Besides this, the colours might change based on the season. For example, bright colours, such as peaches and yellows, might be added to the packaging in summer.

“Women seem to respond well to black and white, but the best-selling items are predominantly turquoise,” says Desfarges.

Masego Mafoko, marketing specialist at QStore, agrees that certain colours are used as marketing tools.

She points out that most people were taught to associate pink with women, and using pink makes it easy for women to spot products marketed at them. 

However, other colours are also used as marketing tools. For example, most health products contain the colour green, and products marketed at men are often blue.

Financial independence and the gender wage gap

Desfarges explains that pink tax came into its own in the 1980s, when more women started working and making independent financial decisions about their disposable income.

She doesn’t believe price differentiation is a form of discrimination, but rather that it’s an accepted practice where the consumer is taken advantage of.  

On the other hand, pink tax reminds Mafoko of the wage discrimination she experienced in a previous job. 

She recalls her male colleague earning more than her for the same work, even though she was expected to act as the face of the business because she is a woman.

According to research done by Africa Check, South African women earn on average 23% less than men for doing the same work.

The below graph shows data from StatsSA on the average distribution of monthly earnings based on gender between 2010 and 2015:

The combination of being underpaid and being subject to the negative impact of price differentiation can prevent women from sustaining their financial independence.

Consumer’s tool is to self-inform

“If we were to compare the price of deodorant marketed at men versus women, one would find that there is approximately R2 difference,” says Mafoko.

She believes this is discriminatory, and that it’s only fair for everyone to pay the same amount for the same product.

Desfarges points out that asking a clothing retailer why they charge 20% more for a women’s t-shirt than a men’s version, they’ll justify it as the cost of the cut or plus sizes. 

But really there is no substance to that argument. She believes the only thing that consumers can do is to inform themselves.

“Check the labels and the ingredients of items and start asking questions about the sustainability of the product, rather than the packaging,” says Desfarges.

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