The Effect of Positioning on the Purchase Probability of Financial Services Among Women With Varying Sex-Role Identities

Lynn J. Jaffe, Northeastern University
ABSTRACT - This research investigates the advertising effectiveness for different positionings of financial services aimed at the women's market. Using an experimental design, it determines the impact of modem versus traditional positionings on the purchase probabilities of financial services among women with different sex-role identities. Analysis indicates that there is a significant two-way interaction effect between positioning and sex-role identity on the purchase probability of financial services. Women who score higher on masculinity have a higher purchase probability for the modem positioning compared to the traditional positioning, in comparison to women who score lower on masculinity who show no difference for the modem or traditional positioning.
[ to cite ]:
Lynn J. Jaffe (1990) ,"The Effect of Positioning on the Purchase Probability of Financial Services Among Women With Varying Sex-Role Identities", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 874-879.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 874-879


Lynn J. Jaffe, Northeastern University


This research investigates the advertising effectiveness for different positionings of financial services aimed at the women's market. Using an experimental design, it determines the impact of modem versus traditional positionings on the purchase probabilities of financial services among women with different sex-role identities. Analysis indicates that there is a significant two-way interaction effect between positioning and sex-role identity on the purchase probability of financial services. Women who score higher on masculinity have a higher purchase probability for the modem positioning compared to the traditional positioning, in comparison to women who score lower on masculinity who show no difference for the modem or traditional positioning.


Deregulation in the financial service industry has intensified competition and forced financial service institutions to become more astute strategic marketers. Many marketers believe that financial service institutions will have to find market segments or niches with under-served needs and provide them with superior services, in order to survive the intense competitive climate that exists today (Donnelly, Berry, and Thompson 1985). While the financial service industry typically focuses its attention on upscale markets, some institutions will benefit from focusing on profitable segments with underserved financial needs in less competitively congested arenas such as the women's market.

In 1984 the Investment Company Institute, a national association of the mutual fund industry, conducted a comprehensive survey among a representative sample of 2,158 women to determine their financial attitudes. The major findings of the survey were:

1) Women are becoming more active in their personal financial management because it gives them a feeling of independence and achievement.

2) Women are developing more favorable attitudes toward those products that offer higher returns for higher risks, and are cooling off toward lower-yielding saving vehicles.

3) Many more women are working today and therefore have increased their ability to save. Forty-six percent of the respondents indicated saving regularly, with thirty-one percent saving as much as eight percent of their income

In summary, deregulation has increased competition in the financial services industry forcing companies to attract profitable new market niches. Women represent a viable segment due to their increased interest in investment decisions, their increasingly favorable attitudes toward higher risk/reward investment products and their greater ability to save. This research focuses on how to position financial services to attract the women's market. Specifically, it will determine that the optimal positioning varies as a function of a woman's sex-role identity. This paper extends our knowledge of sex-roles and consumer behavior in two ways: it explores the impact of sex-role identity on high involvement purchase behavior, and it separately measures the two components of sex-role identity, masculinity and femininity, allowing us to assess the unique contributions of each.


Women and Advertising

Women's sex-role identity has undergone enormous changes. Understanding these changes has tremendous implications for promotional and positioning strategies aimed at capturing the women's market (Debevec and Iyer 1986). Early research criticized advertisers for depicting women in well-worn stereotypes that many women found objectionable (Belkaoui and Belkaoui 1976; Courtney and Lockereti 1971; Courtney and Whipple 1974; Lundstrom and Sciglimpaglia 1977).

Recently the focus has shifted to measuring the advertising effectiveness of modern versus traditional female roles. In 1982 the Equal Opportunity Commission supported an independent study by The Sherman Group and found that a modern positioning enhanced the advertising effectiveness in all tested product categories, among all segments of women. My view is that a modern positioning will enhance advertising effectiveness for financial services because investing is more likely associated with a modern women.

H1: The main effect of positioning will be statistically significant. Averaging across all other variables, the modern positioning will engender a higher purchase probability than the traditional positioning.

Two other studies examined the interaction effect of sex-role orientation and positioning (modern versus traditional) on the advertising effectiveness of ads for low involvement products (Jaffe and Berger 1988; Leigh, Rethans, and Whitney 1987). Both studies indicated that there is a strong two-way interaction effect between a women's sex-role orientation and positioning on advertising effectiveness.

Jaffe and Berger (1988) found that women who scored high on masculine personality traits (e.g., assertive, dominant) have a higher purchase intent for modern positionings than for traditional positionings, in comparison to women who score high on feminine personality traits (e.g., warm, tender) who favor the traditional over the modern positionings. Leigh et al. (1987) segmented women into groups of modern versus traditional based on a life-styles inventory which measured sex-role orientation. These researchers found positive association between the women's own sex-role orientation and the role she favored in the advertisements (e.g., women classified as modern in terms of their own sex-role orientation had a higher purchase intent when the ad portrayed a modern woman).

H2: The two-way interaction effect between masculinity and positioning will be statistically significant. Women who score higher on masculinity will have a higher purchase probability for the modern positioning than for the traditional positioning, while women who score lower on masculinity will not differentiate as strongly between the two positionings.

H3: The two-way interaction effect between femininity and positioning will be significant. Women who score lower.on femininity will have a higher purchase probability for the modern positioning than for the traditional positioning; this differential (modern minus traditional) will be smaller for women who score higher on femininity.

Sex Roles and Behavior

If there are psychological differences between females and males (whether biologically or environmentally determined) sex-roles are inevitable (Vetterling-Braggin 1982). Sex-role is defined as "a role that is performed primarily by a person of a particular sex and that societal factors tend to encourage this correlation." Examples of this conditioning may be evident in the way parents guide children to behave in sex appropriate roles, or in the way schools direct students into occupations according to sex.

Masculinity is typically associated with instrumental traits, a cognitive focus on getting the job done, while femininity is typically associated with expressive traits, ones that show concern for the welfare of others (Bem 1974). Specific attempts have been made to empirically link these traits to behavior using sex-role inventories (Bem 1974; Spence, Helmreich, and Stapp 1974).

In this research, sex-role identity is measured by the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, a scale that exhibits not only a high degree of reliability, but also exhibits convergent and discriminate validity (Bem 1982; Lubinski, Tellegen, and Butcher 1983). In the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, respondents indicate on a seven-point scale how well each of the masculine and feminine traits describes them. Typical masculine traits on the inventory are "aggressive" and "leadership ability;" typical feminine traits include "gentle" and "yielding." The inventory also has neutral items in order to disguise its exact intent.

In their seminal article, Lubinski et al. (1983) conclude that sex-role identity is best measured as two distinct constructs, masculinity and femininity. This allows researchers to assess the main effect of each of these constructs in addition to the incremental contribution of their two-way interaction (Hall and Taylor 1985). This methodology has been adopted for this research.


This study consisted of a survey with built-in experiment undertaken in the real world among adult women. Each respondent was exposed to different stimuli (i.e., advertisements) based on an experimental design.

After a respondent agreed to participate, the interviewer read the respondent a product description and answered any questions about the product. Next, the interviewer handed the respondent a set of ads and asked her to study them carefully. The subjects indicated their purchase intent and their perceptions of the ads, and filled out the sex-role inventory. Finally, the data from the questionnaires was analyzed using hierarchical regression.

Development of the Stimuli

A portfolio of ads containing 10 purportedly modern and 10 purportedly traditional female role portrayals (i.e., visuals) was developed from a larger portfolio of hundreds of ads. Twenty women, marketing professionals and nonprofessionals, rated the ads on their ability to capture modern and traditional female portrayals, and the final portrayals were chosen for this study based on their ratings. In general, the modern portrayals show a career-oriented woman involved in making a decision, while the traditional portrayals show a woman in a more nurturing role, centering her attention on her family.

Next, headlines and body copy were developed and combined with the portrayals to form positionings that emphasized the modern/traditional dichotomy. Examples of the modern and traditional body copy respectively are:

"Behind every great women, there should be a great company. Married or single, parent or single parent, the modern woman needs financial security."

"When a mother thinks of giving the best to her family, she needs a company she can depend on. We can help you plan for your family's financial security."

Sampling and Data Collection

The sample consisted of 200 women between the ages of 25 and 49. The procedure used was quota sampling consisting of a systematic approach in which every fourth person who passed the interviewer (who was located at a specific point at the selected sites) was asked to participate. To ensure a heterogeneous and projectable sample, interviewers screened for different occupations, marital status and age.

The data was collected at four different locations, two in New York City (Manhattan and Queens), and two in the Boston vicinity (Chestnut Hill and Natick). One site in each city is perceived as a middle class location (or about average in terms of class) and one in each city is perceived as an upper-middle class location (or above average in terms of class). This scheme allows the obtaining of a variety of women with different incomes, occupations, etc. All site locations were malls. Naturally, days of the week and times of the day were varied, and interviews were conducted on both weekdays and weekends, starting at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 6 p.m., at each of the four selected sites.

Experimental Design and Analysis

The experimental design is a six factor complete factorial with a blocking scheme and partially repeated measures; the six factors are comprised of four within-subject factors (positioning, product category, institution and execution) and two between-subject factors (masculinity and femininity). Each subject viewed several ads, each with a different combination of the within-subject variables. Since she "repeats" a purchase probability assessment for each of the within-subject factors combinations, we have a repeated measures design. As is well known, a repeated measures design has several advantages: it not only reduces the sample size and costs by using the same subjects across treatments, but also reduces the overall variability by using this common pool of subjects (Howell 1982; Winer 1971).

As previously suggested, there are a possible 16 treatment combinations (i.e., 16 different ads) that each respondent could view (as a result of varying the two levels of positioning, product, institution and execution). Since each respondent would respond to 16 different treatment combinations there was a good possibility she could become tired, even resentful, and end up rushing her answers just to finish in a reasonable time frame, making the estimates of the effects of the factors less reliable. Also, experimental error might increase due to the sequence in which the treatment combinations are viewed (i.e., later treatments may be given less thought due to respondent fatigue).

An alternative solution was devised to negate this problem. By replacing the one large block of 16 treatments with four smaller blocks (each block containing four treatments [i.e., four ads]), each respondent viewed only four treatment combinations. This enabled respondents to complete the experiment in a more reasonable time frame and, hopefully, increased the reliability of the estimates. Consequently, 50 women were randomly assigned to each of the four blocks and viewed the four advertisements comprising that block. Note that there is no reduction in the number of treatment combinations in the experiment; all 16 treatments are run (though now each treatment combination is seen by 50 women instead of 200 women).

The data was analyzed using hierarchical regression, a procedure routinely used with repeated measures designs (Baker, Ravichandran, and Randall 1989; Cohen and Cohen 1975; Pedhazur 1982). Additionally, hierarchical regression can handle the added complexity of this design's blocking scheme.

Dependent Variable

Intent to purchase was operationalized using an 1 l-point purchase probability scale. This scale has the advantage of inducing critical thinking and discrimination because it combines verbal definitions with purchase probabilities (Gruber 1970). To obtain an assessment of purchase probability, subjects were asked to respond to the following question: "Taking everything into account, what are the chances that you would buy this product?" The scale is anchored by the phrases, "certain (99 chances in 100)" and, "no chance (0 chance)."

Independent Variables

Positioning. The modern positionings exhibited a career woman in a leadership role, while the traditional positionings showed women focusing their attention on their families.

Product Category. The two product categories selected were Certificates of Deposits and Money Market Funds. They were selected because they use extensive print advertising, have reasonably high penetration rates among women and are relatively easy to understand. Moreover, they represent an interesting trade-off between liquidity and interest rates. Two product categories, as opposed to only one, allow us to generalize to other financial products.

Institution. Two financial services institutions were selected based on their similarity with respect to the following criteria: number of retail outlets, dollars spent on advertising and types of services offered. The two chosen were Merrill Lynch and Prudential-Bache Securities. It was important to choose financial services institutions that were fairly similar so as not to allow the factor "institution" to overpower the key factors of this study (i.e, positioning and sex-role identity). If one institution were considerably more well known, then respondents might choose it regardless of the positioning. Using two institutions instead of one makes the experiment more realistic.

Execution. There were two executions, with each execution containing one modern and one traditional positioning.

Sex-role Identity. Sex-role identity was measured with the Short Bem Sex-Role Inventory. This inventory contains (10) masculine traits and (10) feminine traits, allowing one to assess the individual contributions of masculinity and femininity.




After manipulation checks indicated that respondents clearly perceived the positionings, each of the hypotheses was tested for significance (see Table 1). Although masculinity and femininity are continuous variables, in order to enhance clarity these variables were classified into "high" and "low" based on dichotomized frequency distributions (See Tables 2 and 3).

There is strong support for Hypothesis 1, which states that, averaging over all other variables, a modern positioning will engender a higher purchase probability than a traditional one. The main effect of positioning is significant at p < .01, and accounts for 9% of the variance in purchase probability (Table 1).

Further examination of the means shows that the modern positioning has a mean purchase probability of 5.45, while the traditional has a mean of only 3.84 (see row means in Table 2). This modern minus traditional positioning differential is 1.61, (5.45 - 3.84 = 1.61). / will refer to this modern minus traditional positioning differential as F the "modern positioning advantage."

There is strong support for Hypothesis 2; the two-way interaction effect between positioning and masculinity is significant at p < .01, and accounts for 13% of the variance (Table 1). Furthermore, the "modern positioning advantage" is indeed larger at high masculinity than at low masculinity. Table 2 shows that at high masculinity, the "modern positioning advantage" is 3.46 (6.14 - 2.68 = 3.46), while at low masculinity it is -.24 (4.75 4.99 = -.24). Evidently, a modern positioning appears crucial to attract women with high masculine sex-role identities; positioning does not seem to be significant for low masculine women.

There is also considerable support for Hypothesis 3. The two-way interaction effect between positioning and femininity is significant at p < .01 and accounts for 3% of the variance in purchase probability (see Table 1). Table 3 shows the mean purchase probability for the positioning x femininity combinations. Note, that when averaging over both levels of femininity, the modern positioning has a higher purchase probability of 5.45 compared to the traditional positioning of only 3.84 (See row means in Table 3). This is consistent with the findings of Hypothesis 1. However, when we look at the "modern positioning advantage," we see that at high femininity this differential is .96 (5.32 - 4.36 = .96), whereas at low femininity it is 2.28 (5.57 3.29 = 2.28).






For some time researchers have been suggesting that showing women in traditionally stereotyped roles no longer reflects the roles of many North American women and, consequently, is increasingly becoming less effective as an advertising tool (Courtney and Whipple 1983). Moreover, in addition to this study, a growing body of empirically based research about advertising to women has begun to appear in the marketing literature which shows that, in certain product categories, modern positionings will increase purchase intent.

This study found that, when averaging over all sex-role segments of women, a modern positioning enhances the purchase probability for financial services. In-depth interviews, that were conducted with 20 women after they had completed the experiment, provide insights into this finding. The consensus among these women was that when it came to financial decisions they would trust a modern woman to make a better choice than a traditional woman. They therefore related to the modern positionings more than the traditional positionings. These women expressed this opinion despite their feelings that the traditional positionings are indeed thoughtful and express a problem they face, that of providing financial security to their families. This finding suggests that financial service institutions should use a modern positioning when implementing a mass advertising strategy to capture the women's market.

The second major finding of this research indicates that the impact of positioning on purchase probability varies for women with different intensities of masculinity and femininity. Recall, for example, that women who score higher on masculinity have the largest "modem positioning advantage," strongly preferring (in terms of purchase probability) the modem over the traditional positioning; women with lower masculinity scores show no significant difference between the traditional and the modem positioning. This suggests that it is crucial for marketers to use a modem positioning to attract women with strong masculine sex-role identities. Marketers, however, have more flexibility in their choice of positioning for female segments with low masculine sex-role identities.

This research extends the current sex-role research into the financial services sector. Future research will examine whether the relationship between positioning and sex-role identity is significant in other product categories. It will also explore these relationships among men, as well as women.


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