Gender Identity Salience and Perceived Vulnerability to Breast Cancer

Stefano Puntoni, Steven Sweldens, and Nader T. Tavassoli
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Key Takeaways

Executive Summary
Breast cancer is a leading cause of death, and alerting women to their vulnerability to this disease is thus an important goal of governments and charities. Breast cancer communications often underscore women’s gender identity through textual information (e.g., “If you are a woman, what you’re about to read could save your life…”), symbols (e.g., the pink ribbon), or images (e.g., a woman covering her removed breast). Moreover, independent of ad copy, women are often exposed to breast cancer communications in situations when their gender identity is especially salient because of targeted media contexts (e.g., websites or magazines).

A series of six experiments, however, demonstrate that heightened gender identity salience can trigger defense mechanisms that interfere with the goals of cancer awareness campaigns. In three studies, an increase in gender identity salience lowered women’s perceived vulnerability to breast cancer. This finding is important because perceived vulnerability to cancer is a major antecedent of precautionary behavior. In addition to its effects on perceived risk, heightened gender identity salience also resulted in reduced donations to research against gender-specific cancers (ovarian cancer) and had deleterious consequences for the cognitive processing of breast cancer communications. Women perceived breast cancer communications featuring gender cues as more difficult to process. They also displayed lower memory for breast cancer communications when the ads were featured in websites devoted to feminine topics. The findings of these studies contradict the predictions of several prominent theories, as well as the expectations of a sample of advertising executives. In addition to drawing attention to the possible dangers associated to the use of common design elements in breast cancer campaigns, the studies offer suggestions on how to avoid defensive responses. The negative effect of gender identity salience on breast cancer risk perceptions can be eliminated by making women conscious of their fear of the disease or by boosting women’s sense of self-worth at the time of ad exposure.

Stefano Puntoni is Associate Professor of Marketing at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, where he currently teaches Brand Management to Executive MBAs. He received a PhD in Marketing from London Business School and a graduate degree in Statistics from the University of Padua in Italy. Stefano’s research interests are in the area of consumer behavior, with a focus on social influence, identity, and globalization. His work has been published in Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and Journal of Advertising. He serves on the editorial board of International Journal of Research in Marketing and has been a Visiting Professor at London Business School and Bocconi University.

Steven Sweldens is Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD. Steven obtained a graduate degree in theoretical and experimental psychology from the University of Leuven, and a PhD in Marketing from Erasmus University. His research focuses on risk perceptions and brand equity development and was published in Journal of Consumer Research. His doctoral research on the conditioning of brand attitudes was honored with the EMAC McKinsey Marketing Dissertation Award as best European marketing dissertation and was runner-up for the American Marketing Association John A. Howard Dissertation Award. At INSEAD he teaches marketing strategy in the MBA program and advanced social psychology in the PhD program.

Nader Tavassoli is London Business School Chaired Professor of Marketing and non-executive chairman of The Brand Inside ( He was previously on the marketing faculty of the MIT Sloan School of Management and received his doctorate from Columbia Business School.

Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 48, Number 3, June 2011
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Author Bio:

Stefano Puntoni, Steven Sweldens, and Nader T. Tavassoli
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