Gender identity salience and perceived vulnerability to breast cancer

Puntoni, Stefano and Sweldens, Steven and Tavassoli, Nader (2011) Gender identity salience and perceived vulnerability to breast cancer. Journal of Marketing Research, 48 (3). pp. 413-424. ISSN 0022-2437

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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.

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Journal Article
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Journal of Marketing Research
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30 Sep 2013 15:34
Last Modified:
20 Sep 2023 00:33