This Boy Can: Brands, gender and the new masculinity

'Find Your Magic' campaign by Lynx/Axe

Advertising has played an important role in carving out more positive representations of gender of late. But with the trend of women’s empowerment dominating, are brands forgetting their role in shaping male identity?

A growing global ‘boy crisis’ suggests that we could be, in fact, empowering the wrong sex. Of course, women are woefully under-represented in boardrooms and certain walks of life, with casual sexism and unconscious bias still endemic, but the difference is that we are all now familiar with the narrative around tackling these issues, thanks in no small part to groundbreaking campaigns such as ‘Like A Girl’ by Always, Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ and Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’.

We are much less equipped to talk about the issues affecting boys. There’s an unconscious bias that males should simply ‘man up’ and deal with any crisis of confidence themselves. After all, men (certainly white, middle-class, Western men) are better paid, have more opportunities and are not inhumanely oppressed in some parts of the world.

Yet, the reality is that men commit suicide more than women, and are more likely to drop out of education and get involved in crime, drugs and binge-drinking. Moreover, as women are increasingly empowered, many men feel increasingly disempowered, accentuating these social problems.

As Lynx/Axe found when it undertook a large-scale research project into modern male identity, men are craving a more diverse definition of what it means to be a ‘successful’ man in 2016, and to relieve the unrelenting pressure on them to conform to suffocating, old paradigms. This insight led to the step-change ‘Find Your Magic’ campaign from the former bad-boy brand.

One of the sectors most impacted by this insight is FMCG because the weekly shop is one of the household traditions where gender roles are most challenged; the person who wins the bread and the person who buys the bread isn’t down to gender these days.

Yet ironically, outmoded stereotypes abound in the marketing of FMCG products. Take for example Tesco’s current campaign featuring the clueless dad character perusing the supermarket aisles with his coupon-carrying, shopping-savvy wife.

“This kind of depiction is as irrelevant and offensive as it is to suggest that a woman would be in over her head in a boardroom,” says Claudia Bhugra-Schmid, a cultural analyst at content agency Adjust Your Set who is studying global inequality at Wellesley College.

These stereotypes alienate the more open-minded millennial generation in particular. While Bhugra-Schmid welcomes the growing awareness among brands – citing new approaches from Fosters (replaced Aussie surfers with a male cheerleader) and Heineken (‘Moderate Drinkers Wanted’) – she believes they fall short.

Outmoded stereotypes still abound in FMCG marketing, such as Tesco’s ‘dufus dad’ character

“Although these campaigns make moves to address the changing face of masculinity, they do not move far enough away from the old laddish tropes. The cheerleader is only in it for proximity to the girls and the sports, while the idea that men need to be bribed to drink less with the prize of a woman is insulting to both sexes.”

Because the conversation is only just starting, hitting the right tone is difficult, which perhaps explains why there has been such a delay in challenging male stereotypes, and why so few brands are getting it right. Campaigner David Brockway, who manages the Great Initiative’s Great Men project, urges the industry to be “more revolutionary”, particularly when it comes to male body image, which he says is at risk of following the negative path trodden by its female counterpart.

“We’re seeing a huge rise in eating and body image disorders among young men. We can’t isolate the cause. Advertising plays its part. A 13-year-old boy of average build in one class recently told me seeing an ad made him feel fat. He didn’t mean a bit out of shape. He meant everything that goes with that feeling such as seeing himself as lazy, unaccomplished and incapable.”

In order to prevent a full blown crisis of self-worth, Brockway advocates that advertisers “totally reinvent gender constructs” and dare to paint a world where boys like pink, don’t like going out and getting dirty, or aren’t career ambitious, for example.

But some authors think it’s already too late, with book titles proclaiming ‘The End of Men’ and that today’s male is a ‘Man (Dis)connected’. So, with so much evidence of this implosion of male identity and the risks of pandering to outdated stereotypes, why are some advertisers so out of touch?

It’s because of a dire lack of research, especially in FMCG, says Brian Miller, chief executive of Cyclops Research. “Because the household purse has been historically controlled by the woman, it’s almost as if the man’s voice in FMCG has been oppressed or suppressed. We’ve been making assumptions about what men think and feel.”

What do men want?

Indeed, even the alpha-male Lynx/Axe admits it had been relying on assumptions before its repositioning. It was only when sales growth slowed that the brand decided to invest in some proper research, leading to a 10-country study of 3,500 men, and consultation of experts such as neuroscientists, to find out what men are really thinking. The results shocked the brand (more on this later).

Miller isn’t surprised to hear of an FMCG brand relying on assumptions about the male psyche – even one that is aimed at men. He talks of a common scenario with FMCG clients where he’s had to “fight to get men included at all”. Often, when they are, the advertiser will discover that in some countries men are doing 40 per cent of the supermarket shopping.

“In the US men are running household budgets now. If brands don’t recognise this, they are going to lose out because they’re increasingly ignoring their potential biggest audience. We hear a lot about women’s voices needing to be heard, but in FMCG men are a strangely silent group.”

As Miller says, the definition of “family” in places like Britain is profoundly changing – but advertising is not helping to normalise different scenarios by largely failing to portray this new normal.

Joey Whincup, insight director at Creative Race, agrees that success comes down to better research and she’s witnessing a slow but growing shift towards targeting consumers on more than the usual ‘ABC1 male’ demographics. Quite a few brands still segment like this, but others are seeking “a true understanding of their target consumer; who they really are, their beliefs, their attitudes, where they are now, where they want to be in future. “These brands are not just governed by the jobs men do or their age”.

For brands nervous of saying the wrong thing, Whincup suggests experimenting with social media as it allows flexibility and for more targeted messages. Additionally, if it doesn’t work, it can be removed. One example is the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), which raises awareness of male suicide. The charity is chipping away at loaded language that puts pressure on men through its #mandictionary, a place online where men can “redefine themselves on their own terms”.

According to Laura Jones, strategy director at Exposure Digital, men need this permission to talk about their struggles and insecurities, and advertisers can play a hugely positive role on this front, as Always did with ‘Like A Girl’. Jones worked on the Always campaign and says the normality of women freely discussing their troubles, facilitated by brands, is “undoubtedly” a factor in declining rates of female suicide.

“‘Like A Girl’ opened up a mass-media dialogue for women to talk about everyday sexism, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign allowed women to discuss lack of body confidence, and ‘This Girl Can’ opened up the conversation around anxieties in sport. Unfortunately, men don’t get this mass permission that starts with a simple, ‘did you see that ad?’”

As touched on already, Lynx/Axe has attempted to get the conversation rolling with its U-turn ‘Find Your Magic’ and, while admirable, it’s not the game-changing calibre of Always, Dove and Sport England.

To be fair on Fernando Desouches, Axe global brand development director, he knows that. And, as he says, you’ve got to “set the platform” before you explode the myth.

“This is just the beginning. The slap in the face to say ‘this is masculinity’. All these guys [in the ad] are attractive. Now we have our platform and our point of view, we can break the man-bullshit and show it doesn’t matter who you want to be, just express yourself and we will support that.

“What being a man means, and what ‘success’ means, is changing and this change is for the good. The message hasn’t exploded yet but we will make it explode. We will democratise it.”

The passion in the Argentinian’s voice is tangible; this is a man on a mission. He’s already forged partnerships with several NGOs, from CALM to Promundo to The Representation Project, and says more developments are on the horizon.

The Axe repositioning has been a “difficult”, steep learning curve. Desouches argues that “men are actually more emotional than women” and that they need more empowerment than women.

“Women have feminism. But men don’t even know they are sick. This is why we need to put men alongside women, not move them to the side to give room to women. Both genders need to be in the centre.”

Gender is certainly a central and occasionally divisive issue in 2016. However, there are growing signs that a truly equal future will actually be genderless, with sex being a far less defining characteristic than it is today. After all, you cannot fully empower either gender if by empowering one you are creating divisions and disempowering the other.

As Nobel peace prizewinner Malala Yousafzai puts it “we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” A statement that is equally true of women, as it is of men.

This feature was first published in the 13 July issue of The Drum, out today.

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Suzy Bashford

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