Did the ASA leap to the wrong conclusion by banning The Macallan ad?

Did the ASA leapt to the wrong conclusion with Macallan Whisky ad?

The Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) has recently banned the Macallan ad, ‘Make The Call’, arguing that it can promote reckless alcohol-induced behaviour. In my opinion, a misread message and a real pity. I have highlighted this ad on numerous occasions as it is one of the best at understanding current stage of men and brings a powerful metaphor to the screen to provide a potential way out from the crisis many men are facing today.

Several years ago, when I was working in the repositioning of the Lynx brand, we undertook a diligent Global survey on the status of men. It transformed our strategy as it showed that men and masculinity were in crisis but society was, at large, still blind to it. Five years down the line, the situation is different. We have finally realised that men are in trouble and they need help more than ever before in order to break through the current turmoil.

Many men are living the life that is expected for them. Following a path to become a ‘successful man’ that is defined in a narrow and materialistic way, even at the expense of their own fulfilment and happiness. But how can they get out of this performing pattern in a world where there is little guidance for men on how to connect with their own selves and build a life from there. Where are the role models? What is the way out?

The Macallan Ad

The Macallan ad is a metaphor on how men can stop performing and get their power back (the real power, to be comfortable with who they really are). The ad starts by showing a young adult man on the top of a mountain under a clear sky, he is semi-naked and looks confused. This is a great way to describe where the current definition of success can take us. We climb the ladder as is expected of us but when we open our eyes we feel in isolation, living in a comfort zone that is small (and potentially shrinking), vulnerable and with a deep lack of direction, purpose and meaning. We might not have clarity about what is going on but there is a sense of pain and an internal call telling us that there is more in life than that. We can choose to ignore the whisper but there might be an emotional cost to that.

In the ad the character chooses to follow the call and take the leap leaving the comfort zone towards a transformational change, a change that can be sustained over time. The metaphor continues describing the stages of this personal evolution. Leaving our comfort zone and questioning the way we understand and connect with ourselves and the world around us feels like a free fall, as it is described in the ad. The tricky thing about a breakthrough change is that from the starting point of the journey we cannot see the end (otherwise it wouldn’t be a breakthrough) and is therefore scary by nature.

I will not judge the ASA’s decision but I do think that if this ad is considered risky, well, it might be a risk worth taking for the good of many.

The real enemy

The real risk in current communication to men is in the way advertising portrays success for men. Status and success based on money and image: how much they earn, what they own and how they look. This definition is as harmful for men as the previous definition of beauty was for women. Brands targeting women became aware of it long ago and continue to relax the definition of beauty, but brands that target men are mostly perpetuating the idea that a successful man should always look in control and not show any emotion or affection. Messages like “Don’t crack under pressure” by Tag Heuer, or endless images of men showing that status is directly linked to emotional stillness, could be much more dangerous than a piece of communication that is directed to mature adult men to encourage them to breakthrough in life (even if it is sponsored by a whisky brand).

In fact, the problem could be more serious than we think. In our current New Macho survey, we asked 2000 men and women in the UK about some statements that underpin what a successful man should be. Results showed that 37% of Millennial men believe that “Real men don’t crack under pressure” and almost a quarter of Millennial men also believe that “It’s more important to be feared than respected”. In both cases, Millennial guys were most likely to agree than other generations. These findings might not be an issue if Millennials in the UK didn’t have the second-worst mental health in the world (only behind Japan). Levels of anxiety and depression over-index for Millennial as well. In a nutshell, young men do crack under pressure.

Men today don’t have much of the stimuli, like the Macallan ad, to help them navigate life and the choices we need to face to become healthy adult men. There is no initiation to adulthood for men, no mentoring and we’ve also lost mythology that in the past helped men to understand life challenges. I think that by embracing this more holistic view on the status of men is how the ASA’s direction can make a big difference towards a better men’s health.

Fernando Desouches is managing director at BBD Perfect Storm.

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