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World suicide prevention day: how can adland support the revolution of masculinity?

By Max Harris | Media executive

Media Bounty


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September 9, 2022 | 8 min read

As World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) arrives tomorrow, Media Bounty’s Max Harris explores male representation in the media and its impact on mental health. How can the marketing industry support a vital reimagining of what it means to be a man?

A man's hand reaching out

What can advertising and media do to support the revolution in what it means to be a man? / Charles Postiaux via Unsplash

Trigger warning: suicide

“Man up”: it’s a phrase I’ve heard throughout my life, and something I’d never really questioned. As a child, I’d often try my best to not show any signs of emotion in front of other people – particularly challenging whenever a football smacked me in the face in the school playground, or when I attended my first ever concert at which S Club announced that they were splitting up (both were equally painful).

But as the mental health crisis has worsened over the past decade and suicide is the leading cause of death for men in the UK under 50, it begs the question: what exactly is it to be a man, and how are we represented in the ad industry?

Like it or not, advertising shapes us. The clothes we wear; the products we purchase; the way we express our gender.

Let’s be honest, the ad industry hasn’t always represented gender in the best ways. Looking back at some of the Yorkie ‘It’s NOT for Girls’ ads honestly gives me second-hand embarrassment; Clearcast approval who? Thankfully, we’ve come a long way over the past few decades, with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) introducing a ban on harmful gender stereotypes in ads in 2019. But there’s still plenty of work to do.

Representation and authenticity

Working in media, I love seeing new trends in advertising. As someone who self-identifies as ‘not fat, but definitely enjoys pasta,’ you can imagine my excitement when brands such as Dollar Shave Club were jumping on the ‘Dad Bod’ trend, proving that men come in more shapes and sizes than the typical Calvin Klein hunk you’ll see plastered on billboards. Inclusivity and diversity have been at the heart of many modern campaigns, but the fact that ads like these are so atypical makes me question why we were never made to feel represented in ads in the first place.

With social media app BeReal gaining popularity, realism and authenticity are becoming increasingly sought out by modern consumers. We’re moving away from the glamorized, photoshopped and, frankly, unrealistic representations of ourselves that we have been taught to deem as aspirational.

These aspirations feed into the stereotypes of men being expected to be strong and resilient, which can be incredibly harmful. A recent study found that 40% of men will not discuss their mental health with close friends, family or a medical professional. While stigmas against male mental health battles are increasingly being broken down and talked about, with high-profile sports figures such as Freddie Flintoff being praised for “helping other men open up” in his Living With Bulimia documentary last year, we still need to do more work to redact these damaging stereotypes of men in advertising.

What are we doing, and what can we do?

Many ads are leading the path and challenging traditional concepts of masculinity. For example, Gillette’s ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ and The Mayor of London’s ‘Have a Word’ made headlines for tackling harmful ‘masculine’ behaviors such as sexual harassment and violence, and challenging stereotypes associated with toxic masculinity.

We’re also seeing masculinity being continuously redefined and modernized, with campaigns such as Fenty’s BlameItOnKway embracing make-up for men and Harry Styles launching gender-neutral beauty brand Pleasing.

By challenging these stereotypes and breaking stigmas, the advertising industry is taking a step in the right direction. But there’s still more work to do.

Here at Media Bounty, we recognize our role in this vital shift. We’ve worked hard to bake diverse representation into our DNA, whether that means smashing period taboos with our partners at Bodyform or tackling men’s mental health stigma with pro-bono projects for Men’s Minds Matter.

To commemorate WSPD, we’re launching our second creative and out-of-home (OOH) campaign with this incredible charity. It celebrates the things that have stopped men from taking their lives, from the seemingly insignificant texts from friends to the ultimate physical challenge: an ultramarathon.

Whether you’re going through depression, know someone who is or can use your voice to challenge harmful stereotypes, everyone can make a difference.

As advertisers, we can empower this movement. If we notice these negative stereotypes being portrayed, we need to identify them and challenge them, to help support the revolution. We need to be proactive in pursuit of real, authentic diversity. Our industry is one of the most influential on how people think and feel about themselves. We need to commit to leading the change that we want to see.

Max Harris is media executive at Media Bounty.

Modern Marketing Business Leadership Mental Health

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