News & Views

Opinion / Why advertising needs to man up

by Kate Hollowood

We’ve seen cellulite on-screen thanks to Sport England, broken period taboos in India courtesy of Whisper, redefined what it means to run ‘like a girl’ with Always and can now purchase Barbie in a variety shapes, shades and sizes. This work, and many more examples, has helped raise the bar for the industry in terms of how women are portrayed. In another step forward for the industry, last week Unilever announced its commitment to ‘unstereotype’ portrayals of gender in advertising.

The thing I find most heartening about Unilever’s announcement is that it calls to question all gender typecasts rather than focusing on women exclusively. Because it’s time that advertising’s portrayal of men is addressed, too. We still see so many ads setting up the aspirational man as having to be rich, powerful and adorned by beautiful women. Masculine clichés are everywhere. Beer ads are still stuck on lads and football. Shaving ads are all hairless six-packs and chiselled chins.  

‘The vast majority of guys are seeing that femininity has changed, however masculinity has stayed the same and they are really frustrated about that,’ Axe global vice president Rik Strubel told me in a recent interview for Contagious I/O. Without getting the violins out, men have undoubtedly benefitted from the patriarchy, but there’s lots of evidence to suggest that they also suffer from out-dated gender stereotypes.

Suicide is the single biggest killer of young men under the age of 45 in the UK, according to mental health charity CALM. One of the main causes of this is the fact that guys don’t talk about their problems. In a 2014 survey by the charity, 69% of men who had suffered depression said they preferred to deal with the problem themselves.

Constricted by the tough-guy stereotype, they end up suffering in silence. In a recent BBC documentary, Turner-prize winning artist Grayson Perry interviewed the friends of a young man who had taken his life. They’d had no idea that their friend was depressed. ‘There’s a macho stigma surrounding being out with the lads,’ they said. ‘Nobody wants to be seen as not being a man and everybody wants to be seen as being strong.’

The idea that ‘being a man’ means building up armour and dealing with problems alone urgently needs to be updated. ‘Men need new rules for survival,’ CALM chief executive Jane Powell told the Telegraph. ‘Outmoded, incorrect and misplaced male self-beliefs are proving lethal.’ Brands have a power and a responsibility to help develop these ‘new rules’ by shaping new perceptions of what it means to be manly.

At the moment, few brands embody the shift to a more accurate, nuanced view of masculinity than Unilever-owned Axe. The brand’s Find Your Magic film celebrates a number of men and the qualities that make them unique, championing a broader vision of masculinity. Instead of bulging muscles, we see a characterful large nose, flaming red hair and a flamboyant suit. We see men attracted to other men and a guy spinning a woman round on the dancefloor in his wheelchair. ‘It’s about expanding the idea of what masculinity can be and opening up the conversation,’ says 72andSunny strategist Stephanie Feeney. ‘Find Your Magic says, “It’s in you”. The products are there to help you work and express this individuality.’ Since launching the campaign, Axe has seen its sales growth triple.

There is clearly untapped opportunity for brands to gain relevance and win consumers’ hearts by celebrating new forms of manliness. I hope that this year we see more brands take up Unilever’s plea to unstereotype and follow in Axe’s sweet-smelling footsteps.