Let’s Talk About Men — err, Advertising to Men

By Rebecca Harrelson, Strategist

If you’re like me, you watch a lot of sports (well, maybe not, but stay with me here). During the commercial breaks you see a lot of ads for beer, trucks, and various other men’s products. Up until recently, all of these commercials have had one thing in common: men being “manly,” or at least society’s interpretation of “manly.” But I’ve noticed something in the zeitgeist changing. Today’s advertising is beginning to speak to and present men in a more nuanced way, one that we’re not necessarily used to. And I think it’s for the better.

Introducing… the “evolved” man. He is no longer the egotistical center of his own universe, as portrayed by traditional media, he now cares about others. He cares about his family, his friends and his work. He doesn’t come home from the office and park himself in the bark-and-lounger. Here are the facts. On average, employed fathers of all ages spend three hours per workday with children under 13 today compared with two hours in 1977. He helps with the kids, helps around the house, dedicates his time to his beloved. In 1992, 21% of women said that their spouses or partners were taking as much or more responsibility for the care of their children as they were. By 2008, that percentage has risen to 31%. Interestingly, 49% of men report taking as much or more responsibility for the children as their wives, indicating a perception gap. (Source)

What is driving this trend? The gradual increase of women in the labor force over the past half century, combined with various work life shifts and economic pressures, has resulted in a blurring of gender roles, both at home and in the workplace. Men very well may still care about football, but they now too have a place in the kitchen.

Unilever’s Dove Men + Care (a Carrot client) is one of the first brands to really align its strategy with this cultural trend. Check out their heart-warming “Calls For Dad” commercial for example. Since then, other brands have jumped on the bandwagon. Pantene Pro-V created a “Strong is Beautiful” campaign using NFL players doing their daughters’ hair. Traveler’s Insurance centered their commercial around a dad concerned about his daughter’s tears and how to best wipe them away after all the heartbreaks in life. Even Axe, a brand we know with a “spray and become a woman magnet” theme, has changed their tune to show millennials they’re more than that. They want millennial men to “Find Their Magic”, and shouldn’t we all?

This new perspective on men is positive, but it can also be confusing. Not just for women watching the commercials more intently, but also for the men they are speaking to. With so many brands celebrating men for who they are, why do other brands still tell them who to be? Heineken even made a point in their new ad “We Need a Hero” telling them that not getting wasted is what women want (we do). This is a beer company. So which is it? How do we talk to men in advertising? Is it actually more effective to have that bikini-clad girl in the corner of the woods (we’re looking at you Old Spice) or should we treat them like the evolved men they’ve become (Brava Axe and your “Find Your Magic” ad)? The truth is, sex sells and probably always will. But that’s only good for awareness. Is it actually successful in converting to sales, or are brands just looking for the most talked about Super Bowl ad?

The research tells us that women will respond to messages intended for men, but men will not usually respond to messages aimed at women. It does make a certain amount of sense. For example, plenty of girls play with Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dolls (yes, I did), but how many boys play with Barbies? Women watch adventure films (yes, I do, ALL the time — and even sports documentaries), but how many men really enjoy rom-coms? This distinction is so pervasive that J.K. Rowling’s publisher urged her to go by her initials, fearing boys wouldn’t read novels by a Joanne even if the title character was a Harry.

The research also tells us that men respond to funny, light-hearted, and visually enticing advertising. But does this mean that we treat men like they’re stupid? Or like they’re trying to live up the expectations set by “The Most Interesting Man In The World”? Where’s the balance? Can you appeal to a man who still has his “man-pride” while also speaking to his “evolved self”? Current advertising is selling a “fantasy world” to men. Fast cars on deserted winding roads, drinks at the bar where everybody knows your name, endless pizza without the gut — and they sell it with the wink-and-a-nudge appeal of one guy offering advice to another. But poll a large group of men and you’ll find that some aren’t being talked to at all. They’re not that self-centered, beer guzzling womanizer, nor are they the super evolved man who only cares about others. They’re regular guys.

I will say that men have it a lot better than women. Advertising to women, and being advertised to, is just down right scary. At least men get funny, interesting, even if completely over-the-top ads. Women are just told how awful they are or will be. “Buy this skin cream or you’ll be an ugly old maid!” “Do you hate your children? Because your floors and doorknobs will kill your family due to the bacteria unless you use these cleansing wipes! Oh, but they’re lemon scented for your pleasure.” “These snacks only have 100 calories so indulge away (so you don’t get fat and dumped)!” What is that all about? Say what you will about men’s advertising — whether emotional, functional, or completely stereotypical — at least they don’t need to be on medication after seeing a commercial break.

If there was one end-all, be-all way to advertise, let’s just treat each other like we’re humans. Stop trying to fit people into molds, telling them who they should be, or who they are. (They probably already know these things.) Stop trying to scare people (well, women). The important thing to consider is whether you want initial awareness, i.e. the water-cooler talk after the Super Bowl, or if you want an action to drive actual purchasing. Your goals as a brand and company may be different and can dictate your advertising based on these two actions. Just remember, your demographic may be changing, so evolve with them in your approach.