Hey Guys, want to break out of your Man Shell? The transformative power of advertising is just what the doctor ordered

Thomas breaks out of his man shell

Here is Thomas’ story: he was a smoker, but now he no longer is. You see Thomas broke out of his Man Shell. He went to the doctor and asked him about Chantix. Of course Thomas’ doctor wrote him a script for Chantix. End of story.

You see Thomas needed some kind of motivation and breaking out of his shell is just what the doctor ordered. Man Shell. Man Shell? As I heard this term — man shell — it triggered an elaboration within me as I began to ask: just what is a man shell? I recall from a by-gone era in advertising the Shell Answer Man. He was the one who knew everything about gasoline. And, there is the metaphoric opposite — a shell of a man, from which we might infer, there is very little left of the man’s inner core. But I digress.

The man shell that Thomas is breaking out of suggests he is somehow constrained until he makes the decision to ask his doctor for the drug. He is constrained by what? Culture, that’s what. Men don’t have doctors. Men don’t go to doctors. And, when men do go to the doctor, they are loath to ask questions. We can assign the blame to living in a patriarchal culture where men are expected to be strong and independent. But men also tend to die younger than women and they smoke and drink more alcohol too.

Traditionally, in U.S. culture men were judged based on their physical strength, athletic ability, as well as their social and economic power.

Sociologist Michael Kimmel points out that masculinity proceeds from men’s bodies. Traditionally, in U.S. culture men were judged based on their physical strength, athletic ability, as well as their social and economic power. That power is contained within him, and by breaking out of his shell, the man exposes his vulnerability, as it goes against his role as powerful at home, in business and at play.

Therefore, the man that breaks out of his shell is at risk; he exposes himself and his weaknesses. What is his weakness? He asks for help, something he is loath to do. This is so in many aspects of everyday life, from asking for directions to requesting a prescription from a doctor. According to a recent May 2016 report from Stat and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 7% of respondents were motivated to talk to their physician about a prescription drug they saw on TV, down from 21% in 2015. That’s a problem if you are a drug marketer.

An article in the online publication PM360, encourages prescription drug marketers to find ways to motivate consumers to ask their physicians for prescription drugs. DTC advertising is one means by which to provide that motivation, perhaps provoking consumers to ask their doctor for a prescription drug, like Thomas did. The article cites other research that suggests 25% of respondents who visited a physician after seeing a DTC ad, were given a new diagnosis. In other words, the approach taken by Chantix works to motivate the consumer, but in doing so, the commercial is asking more. Advertising in this instance reflects a transformative male who paradoxically tries to maintain his traditional masculinity, but at the same time becomes the embodiment of a newer ideology regarding masculine gender identify. You can read more about this phenomenon in my study, Incomplete Masculinity: Framing the Streaker in Television Advertising.

The American Medical Association in 2015 called for a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices, including a ban on television advertisements. According to the AMA, member physicians are concerned that “a growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives.”

However, the FDA has chosen to focus their guidelines on disclosures: the risk-benefits balance. And newer guidelines suggest only the most significant risks need to be disclosed, not all risks. But what about the motivational technique utilized in this and other prescription drug ads? Turns out, the FDA does not want to go near the kinds of appeals we’ve become familiar with in advertisements for everything from laundry soap to cosmetics. Free speech advocates have made clear their intention to use the first amendment as a rationale for direct to consumer prescription drug advertising, rendering the FDA impotent when it comes to limiting emotional appeals in drug advertising.

Depicting the transformative self is not a technique exclusive to the Chantix commercial; it’s fairly common. In my study of the incomplete male, I was able to identify 40 commercials that utilize this technique. Ultimately, it is the sum total of all such commercials that dislodge consumers and move them in the direction desired by the advertiser. It is through such approaches that perceptions of gender identity are over time cultivated. In this particular instance, by breaking out of his man shell Thomas is dislodged from his powerful self, symbolic as that power may be. In this case the advertiser directs the male’s transformation. It’s just what the doctor ordered.