On Consulting / Strategy:
Advocacy & the “Expectations Gap”

Run a creative agency for long enough and you tend to forget just how blended your work and your life become. That’s actually one of the great things about having an agency; if you love the work and the process, if you find your clients and their challenges and their place in the market interesting, if you’re always looking for someone or something or some brand to click for you and unlock some new bit of thinking, then you not only get used to being “always on” but you also feel lucky that you get to be.

So, I wasn’t really surprised when I’m watching the Super Bowl at the beginning of February while editing a presentation to an NGO client on an approach to their new Paternity Leave campaigns and I see a bunch of ads aimed squarely at men and their families.

On the one hand, it was just one of those, “yup, this is gonna be a thing” moments that make you excited to work with smart clients with a vision.

On the other hand, by the 10th “manvertising” spot, I’m now focused on trying to figure out which one of the 4 or 5 underlying strategies behind the ads is going to win out to become the new go-to conventional wisdom for any and all consumer brands who can convince themselves that they have some kind of an emotional connection to a dad with disposable income.

Speaking to men is big business and make no mistake, the charicatures are all still here in full force — Capital-D Dad still doesn’t understand his teenage daughter, Mr. Macho is still checking out chicks and the gentlemen who buys matching luxury cars will still buy the 2016 Lexus during the next December to Remember — but there’s distinct shift in strategy for consumer brands all the same; the tonal shift, more than anything, was on full display.

Which brings me back to that other hand.

Because watching the scattershot nature of the spots I couldn’t help but be reminded of something I’ve heard for years from my NGO colleagues: we don’t *really* know how to talk to or about men.

Campaign and creative folks are still just kind of flailing about when it comes to representing and targeting men, but now instead of finding a persona, the focus seems to be on finding the right new emotion; responsibility or fear to sell insurance? nostalgia or safety to sell a car? busy or helpless to sell pre-made meals and home grocery delivery? and so on.

It’s better than the bumbling, overwhelmed dad, sure, but it’s all still pretty one-dimensional all the same; more to the point, this approach simply continues existing narratives about men, masculinity and gender.

And that’s only half the problem.

That “thinness” of how we think and reflect men in our creative campaigns is a problem, but what happens when you try to shift from selling laundry detergent or a sweet ass car to talking to men about:

  • Masculinity and their “responsibilities” as men, trying to navigate social and gender norms, cultural expectations and their sense of self.
  • Their relationship to violence and conflict, as participants, instigators, victims, bystanders, observers, allies and advocates, etc.
  • The dynamic between men and their work, and work and family, and then layer in the additional context of men and women in the workplace.

And the list goes on.

And, of course, every one of these topics is made exponentially more challenging once you mix in women: policy goals aimed at advancing equality, expectations on “women’s roles” and how they see themselves, and whatever the dynamic and history may be between women and men (and their respective advocates and organizations) on any giving topic or issue.

It’s just kind of a big mess once you get below the surface. And so I wonder:

How do you approach crafting issue-focused messaging to get men engaged in a way that is meaningful, true, respectful and, importantly, effective?

And so for the last month or so, I keep coming back to the Super Bowl ads and thinking about my work with NGO and advocacy clients over the years.

In particular, I’ve thought about the teams on campaigns to engage men on topics ranging from maternal health to domestic violence, on building the case for more international attention to men in post-conflict zones, and, most-recently, men in the modern workplace.

And after all of that time thinking about men, their needs and how to drive change, when it comes to campaign creative, maybe it’s not really about what men want, or about men vs. women. Hell, maybe it’s not even really about men at all.

It’s about expectations.

Take Statefarm’s “Never” spot that aired during the Super Bowl. Yes, the emphasis was on the man, but the ad isn’t really about the people.

This ad would work with the roles flipped, with the scenarios changed and with a different product. That’s because the ad is really about those things in the world that do or don’t align with the expectations that we have, the way we see ourselves, and what we think that we value.

That friction between an individual and the world in which they live is even more pronounced and important when it comes to advocacy campaigns.

The distance between a person’s expectations for themselves and society’s expectations for them — particularly in the context of gender— is growing further and further apart. Cultural norms, ads and media, policies and influencers, and even simply the way we talk about these topics, just can’t keep up.

So, if we’re going to talk to and about men, if we’re going to engage them as allies to help solve some big issues, then one of the places to start is building campaigns with this “Expectations Gap” at the forefront of our minds.

We need to see more campaign strategies that acknowledge, understand and connect to the real expectations that people have for themselves and that spend time carefully considering how those personal expections do or do not align with that person’s everyday experiences.

In most cases, I’ve found, that that gap is staggering, and I think we’d see a lot of different — and more meaningful — creative if we focused on reflecting, articulating, embracing and/or challenging that disconnect.

So, now, when I’ve got a campaign development project, here’s where I start:

  • Forget what the person you are trying to reach is *told* to want. What does a dad in Rio De Janeiro want? To be seen as powerful; to have agency; to be with his family; to have peace and security? Not only is there not one answer, there are many different variations on each one; more to the point, it’s highly unlikely that, deep down, the state-sponsored, media-driven, peer-pressure answer, is the one that most people want.
  • Throw out the stereotypes. Not only are stereotypes lazy creative, they reinforce the wrong perception first in order to try to make the pivot to the alternative; do we still need to do the before and after? Let’s just model the good, unapologetically.
  • Push past gender. We probably all acknowledge by now that gender is just a layer to a person; it’s not even close to the whole story. But, for many, it’s the first layer — the layer most easily seen and identified — and when that’s combined with the easy short-hand of stereotypes and social expectations, there’s a tendency to stop, and we refuse to dig deeper. We have to resist that (admittedly, strong) impulse.
  • Assume the best in people. The overwhelming majority of people are good. They want to live a joyful life. This is hard to hold on to at times, but it’s critical to do this type of work effectively and well. At the risk of being repetitive, model the good, unapologetically.
  • Find the people and tell their stories. Real people and real stories are the key; we see ourselves in each other. Invest in finding the stories and invest in the creative and materials to tell them magnificently. Slogans and compelling problem statements have a place, but it’s through real people that we build the movement for change and action.

Starting to bridge the expectations gap.

To do good, meaningful creative work on topics and issues that matter, we have to set aside a lot of the easy answers, how we used to think and how we’d approach developing campaigns — particularly if we want to get men off the sidelines to become allies for change (which we need to do, especially for issues which impact women and children).

Obviously, there are layers here: the goals, needs and depth for an ad to get men to buy life insurance are different than a grassroots NGO working to get more men in Pakistan to send their daughters to school.

But, for me, both start from the same foundational point: what motivates men and how can we speak to them in an authentic and meaningful way?

Getting more disciplined, more purposeful, and more strategic about answering those questions is going to matter a great deal in the years ahead.

M

PS. Take it away, Win…

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