In Advertising, Sex Still Sells and Men Are Still Buying Manhood

Angelo Franco


Earlier this summer, KFC ran an ad in the UK portraying two men sitting in a restaurant discussing the new televisions they had purchased. The two guys equate the size of their televisions to their manliness, with one upping the other’s 50” plasma to a much bigger 90” television, “Because I’m a man,” he proclaims. The first character then counters with his TV set being “Ultra HD,” with the second man then thwarting the argument with the question: “Did it come free with your scented candles?” To which his companion, frazzled and embarrassed, responds: 


“You know those candles help with my anxiety… you’re a monster.”


The KFC ad drew some negative backlash, with consumers commenting that the ad irresponsibly equated anxiety with lack of masculinity and helped perpetuate the dangerous notion that men should not admit to mental issues. But the ad itself is a tried-and-true example of the tactics advertising and marketing agencies have used to reach their male consumers. Since even before the infamous Mad Men era that revolutionized advertising, brands have targeted men through some seemingly ubiquitous necessities all men must have: sex, manhood, and girls.


One must only look at ads for beer, cars, shampoo, sporting goods and, given the example above, even chicken for this to become apparent. This is a purposeful strategy and brands use this aim to target men. But in the age of #notallmen and Netflix binging, brands have refocused their advertising strategies to reach the modern male demographics.


Through the last decade, brands have undergone a wavering path to reach that desirable demographics of the male buyer in order to remain relevant. According to the United States Census Bureau, there were approximately 2 million single fathers in 2016 and nearly 200,000 stay-at-home dads. With the Norman Rockwell familial scenes long gone, adverts have also tried to keep up with the times by portraying men in their modern roles.


Historically, dads have been depicted as being generally clueless about dad business, lazy, and with no control over his capabilities while mom dropped in with all the household knowledge. In 2007, Verizon pulled a commercial after mounting pressure from a men’s advocacy group. In the ad, a dad is attempting to help his daughter with homework on a computer, categorizing the machine as “kind of encyclopedia-ish,” much to his daughter’s and wife’s chagrin.


Dads have gotten smarter since there. During the 2015 Superbowl, a number of ads stood out for tackling fatherhood with a more emotional perspective. These, perhaps surprisingly, came from some of the same culprits that tend to perpetrate male stereotypes. They included a Nissan spot featuring a father’s relationship with his son from birth to puberty; and a Dove Men+Care ad based off the tagline “What makes a man stronger? Showing he cares” and featuring fathers in various situations caring for their children.


This new approach stems not only from needing to keep up with the tides of change, but also from the ways advertisers must now use to reach their buyers. With television viewership declining, audiences are consuming media through channels that brands had to adapt to. More people are relying on subscription and streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu for their television fix, which means advertisers have less time to get their message across. Consequently, brands have shifted their tone to use emotion as an advertising tool to strike a chord with consumers in the little time they now have allotted. This means shorter, more specifically targeted adverts directed to segments of the demographics.



That is what gave the birth of the so-call “dadvertising,” like the commercials that aired during the Superbowl—ads that seek to stir an emotion on the stay-at-home dad, a same-sex marriage, the millennial father, etc. But emotional advertising is not always wholesome and old tricks still remain in play. When advertising to the older generation, for example, brands still seek to make them fear for their wellbeing or that of their loved ones. Whereas if brands are targeting youth minorities, peer pressure and the need to be part of the group reign as effective tactics.


Along with these new tech and consumption trends, another tool brands now have at their disposal is the immediate response they obtain through social media and other channels, backlash and all. Though admittedly useful, this can also place adverts in the crosshairs of being celebrated or downright detested.


One of the biggest industries that has largely remained unchanged when it comes to advertising to their core male demographics is liquor. They, for the most part, continue to target men of all ages as their key consumer and, consequently, utilize the same strategies that have worked in the past: feeding male egos and manhood.


In 2012, Belvedere Vodka came under fire for an ad it posted to its Twitter and Facebook pages. It featured a photograph of a young man grabbing a woman from behind who appears surprised by the act, along with the line “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly.” The backlash was swift and intense (though, interestingly, not all of it completely negative). Commenters on the social sites were quick to condone the ad as promoting rape and major circulations denounced it as being everything from “disgusting” to “offensive.” The response was so immediate, that Belvedere took the ad down within the hour and issued several apologies soon after.


And while this swift reaction allowed Belvedere to act quickly, there remain things to be noted about the contents of the ad. Not only was the ad so problematic that it could have easily been interpreted as promoting rape, but there’s also something very emblematic in the way male identity is portrayed. A working bro, in his white-collar shirt unbuttoned at the top, gleefully grabbing a woman who, judging by her expression, couldn’t have been less eager for whatever was happening or was about to happen. It is what appears to be, according to the Belvedere ad, a simple and straightforward display of manliness: his need for sex and getting it any way he can, even if that’s not as smooth sailing as taking a well-deserved sip of vodka.


This manliness advertising is not rare. It may be that advertisers are, generally speaking, trying to be less misogynistic about their portrayals of women and in breaking gender stereotypes, but men continue to be marketed with the same strategies that have worked for decades. So much so that, in fact, the term hyper-masculinity was coined to try to explain the method. That is, brands are selling to men by speaking to what they desire most and doing it in such a way that it perpetuates that toxic masculinity brands tell men that they need.



A study conducted at the University of Manitoba found that as many as 56 percent of ads printed on men magazines depicted one or more hyper-masculine belief. Researches looked for images that portrayed situations commonly associated with hyper-masculinity, such as ads that showed men as violent, physically aggressive, hypersexual, or involved in a dangerous activity for the sake of the thrill.


Aside from the fact that more than half the ads fit these definitions, the study also found that the ads are targeting low-income, younger men to an alarming rate. As much as 90 percent of ads on magazines like Playboy and Game Informer presented over-the-top hyper-masculinity imagery. In the case of these two publications, both magazines target the working-class man, with the playboys being older than then 20-something gamers. This demographic, as they study puts is, is “embedded in enduring social and economic structures in which they experience powerlessness and lack of access to resources.” These are resources such as wealth, political power, and social respect, which is why the marketing of masculinity strikes a chord with the low-income men who read these publications.


The truth remains that men continue to be marketed with the promises of sex, girls, and improved manhood. Despite the strides that advertisers seem to be making, they understand how their specific audiences consume their message. Unilever, the parent company of Dove Men+Care, also owns Axe body spray, infamous for their advertising of sexual conquest, where any man regardless of any factor whatsoever can make supermodels fall for them by spraying their product (even if this man finds himself dumpster diving).


Last summer, Unilever vowed to combat gender stereotypes in advertising. Announced during the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, this promise would eventually gather media giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and a number of organizations like UN Women and the Geena Davis Institute, among many others, to pledge to work on the eradication of harmful, outdated stereotypes in advertising and brand-led content.


The announcement was made the same year that Thrillist and VaynerMedia came under fire for a party invite that went out to a number of attendees at that same Cannes festival. Spearheaded by the two media companies, gentlemen who wished to attend needed to contact their PR handlers; but for ladies, the invite read, the party was open only to attractive females and models. Both Gary Vaynerchuck and Ben Lerer immediately apologized and explained the invite was sent out by a third-party vendor not affiliated with either company.


As part of Unilever’s pledge (which the company has dubbed the “Unstereotype Alliance”) and following the success of their “Make Love Not War” spot that debuted during the 2014 Superbowl to everyone’s pleasant surprise, Axe debuted a new ad campaign in May of this year in an attempt to rein in a new generation of body-spray-wearing gentlemen. The camping was built off a study that showed that as many as 72 percent of men had been told how they should act and behave in order to be perceived as manly.


The "Is It Ok for Guys" adverts partnered with Google to find real inquiries the search giant said men were making and challenged the usual perceptions of masculinity by asking if it's okay for guys to "be skinny," "wear pink," "not like sports," "be the little spoon," and even “be gay,” etc. It ditched the usual manhood-focused strategy in favor of a more emotional and sensitive approach as more men embrace different paths and question what it means to be a man.


Unilever says that it is too early to fully analyze the social impact of the promise it made a year ago, but already by June of this year, the company saw a 24 percent increase in consumers rating their ads as progressive. That’s a start. And the UK’s Advertising Standard Authority developed new, tougher rules for ads that portray harmful gender stereotypes citing, among others, the insensitive and candle-hating chicken eaters from the KFC ad. 


Author Bio:


Angleo Franco is the chief features writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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