Advertising still has a way to go in tackling negative representations of men

Despite progress, young men are still highly likely to believe that representations of them in advertising cause harm

The ASA’s 2019 ban on gender stereotyping in ads was set to herald a brave new world for adland – and in many respects it has. Negative stereotyping of women has been given long-overdue attention, thanks to the work of the Unstereotype Alliance and others, and many advertisers have embraced more progressive and diverse forms of representation.

Would male audiences benefit from a similar reappraisal of identity norms?

UM has just carried out a major research project in conjunction with mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and male-focused publisher JOE Media, looking at male stereotypes in the media and focusing on the 18- to 34-year-old age group. From our findings, the answer is a resounding yes – there is still work to be done when it comes to how men are portrayed in the media.

First, the findings: nearly two-thirds (64%) of UK males aged 18 to 34 think negative male representation in advertising does real psychological damage. At a point when male suicide rates are rising, and currently stand at an average of 13 men taking their own lives every day, this is a cause for concern.

The results also found that men aged 18 to 34 are more likely than their older counterparts to have cried (41% versus 25%), to have taken drugs to escape their problems (7% versus 2%) and to wish they had someone to talk to about their personal issues (17% versus 6% of men aged 35-plus).

And social media isn’t helping. Three-quarters (75%) believe social media is making it harder to remain psychologically healthy – and a similar number think these platforms make it harder for them to be forgiven.

Should you ‘be a man’?

Although brands and agencies have come a long way in breaking down the same tired old clichés, with ads for brands such as Harry's that highlight the changing face of modern masculinity, and specialist agency departments that focus on advertising to men, eight out of 10 younger men in our sample still believe brands and ads should try to promote more positive messages to support men’s mental health.

Clearly, there’s a perception issue that needs addressing, one that encompasses the entire media landscape.

The spectre of "lad culture", which we may have thought we’d left back in the 1990s along with lads' mags and Britpop, still persists. Loaded et al might have folded but a quick look through the headlines in the press (like this one from MailOnline) are proof positive that the myth that "real" men don’t display vulnerability is alive and kicking.

Advertising isn’t off the hook: while the beer brands have (finally) moved on from laddishness, "bants" and blokes still feature large in categories like sports gambling. And while we might all be working to break away from default of targeting outdated stereotypes, there are times when we still trip up – such as an ad last year for PC Specialist. The spot was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, which reached the conclusion that it perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by implying only men were interested in technology and depicting men in stereotypically male roles.

So what’s to be done to make further progress? A next step has to be a laser-like focus on keeping pace with men today and portraying them accordingly.

Some 63% of men between the ages of 18 and 34 believe society has become better at accepting non-traditional men’s roles in the past three years and see the regressive masculinity perpetuated in representations as actively offensive. Portrayals of men as sex-obsessed or a "dirty dog" are the stereotypes considered some of the most insulting by younger males. In fact, men aged 18 to 34 are much more likely to respond to male-focused ads showing men as "competent parents".

And while younger men are also significantly more likely than their older peers to feel like they have to look a certain way (59% versus 30% of men aged 35-plus), nearly half (44%) are all in favour of brands showing men of diverse body shapes.

According to the study, more than half of men aged 18 to 34 believe the best way to promote more positive perceptions of masculinity is to normalise getting help. A similar number think men should be shown that it’s OK to fail. This is what they want to see more of – realistic and rounded depictions of men as both capable and variously competent, and also as vulnerable and emotional.

The clear take-away from our findings is that men, especially those under 35, respond best to representation that breaks away from stereotypes and are significantly more likely to purchase from a brand that does so.

Commerce and culture

If the commercial benefits of understanding men today are evident, our close collaboration with CALM on this project has driven home the power of our industry when it comes to culture.

New generations have an emphatically different perception of gender – a reminder of how much culture has changed. Normalising the behaviours and emotions that men have previously been encouraged to bury will give others licence to do the same. This will help temper the mental health crisis blighting young males, a crisis that has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic.

The futureproofing of brand messaging is intertwined with changing portrayals of men in the media, just as it is with how we portray women in advertising. Collectively, we are enablers of change, in charge of powerful platforms that go quite some way in not just reflecting culture, but helping to define it. As CALM puts it, with that power comes responsibility. Keeping that front of mind when it comes to how we portray men isn’t just about advertising; it could even help save lives.

George McMahon is decision sciences manager at media agency UM

Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images

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