When most people think of advertising’s effect on self-esteem, they tend to focus on women and girls. When the National Citizen Service – the training scheme that could yet be David Cameron’s greatest legacy – did some research on body image recently, the resulting headlines were about girls.
But a study last year from the Advertising Association’s Credos think-tank found that it is an increasing issue for boys and young men too. And they’re uncomfortable talking about it. Of the boys who participated, 56% said they struggled to talk to teachers about their looks and 29% would find it difficult to talk to their parents.
Adland needs to take responsibility for the way young men feel, as more than half of boys aged eight to 18 in the research said advertising was one of the four main reasons why they feel the pressure to look good. And four in ten boys feel the way men are portrayed in the media is unrealistic.
That study has prompted the AA’s educational initiative, Media Smart, to provide specific materials to help boys and young men. Media Smart’s materials for teachers, young people and their parents help children think critically about the commercial world around them. They have been downloaded 20,000 times since the programme’s 2015 launch. It’s one of the many examples of the ad industry taking a stand and being socially responsible. Creatives don’t cycle into Soho from Hackney just for the pure blood rush of selling burgers to kids, whatever Piers Morgan would have Good Morning Britain viewers believe.
Media Smart has now partnered children’s newspaper First News and – to keep the ITV daytime theme going – This Morning doctor Dr Ranj to develop an initiative called Boys’ Biggest Conversation. The campaign, which kicked off on Tuesday ahead of a big consumer push featuring comedian Jack Rooke launching later this month, will encourage young men to talk about the way they see their bodies and how it affects their feelings. In addition to a video starring Dr Ranj taking his top off and discussing how he feels about his body, there are a bunch of teaching resources designed for 11- to 14-year-olds – of both genders.
In the past year, a number of industry bodies and companies have started initiatives to encourage people to be more open about mental health and non-visible disabilities. The Marketing Society held a Being Bold Around Mental Health event in April featuring Engine president Robin Wight, among others, talking about their experiences. Channel 4 is giving away £1m worth of airtime to the brand with the best idea featuring invisible disabilities. Mental health is also going to be a big focus for Nabs in the coming year.
It’s really important that we look after our people. But we shouldn’t forget about the effect the work we do has on the wider public. The stats on male mental health speak for themselves. If Boys’ Biggest Conversation prompts some young men to understand the background to and manipulation of the images they see and talk about how they feel, that’s certainly a great thing.