Diet Coke and Coke Zero may be 99% identical in composition, but one is shunned by men because it’s perceived as a chick drink. The other comes in a cool black can (because guys like products that come in black, see) and is pitched by ultra-masculine former Bears linebacker, Brian Urlacher! Sure, they’re basically the exact same cola, but the tone of the copy, the packaging itself and various other elements have been geared towards those with a Y chromosome. If you want to sell things to men, you need to speak the language…unfortunately, many companies take this to mean “bray like a jackass.” A shocking number of campaigns manage to botch this approach in such a way that it alienates the very men they’re trying to reach. Let’s look at some common ways marketing can send the wrong message to the fellas, AND a few agencies that seem to have a better grasp on modern masculinity.
“Dads: Dangerously Inept at Childcare”
Too often the dad is portrayed as a semi-literate, bumbling, farting man-child; incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time. If not depicted as outright negligent, they are at best well-meaning simpletons who require the patient supervision of their wives, lest they fill the sippy cup with Bud Light, or put the baby up for collateral in a hand of poker.
One recent detergent bit even literally likened men to dogs. It’s right there in the copy: “Saying ‘No-no’ is not just for baby. Like dogs or other house pets, new Dads are filled with good intentions but lacking the judgment and fine motor skills to execute well. Here are a few dangerous no-nos new Dads might make, and some training tips.”
For so many modern families, this couldn’t be further from the mark. Dads are increasingly taking a hands-on approach to fatherhood, and offering them “tips” like not taking a baby to a casino or letting them eat off the floor (those are both actually in there!) is just plain insulting, as well as making Clorox seem out of the loop and behind the times–lose/lose.
“REAL Men Buy _____________”
Even more ubiquitous than the “bad dad” ad is the “REAL men use/ingest/apply [our product]” formula. The marketplace is littered with these childish, peer pressure-type appeals, but for a particularly guilty spot we must go back in time to Burger King’s “I Am Man” campaign. A man abandons his date at a frou-frou restaurant with small portions of “chick food” so he and his buds can break into song, eat beef(-ish matter), renounce tofu, karate-chop cinder blocks, and liberate one fellow man from his domestic slavery (by destroying his minivan, which he gleefully exchanges for a burger). Condescending, insulting, and least forgivable of all, not funny.
Spots like this car commercial even assume that men despise such tasks such as “eating fruit,” “listening to opinions” and “being civil.” Yeah, I hate eating a balanced diet, and being nice to people. Because I’m a real man. I eat 5 pounds of fatback for breakfast, and make barking noises at people I don’t like. You don’t?
Are You Feeling Insecure? How About Now?
For yet another example of playing on male insecurities, take a look at this print ad from the global diamond cartel, De Beers. Now, I don’t want to tell them how to advertise—the fact that America and much of Western Civilization universally expects a diamond ring in a wedding proposal is a testament to their marketing genius; that wasn’t even a tradition until De Beers convinced people it was. People surely expect more from the gang who popularized diamond rings, but even so this one feels like a misfire. This is a rather ham-fisted way of saying that your wife/girlfriend only likes you for your money and ability to provide shiny things. What, you thought she liked you for who you are? Wise up, Jack! And buy more diamonds.
Getting Him Right
For an example of an ad aimed at dad that gets it right, check out the Dove Men + Care campaign, featuring Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. It’s a straightforward montage of Wade goofing around with his boys—throwing them in the pool, playing in a bouncy house, etc. It’s simple yet fun, it showcases the close bond Wade clearly has with his boys, and it depicts a competent, involved dad who—surprise—isn’t bewildered and baffled at the prospect of spending time with/caring for his kids. He may even be capable of driving a minivan without being tempted to run it off a bridge in a swap a hamburger.Visual creatures that we are, packaging and design are essential for grabbing men’s attention. Yogurt is a food that’s typically marketed to women as a snack low in fat, with floral-themed containers and lots of pink and pastel-yellow. On a nutritional level, Powerful Yogurt isn’t significantly different than Yoplait (except for maybe a few more grams of protein?) but it does have a more masculine black-and-red color scheme, and a bull with horns in the logo…it’s so manly the plastic yogurt cups themselves are sculpted to resemble abdominal muscles. A little condescending? Perhaps, but it’s clever, at least stops short of insulting, and the company does seem to have a certain tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about itself. If they can get men to start snapping up yogurt as a high protein post-workout snack, they’ve got a bright future. Then again, I already eat yogurt. Pink yogurt, even, because yogurt is delicious, and I don’t need a bull and black yogurt cup to convince me it’s “safe” to buy. But that’s me.
An Interesting (And Inoffensive) Man
It is certainly possible to get your message out to guys without presenting offensive, chest-thumping caricatures. The enduringly popular and award-winning “Most Interesting Man in the World” spot from Dos Equis accomplished this feat, driving sales up over 17%–and that was during a recession, when import beers as a whole were down 11%. The character is refined yet macho (“he’s a lover, not a fighter..but, he’s also a fighter”), highly-educated, well-dressed, and he likes spicy food. Sure, he’s surrounded by beautiful women, but they aren’t fawning bikini-clad starlets–they’re classy dames in elegant dresses, sitting at his table just to bask in his wisdom and interesting-ness. This guy is unmistakably masculine and confident, without being childish or idiotic. He’s less caveman, and more renaissance man: truly, a pitchman for our times.
No one’s saying that macho appeals can’t work, or that lowest-common-denominator sex appeal won’t be effective (just look at how well AXE body spray has done with their simple strategy), or even that immature men behaving badly can’t be a funny and/or attractive premise. Besides just making us laugh, these can actually be a powerful appeal to every man’s inner child (though the new ads have lacked the punch of the old ones, I still enjoy the Sonic guys, and I’m not alone). But folks should think long and hard before employing these tropes carelessly. Men are increasingly resistant to being pigeon-holed as one-dimensional carnivores with primal motivations. And you really don’t want to incur the wrath of the dad blog-o-sphere.
— Stephen K. Hirst