One of the more irritating and clueless cultural nexuses (nexi?) of the last couple of years has been the surfeit of “men need to man up” articles.
I spoke about this at length in two articles about City Journal writer Kay Hymowitz in response to her hysterical and anecdotally-driven Wall Street Journal piece. She has since been joined in the Pantheon of Man-Up Shaming by Peggy Nance, Bill Bennett and Spinster In Chief Kate Bolick.
Hymowitz is one of a class of commentators who claim to be concerned about the lot of men, but are only concerned to the degree that men’s issues affect the ability of women to get what they want – that is, men to finance and forward their dreams of status and comfort. This assertion is self-demonstrating: despite a generation of evidence that the effete, femcentric society rising in the upper classes was dramatically stunting the development of males, these commentators have only seen fit to bring attention to the problem now that the young women they spend their lives around have begun to complain that there aren’t any men they want to marry or who want to marry them. (Hymowitz uses the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up as an bookend fable to her argument, which really shows how empty her concept is of what young men’s lives are actually like.)
While it began as a male-to-male appeal to teamwork, the “Man Up” concept has long been a cultural default for women to exert leverage on men to do something not in their direct interest, via a dose of shaming. Shaming is an appeal to someone’s sense of being, suggesting that their actions cost them value as a person (or in this case, as a male person). [Double-hat tip to Ricky Raw, whose explicatory work on the human psychological system is without equal.]
Seemingly in keeping with the “Man Up” pop-sociology, there’s been a new surge of ads leveraging the concept. I’ve seen three campaigns in particular that employ the
- Tagline: “Lose like a man”
- Masculine concept: Using a pun to link sportmanship and competition with a program to drop pounds.
- Endorser: Former NBA player and “round mound of rebound” Charles Barkley
Dove (the moisturizer)
- Tagline: “I’m comfortable in my own skin”
- Masculine concept: Adapting the alpha-male values of confidence and congruence to literally making your skin comfortable.
- Endorsers: Charismatic retired hoopster Shaquille O’Neal, retired NFL quarterback and confirmed philanderer John Elway, Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson III
One-A-Day Men’s Vitacraves (vitmains)
- Tagline: “Chew like a man”
- Masculine concept: feats of strength and gluttony
- No endorsers, just a dweeby white guy
Obviously, these are strong doses of manliness to counter the stigma of female-oriented products. What’s interesting about these is that there is a distinct absence of invective about a man’s “duty” to others (save for a quip about taking out the garbage). Barkley directly engages his own competitive personality – “I hated losing, until now.” Elway is adorned with images of his football accomplishments, when he was one of the game’s best. Thompson tells a story about becoming like his father. Shaq simply shows off his larger-than-life persona.
Thus the key to the spots: buy this and you’ll feel good about being a man – your intrinsic masculinity will be flattered, not your “obligation masculinity” defined by serving others’ interests. We’re being asked to fork over the cash for our own sake, not because we owe it to our wives or children or girlfriends or whatever.
I realized that this motif was pioneered by another very well-received campaign. Most beer ads promote a sort of “drink this beer and women will have sex with you” concept. There’s a notable exception – Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World spots. The Most Interesting Man is surrounded by women – not because he’s a crazy party animal at the time of the swilling, but because he is the end product of an interesting and well-lived life. The women are an extra benefit to his lifestyle of boating rescues, fencing, and lecturing a tiger while cooking. The spots appeal to a high-concept masculinity, like an aging James Bond, rather than a hangin’ with your bros diorama. It ain’t a Viagra ad with Bob Dole talking to other old men, it’s a older man addressing a younger man about how to be like him when he’s grown old.
There’s a context that people need to understand – marketers don’t know how to reach young men. Radio host Tom Leykis regularly emphasized that young men were his core listener base, and after a silly caller he would satirically intone “advertisers, you too can reach this prime demographic.”
Marketers know how to sell to young women…they can make women feel good about themselves by buying an expensive handbag, a pair of uncomfortable shoes, or a poorly-written book about an abortive BDSM experiment (I’m talking about The Hunger Games). But the most elusive consumer dollar is that in the hands of the 18- to 34-year old pre-middle aged male. They buy plenty of stuff, but the advertisers can’t figure out how to influence them.
I suppose it’s another way of saying men are a lot less susceptible to social pressure and social proof in their preferences. And in keeping with what’s been covered already, they are the least susceptible when they are young and single, and have neither a wife and kids they are expected to provide for (the shaming angle), nor a midlife crisis to cause them to hunt for masculine meaning they can no longer capture on their own.
Lots of male-centric advertising appeals directly to the married-father role, suggesting it is his “manly duty” to the family to buy whatever product in on the make. Cf. ads where Daddy is shuttling the family around, or fixing the family’s gutters, or cutting the lawn or something. Subtextual is the idea that his time and pleasures should be sacrificed for the nebulous “good of the family” – more extreme examples were a guy selling his season tickets because they had a new baby, or a guy being browbeaten by his wife and realtor into buying a house he couldn’t afford.
In what is probably a more effective campaign, companies also market products TO wives that are intended to be consumed BY their husbands. With women controlling something like 80% of a couple’s spending, it’s probably a lot more efficient of a pitch in the boardroom.
However, with the marriage rate going down and the age of marriage going up, maybe the marketers are getting ahead of the game and going directly to the large pocket of single men who don’t (and for some, won’t) have wives to buy their vitamins for them.