He's tough, he's soft-he's complex

By Published on .

Most Popular
Spurred by the mainstreaming of gay culture, a new picture of the male consumer is emerging. But as marketers are finding, he's not just a metrosexual-he's much more complicated than that.

"What is happening is that everything is fragmenting. At one time there was a wholeness, you could be John Wayne and get married," says Paul Nathanson, co-author of "Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture.""Now you have the metrosexuals, who are held in some contempt by other men. Things are fragmenting, and that's not so bad if there is a coherent vision of manhood."

However, Mr. Nathanson doesn't think there is. On the one hand, there's a softer man, more in touch with the feminine preserve-and with it, the inevitable backlash expressed in such media offerings as Maxim and on cable at Spike TV and Comedy Central's "The Man Show."

Mr. Nathanson and co-author Katherine K. Young say men used to be seen as progenitors, providers and protectors. That definition has been disrupted by the rise of single or gay parents along with advances in the science of reproduction and a more financially independent female.

less sure

Branding expert Sanford Keziah of independent boutique Kindred Keziah, New York, agrees: "We do a lot of focus groups, and research shows that men are less certain of their roles, their careers, their relationship to family, their roles as men-there aren't the prescriptions."

On the other hand, Mr. Keziah points out that post-modernism has brought about a freedom to deviate from the norm, to be a metrosexual or a man who stays home with the kids as in a current Johnson & Johnson corporate campaign from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe, New York. J&J's "Having a baby changes everything" spot features a man who plays with his baby boys and a frog, enjoying the child bonding experience more than a poker night with the guys.

Witness the launch of Conde Nast Publications' guy shopping magazine Cargo and Visionaire's offshoot Vman, described as a title for those interested in "the new openness of male chic." Couple that with Procter & Gamble Co.'s OT, its first-ever line of personal-care products for tween and teen boys, and you begin to see a new male consumer emerging.

Some wonder if the emergence of erectile dysfunction drugs in this year's ad extravaganza accompanying the Super Bowl adds up to a greater male acceptance of their vulnerabilities.

Sometimes, those stereotypical vulnerabilities-like the masculine penchant for being a slob-have helped men bask in the media and advertising spotlight. Thom Filicia, who refurbishes hetero guys' appalling digs in Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," has parlayed his talent into a role as pitchman for Pier 1 Imports. Mr. Filicia made his debut for Pier 1 this spring in ads from Interpublic's Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich.

This all doesn't mean traditional men have disappeared from advertising. Mr. Keziah believes advertising lags pop culture in the themes embraced for marketing efforts. The macho male often persists in advertising because an "ad is a 30-second spot or a one-page, there's only so much you can communicate." Advertisers need a shorthand to address a simple message to many people, he continues, saying marketers "have to rely on archetypes. They are an important part of how we constitute meaning-a shorthand, a quick reference."

Mr. Keziah thinks stereotypes of what it is to be a man persist because they remain important especially in categories such as beer and cars. Mr. Nathanson believes that traditional roles are still a very important part of society. He says 20th Century Fox's "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World" is the first movie in decades to portray male machismo in a positive light.

Top brewer Anheuser-Busch often features images of traditional men. One spot from this year takes a shot at so-called metrosexuals, where the guy in question wanders into the wrong room at a spa to grab a Bud Light and ends up receiving a bikini wax.

Bob Scarpelli, chairman-chief creative officer at Bud Light agency DDB Worldwide, Chicago, a unit of Interpublic, says he tries not to deal in stereotypes. "What we're trying to do is popular ads," he says. "When you have a broad range, you have to appeal. What we're trying to do for Anheuser-Busch or McDonald's is to appeal and give people something that takes you to a place."

Richard Smaglick, co-founder of the Society for the Prevention of Misandry in the Media, conducts something of a one-man crusade against a variety of advertisers that he feels portray men in a negative light. Misandry is defined as hatred of men.

Mr. Smaglick has threatened to organize a national boycott of companies such as Verizon Communications in response to spots that he sees portraying men in a negative light. He also singles out for criticism a spot that Interpublic-owned Sedgwick Rd., Seattle, created for Washington Mutual that shows a man braving such mishaps as having hot coffee poured over him. Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, has come under attack by Mr. Smaglick for its work on Wyeth's FluMist brand. In the spot a man sends his kids out with summer clothes in the winter and they get sick.

service categories

Beyond the stereotypes, marketers are waking up to the fact that perhaps those missing young men aren't all that important after all. Mr. Keziah's company works with Bacardi USA, Skyy Spirits, Mercedes-Benz USA and others. "We are working with companies to develop products targeted to men over 40," he says. "Our clients are looking to target those men in non-traditional categories such as services."

He points to alcoholic beverages as a category where the lines are blurring and role-and even gender-reversals are taking place. One unnamed scotch brand is looking to target women, for instance.

In her 1996 book "Clicking," Faith Popcorn describes the beginning of what she terms "mancipation," or the rejection of traditional male roles, replaced by the freedom to embrace whatever they want to be. "We're seeing that ramp up," says Seth Familian, a strategist at Ms. Popcorn's Brain Reserve. " `Queer Eye,' cosmetics, health and beauty aids are going after men as the real thing."

Mr. Familian adds that TV shows such as NBC's "Average Joe" have contributed to the sense that men need to be well-groomed in case they get their shot at being everyman on TV.

Whatever that everyman is in this world of metro- and retrosexuals.