Brand Culture: Evolution of masculinity
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) In recent years, we’ve seen big shifts in masculinity and the way in which gender roles not only define themselves, but do so in relation to each other. Three pieces of communication from different ends of the market manages to tell the story in a curious way.
Last year’s Super Bowl commercials introduced an interesting and fresh perspective on fatherhood. I was impressed by how dads where rescued from being the aloof oaf of the ’70s to a more-engaged and switched-on parent. Even YouTube memes caught on and we see videos of dad-wins where dads rescue kids in the 11th hour, from everything ranging from falling out of a swing to being hit by a car.
And it’s not only dads who are being recontextualised; masculinity as a whole is being overhauled in what could arguably be seen as a response to femvertising.
I recently stumbled upon a Tena Men commercial that promoted male pads that prevents urine leakage (or at least prevents it from showing). What is important to note here is that this product is aimed at the now-ageing baby boomers. It’s the post-world demographic that grabbed the bull by the horns and sorted things out. Men of the boomer generation may, to an extent, be stereotyped as ‘second place is the first loser’ type of person. This is not to say every boomer believes this; it’s simply to say that it was a dominant value of the time. Gender roles were clear and, if women wanted to make inroads in the business world, they had to dress like men (shoulder pads and business suits). This era, coincidentally, gave rise to second-wave feminism.
As these men age, their perceived grasp on control is also fading in what I imagine is a combination of feeling irrelevant and then their bodily functions simply fading. Tena Men hints at the former but directly addresses the latter in a commercial that centres on control.
I’m not sure whether the commercial touched the hearts of their consumers or whether it ended up being more amusing for a younger generation. I’m never sold on the idea of taking a human truth (especially if it is already compromised) and turn it into comedy, but I do realise that selling urine-leakage prevention is a difficult ask. If the only strategic angle were humour, I’d say this is very well executed.
The point, however, is that boomers are known for control and (in a later commercial) focus. They are classic qualities that, in a more-traditional business environment, would get you very close to success.
The rigidity of Stirling Gravitas (featured in the above commercial) started giving way through the ’90s as the idea of personal happiness started to slip out from under success (as defined in terms of control and focus). Happiness could mean other things and people should be allowed to find their own sense of joy. This idea blossomed so well that it would be considered poor parenting to tell a child “your happiness can wait; first you must find a job that pays well”. A post-recessionary world and the South African economy might lend that statement some legitimacy but, by and large, individuality is still king and, thanks to the hyper-connected world we live in, it’s a rather important characteristic. Your unique contribution is more valuable than your ability to conform to a set of norms. This social evolution means that the grandchildren of Gravitas would be very different.
Variety of men
Axe recently released the “Find Your Magic” commercial. I was pleasantly surprised, not only by the variety of men represented in the commercial, but also by the message it’s trying to land.
The commercial kicks us off with the residual codes for attractive masculinity as it focuses on a six-pack walking away from an explosion. And for those who’ve been following the battle of the sexes, you might find that the voiceover takes the words right out of your mouth: “A six-pack. Who needs a six-pack?”
The commercial does for young men what the Dove campaign does for young women but in a way that is on brand. Axe is about sexual attraction, not about nurturing, which means an element of machismo and sex appeal will remain.
What is very interesting about this ad is summed up in a YouTube comment, where one viewer wrote “you never thought you’d see a guy in heels in an Axe commercial”. And that is true. Three years back, even the gay couple would’ve been a bridge too far. It’s all a very welcome shift from the ‘spray-and-lure-away’-type commercial which might be compared to Scopolamine (or, more colloquially, Devil’s Breath).
Shatters all canons
The details of the commercial are brilliant. The actors are attractive but not stereotypically so. The differentiators are everyday but not patronising. And the women in the ad are partners, not unsuspecting victims being lured away by a pervert with a spray can. Both in the opening and closing scene, we have a woman behind the wheel but ‘getting the door’ is still something Axe tips its hat to. The commercial shatters all canons of what you ought to be and simply becomes an enabler to allow you to be what you want to be.
But where do these two worlds meet? Or can they even see eye-to-eye? Here we cannot say no. We cannot close the book on a generation simply because their norms are no longer valued. As a society, I think we are good at looking at a group — be it a social group, a particular skillset of labour or, in this case, an age group, and saying “thank you; you’re done here; you can go now”. We are too quick to forget that, no matter how irrelevant a set of values feel today, they are what got us here and they are part of our modern society as much as they were of a society of two generations back. Baby boomers are good for parody today but we best not forget that it was a generation that served as the historical cart horse that pulled a post-WW2 economy along. Yes, greed and ignorance (watch the Big Short) did damage to their work but a lot of the luxuries we enjoy today were made possible by a generation that is now ageing and struggling to surrender power.
I’d like to end with the Audi R8 SuperBowl commercial for this year.
Audi’s product is worlds apart from what Tena Men offers and comparing the two boomer protagonists is not comparing apples with apples. Because the R8 does the heavy lifting in terms of social relevance, Audi has a lot more room for fleshing out a character. Keeping this in mind, we can still see similarities. Our Audi protagonist and Stirling Gravitas are dressed the same; they have the same decisive look about them; and even their surroundings have a similar styling. At another level, however, we can see the fading grip on control, the reluctance to let go of the past and the desire to remain relevant.
It’s a tremendously hopeful commercial. It’s set to the background music of David Bowie’s Starman and, more than that, it shows how two generations who are faced with very different social challenges may still find space to meet. It’s a brilliant demonstration of how millennial values (let’s find your happiness) meet baby-boomer aspirations (power, control and focus). I would argue that the commercial exist in the ideological framework of the millennial simply because it plays more to ‘happiness’ as a goal, rather than ‘control’.
Be that as it may, it does demonstrate how, instead of seeing the world as an either-or reality, instead of working to exclude the hopes and dreams of others, we can adopt more-flexible world views to accommodate and include.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is head of strategy at Cape Town ad agency, 140BBDO, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.
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