Do men still behave badly?

Nineties’ man is a complicated creature, and has only recently been taken seriously by those involved in marketing or the media. However, attention to date has taken the form of devising new labels for men – New Man, New Lad and Millennium Man are all attempts to define Nineties’ man (and to fill column inches), but are scarcely illuminating. It is now time to consider whether Nineties’ man really is different from his predecessors, and what the implications of these differences might be, not least for those targeting the male sex in their advertising.

Certainly, man’s position in society is changing. He often does the household shopping, buys his own toiletries and even reads his own magazines – all of which make him a more significant target for marketers.

But these changes in men’s behaviour are not always reflected in their attitudes; as a qualitative research agency, Davies Riley-Smith Maclay was naturally interested in the latter, and decided to conduct its own research into Nineties’ man.

Eight group discussions were held in 1995 with men aged 18- to 60-years-old, updated with more groups at the end of 1997. The findings covered a range of topics, but one is of particular interest: men at home.

The home is an area where men feel most pressurised, as their increased role here has not been of their own choosing. Chart A illustrates men’s growing responsibility for household chores, and the research echoed this data: all the men (of whatever age) were doing more within the home than their fathers had and expected this to continue with subsequent generations.This said, there is a considerable gap between men’s attitudes and their behaviour, as revealed in Chart B.

Men claim that household chores should be shared equally, but their behaviour does not reflect this belief yet. Respondents in our groups expressed similar political correctness, agreeing that an equal division of labour was fair and appropriate.

Further discussion revealed a far less progressive view of gender responsibilities, and a perceptual gap of a different sort. Men appear to have adopted an almost reactionary stance, to the point where their attitudes lag behind their behaviour. Even the most “progressive” men (25-year-olds in the “B” social category and with no children) still see housework as women’s work, regardless of how much of this work they are actually doing.

This view is most extreme for certain chores, namely cleaning, washing and ironing (and the female bias of these activities is reflected in Chart A). Such tasks are a long way from being acceptable male activities, and men find ways of avoiding them through claimed incompetence: “She doesn’t like the way I iron.”

Other traditionally female tasks are taken on under duress and in a uniquely male way. For example, men may be responsible for the weekly shopping, but generally use a list written by their wife or girlfriend, and stray from it at their peril. Equally, cooking (beyond the use of ready meals) is rarely seen as a pragmatic necessity: for men, it becomes a display activity.

These attitudes are made particularly apparent on the presentation of various campaigns depicting men. A Flora commercial shows a man preparing food for his children; he is immediately seen as a divorcee. Likewise, a Midland pensions ad shows a man shopping with a toddler in tow; the assumption is that he must be unemployed or widowed, to excuse such atypical behaviour.

Above all, this traditionalist view is revealed in the language men use to discuss the topic; housework is described as “helping out” to avoid “getting grief”, suggesting slow progress towards a genuinely equal division of labour.

This has implications for men’s consumption of advertising. In general, men are less politicised than women when it comes to advertising. They do not see their portrayal in advertising as an issue, and are remarkably insensitive to being shown as incompetent, brainless or one-dimensional. Ironically, in research the only ad to generate genuine irritation was the Gillette commercial, due to its use of fire-fighters with impossibly chiselled jaws.

As a result, men only tend to notice advertising which is obviously aimed at them. In warm-ups for group discussions, men will recall campaigns for beer, big cars, sports brands, snack foods and male toiletries. Women, by comparison, recall a huge range of ads, regardless of who they are targeting.

Hence, despite the fact that men may be doing the shopping, cooking and even some of the cleaning, they’re likely to ignore advertising for these sectors, as their perceived role excludes these activities.

The recent Diet Coke campaign (Diet Coke Break) highlights men’s insensitivity to advertising. They are not offended by its use of men as sex objects, because the advertising is assumed to be targeting women. Making men take notice of low-calorie drinks requires more than male-user imagery within the advertising – it demands a truly masculine positioning, only achieved by Pepsi Max.

In addition, Nineties’ man sees the need to be increasingly selective. This is not because he now feels targeted by a wider range of sectors, but because of the rise in “new” media – he can now be reached through magazines, sponsorship, more television channels and the Internet, so there’s more for him to ignore.

In talking to men, you need to acknowledge not just what they do, but how they see themselves. If men are a new target for you, you have to let them know. This is not just a matter of placing your ads in Loaded; it also has implications for creative content, and demands more than the simple use of male user-imagery. Indeed, attracting a male market requires a fundamental rethink of a brand’s positioning.

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