To mark World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD), Media Bounty’s Max Harris explores male representation in the media and its impact on mental health. How can the marketing industry support a revolution of masculinity?
It’s a phrase I’ve heard often throughout my life, and something I’d never really questioned. As a child, I’d often try my best to not show any signs of emotion in front of other people – something which proved to be particularly challenging whenever a football smacked me in the face in the playground at school, or when I attended my first ever concert at which SClub announced that they were splitting up (both were equally as painful).
But as the mental health crisis has worsened over the past decade and suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50, it begs the question: what exactly is it to be a man, and how are we represented in the ad industry?
Like it or not, advertising shapes us all in some way. From the clothes that we wear, the products we purchase, and the way we express our gender. And let’s be honest, the ad industry hasn’t always represented gender in the best ways – looking back at some of the Yorkie ‘It’s NOT for Girls’ ads honestly gives me second-hand embarrassment; Clearcast approval who?
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way over the past few decades, with ASA more recently introducing a ban on harmful gender stereotypes in ads 2019. However, there’s still plenty of work to do.
Representation and authenticity
Working in media, I absolutely love seeing new trends in advertising. As someone who self-identifies as ‘not fat, but definitely enjoys pasta’, you can imagine my excitement when brands such as Dollar Shave Club were jumping on the ‘Dad Bod’ trend, proving that men come in more shapes and sizes than your typical Calvin Klein hunk that you’d see plastered all over billboards. Fortunately, inclusivity and diversity have been at the heart of many modern campaigns, but the fact that ads like these are so atypical make me question why we were never made to feel represented in ads in the first place.
With social media app BeReal gaining popularity in previous months, realism and authenticity are becoming increasingly sought-out among modern consumers, and we are moving away from the glamourised, photoshopped and – quite frankly – unrealistic representations of ourselves that we have been taught to deem as aspirational.
These aspirations feed into the stereotypes of men being expected to be strong and resilient, which can be incredibly harmful. A recent study found that 40% of men will not discuss their mental health with close friends, family, or a medical professional. While stigmas against male mental health battles are increasingly being broken down and talked about, with high-profile sports figures such as Freddie Flintoff being praised for “helping other men open up” in his Living With Bulimia documentary last year, we still need to do more work to redact these damaging stereotypes of men in advertising.
What are we doing, and what can we do?
Many ads are leading the path and challenging traditional concepts of masculinity. For example, Gillete’s ‘The Best a Man Can Be’ and The Mayor of London’s ‘Have a Word’ the made headlines for tackling harmful “masculine” behaviors such as sexual harrasment and violence, challenging stereotypes associated with toxic masculinity. Alongside this, we are also seeing masculinity being continuously redefined and modernised, with campaigns such as Fenty’s BlameItOnKway embracing makeup for men and Harry Styles launching gender neutral beauty brand Pleasing.
By challenging these stereotypes and breaking stigmas, the advertising industry is certainly taking a step in the right direction. However, there is still more work to do.
Here at Media Bounty, we recognise our role in this vital shift, and we’ve worked hard to bake diverse representation into our DNA. Whether that means smashing period taboos with our partners at Bodyform, or tackling men’s mental health stigma with pro-bono projects for Men’s Minds Matter. To commemorate Suicide Prevention Day (10th September), we’re launching our second creative and OOH campaign with this incredible charity: the thing that saved my life. The campaign celebrates the things that have stopped men from taking their lives: from the seemingly insignificant texts from friends, to the ultimate physical challenge: an ultramarathon.
Whether you’re going through depression, know someone who is, or can use your voice to challenge harmful stereotypes, everyone can make a difference.
As advertisers, we have a real chance to empower this movement. If we notice these negative stereotypes being portrayed, we need to be able to identify them and challenge them to help support the revolution. Beyond this, we need to be proactive in pursuit of real, authentic diversity. After all, our industry is one of the most influential on how people think and feel about themselves, so we need to commit to leading the change that we want to see.