From soap and menstrual pads to lingerie and cereal, contemporary marketers and advertisers have invested in the idea that “authenticity” is the key to selling to (cisgender, heterosexual) women. Especially since the groundbreaking Dove Real Beauty Campaign of the early 2000s, which featured women who were not models or actresses in their ads, “real” women have become a common trope in advertising. “Real,” however, is a slippery term: it can mean that the women who are featured are actual users of the product giving a testimonial; are not models or actors but are representative of the target audience; or are paid and/or professional models or actors who are not thin, white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, and/or young.
The purpose of the “real” woman, in her many iterations, is to allow brands to gesture broadly at diversity and inclusion in order to make products salient to consumers who might otherwise be turned off by marketing that promotes or centers unrealistic, white, and patriarchal beauty or body standards. This strategy has been so successful over the past twenty years that it is almost surprising that it has taken so long for brands to begin using this same strategy to other demographics – including cisgender, heterosexual men.
Although the marketing of masculinity to men has certainly gone through many changes throughout the 20th and the early years of the 21st century, in general, ads targeting (usually cisgender, heterosexual, white) men have presumed a hegemonic masculinity that centers on a vision of manliness that includes strength, courage, and leadership on the positive side and aggression, impulsiveness, and domination on the negative. Additionally, advertisers have butted up against gendered associations of consumerism with femininity, seeking to reconcile masculinity’s anti-consumerist associations with the fact that actual men do buy things. (For more on masculinity’s anti-consumerist associations and representation in media, I highly recommend reading Sally Robinson’s Authenticity Guaranteed.)
While the “metrosexual moment” (Shugart, 2008) offered a vision of a softer, alternative masculinity in the media in the early 2000s, following the Great Recession, men’s advertising swung back in the other direction, either depicting strong, self-assured, “manly” men, like the Old Spice Man (see: Kluch, 2015), or airing grievances about feelings of emasculation and masculinity in crisis (see: Green and Van Oort, 2013). Yet, by 2014, both male (over?)confidence and male grievance took on a “toxic” tenor, especially following the Isla Vista shootings and the start of the #yesallwomen hashtag.
By 2015, brands began to take it upon themselves to show cisgender, heterosexual men in a new light: part apology, part pedagogy, brands began to show real men (their target audiences of white, cisgender, heterosexual consumers) how to be “real men.”
What makes a real man “real?” Well, it depends on which brand you ask.
Dove’s Men+Care “Real Strength” campaign, which debuted at the 2015 Superbowl, depicts “real” fathers as men who act as responsible family members and are invested in their children. (For more on the “dadvertising” trend, see: Leader, 2019).
Axe’s 2016 Superbowl ad encourages young men to “Find Your Magic,” depicting a diverse range of men with an equally diverse range of interests, skills, and abilities – while assuring them that they are attractive because and in spite of divergence from traditionally masculine norms.
In 2017, Axe followed up with “Is It Okay for Guys,” which features actual Google search queries from men concerned about their likes, interests, activities, and needs and reminds their consumers that there is no one “real” way to be a man.
Dollar Shave Club’s 2018 “Get Ready” showcases a diverse group of men (and some women) engaging in “feminine,” quirky, weird, and sometimes even gross grooming rituals, from taking bubble baths and shaving their legs to spraying cologne in their underwear and peeing in the shower. The ad “welcomes” all of these men “to the club” (the Dollar Shave Club? The “club” of “real” men?) regardless of how they choose to “get ready.”
Dollar Shave Club followed this up in 2019 with an ad called Manifique, celebrating the “overlooked” male body type known as the “dad bod.” This ad leans into the postfeminist “love your body” discourse (Gill & Elias, 2014) often seen in ads attempting to market body positivity to women.
In an explicit response to the #MeToo movement and a more oblique response to the rising framing of masculinity as “toxic” in the news, Gillette’s 2019 “The Best a Man Can Be” made waves by promoting a pro-feminist vision of masculinity. The ad condemns misogyny in the media and sexist behavior towards women, in addition to denouncing bullying and male-on-male violence. The ad also self-reflexively critiques its own rhetoric, poking literal and figurative holes in its past advertisements depicting men as white, chisel-jawed, and sexually dominant (see: Knudsen & Andersen, 2020).
The list goes on – especially as more brands jump on the “authenticity” bandwagon, taking cues both from the successful “real” women campaigns of the early 2000s and the profitable campaigns of their competitors. As progressive as these ads are in their attempts to demonstrate positive behaviors and discourage “toxic” ones, as well as in their inclusive casting, we have to ask (or, at least I do): what is the true end goal of these ads? Based on the ads above, we can surmise that what makes a real man “real” is…the products he uses to express and fulfill his own personal choices, interests, needs, and desires. By applauding advertisers for becoming the ambassadors for or arbiters of “real” masculinity, we risk simplifying solutions for combatting real-world violence to buying products.
Marketing personas are not actual people – they are representations of ideal consumers. Advertisements that extend masculine authenticity to anyone who can afford to buy it or that attempt to solve systemic problems with individual consumption offer nothing more than neoliberalism in “real men’s” clothing.
Representation of alternative masculinities and reminders that traditional gender roles are constructs are absolutely a net positive – but the next time you see a “real” man ad come across your screen, ask yourself: do I buy it?
Gill, R., & Elias, A. S. (2014). ‘Awaken your incredible’: Love your body discourses and postfeminist contradictions. International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 10(2), 179-188.
Green, K., & Van Oort, M. (2013). “We wear no pants”: Selling the crisis of masculinity in the 2010 Super Bowl commercials. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(3), 695-719.
Kluch, Y. (2015). 'The man your man should be like': Consumerism, patriarchy and the construction of twenty-first-century masculinities in 2010 and 2012 Old Spice campaigns. Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture , 6 (3), 361-377.
Knudsen, G. H., & Andersen, L. P. (2020). Changing masculinity, one ad at a time. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 15(2).
Leader, C. F. (2019). Dadvertising: Representations of fatherhood in Procter & Gamble’s Tide commercials. Communication Culture & Critique, 12(1), 72-89.
Robinson, S. (2018). Authenticity guaranteed: masculinity and the rhetoric of anti-consumerism in American culture. University of Massachusetts Press.
Shugart, H. (2008). Managing masculinities: The metrosexual moment. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 5(3), 280-300.