Consumer Insight: From hero to zero

Stereotypes of men in advertising have changed since the days of the rugged Marlboro Man, but is portraying men as incompetent idiots going too far?

The portrayal of men in advertising has moved on a bit from the heroic images of the Marlboro Man, Gillette's clean-shaven hunks or the Milk Tray secret agent. Cowboy machismo or a touch of James Bond have given way to good blokes who can be a bit dorky at times.

New Age man - as portrayed in commercials - has been at various times inept, weak or out-and-out dominated by New Age woman. We have seen Mister Muscle ads showing just how completely useless men are at housework, through the Fiat Punto TV spot in which the girlfriend tries to wake her dozing boyfriend with some fancy driving before pulling up alongside a hunky local, to Carling, where a woman dribbles lager around her flat so her boyfriend cleans the place as he licks it up.

In 2006, man has emerged in ads as perfectly nice, but rather nonplussed.

Take James Nesbitt's male character from the Yell campaign: he is always having to use the directory service to get himself out of a situation his own incompetence has landed him in. Or the recent BT ads, where the central male character is an affable chap, but whose new girlfriend (and her young children) all understand technology far better than he does.

So, do men in ads need to toughen up a bit and get back on top?

Alistair Green, the planning director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, thinks the BT ads are simply operating in a different world. "Ten years ago, advertising was all about aspiration and being male and strong, men doing terribly heroic things - picking up trucks, or helping old women across the road, or just looking good in jeans.

"What has happened over time is that consumers are demanding more relevance to them and something to latch on to. But there's still a balance to be struck between relevance and aspiration. For BT, this is becoming the new Oxo family."

Green describes how BBH took the "Lynx effect" campaign and updated it to fit the more modern idiom. "Pre-BBH, the Lynx effect had really good-looking guys, all big and beautiful and hunky. We changed it into the nerdy guy construct, using the anti-uber male nerd, but positioning him as the hero who always succeeds," he says.

It is not that ads uniformly feature wimpy men who are total losers, just that ... er, modern man is not really sure who he is in the first place, so how can he be spot-on? William Higham, a trend forecaster with The Next Big Thing, observes people's behaviour for clients such as BSkyB and AOL. He points out ads have been reflecting a "flux" in the roles of the sexes since 1969 and Saatchi & Saatchi's famous "pregnant man" ad. "Men in particular are suffering from a kind of identity crisis," Higham says. "They are not sure if they should be providing and not sure of what that now means."

Herve Hannequin, WCRS's head of planning, acknowledges the feminisation of men, but also puts forward a more pragmatic view. He cites "balls", the Sony Bravia ad, which is surprisingly pretty in a category usually considered particularly male. He says: "Either in the 21st century men can respond to slightly more poetic communication, or it's the case that even if you want to sell something to men it's not all about men, it's a joint decision."

But any sign of weakness can be a complete turn-off to some male consumers.

Martin Daubney, the editor of Loaded, says: "Even one wimpish man is one too many. Who are these flakes meant to appeal to? Who is meant to aspire to be one of them?"

Readers of Loaded want a bit more certainty. "They like the same kind of man that most women do: strong, successful, funny, cool guys who bear absolutely no resemblance to these castrated dweebs," Daubney asserts.

Okay, so that is the view from the unreconstructed male bridge, but it is not only held by an insignificant minority. Carat Insight has developed Connect 27, a "classification of UK mindsets" using 10,000 respondents.

A whopping 20 per cent of men, the biggest grouping in the whole classification, are defined in traditional masculine terms, which include "recreationally indulgent", "non-liberal" and "non-feminist".

There have been plenty of calls for men in ads to toughen up a bit. Perhaps the most high-profile move has been by Marian Salzman, the executive vice-president of JWT and a futurologist. Salzman is co-author of The Future of Men, published at the end of last year.

Salzman is credited as the trend-spotter who first promoted the rise of the "metrosexual", which described a new sort of man who aped women's tastes. Now, Salzman argues, is the time of the "ubersexual" man. "Ubersexuals are confident, masculine and stylish, and committed to uncompromising quality in all areas of life," Salzman says.

Jonathan Webb, the director of programming at the male-oriented TV channel Bravo, is a man with a mission. "I feel the media, particularly advertising, but also TV, completely misunderstands men. Advertising to men is either 'ho ho, aren't we thick', men are to take the piss out of, or square-jawed Gillette stereotypes. There has been very little in between."

Some advertisers have certainly grasped the nettle of changing masculinity more readily, perhaps more subtly, than others. The Levi's ads of the 80s starred perfect physical specimens, including Nick Kamen in boxer shorts. Fast-forward through the decades and ads such as "twist" and "odyssey" feature more physically realistic people.

Hannequin notes that even in the traditionally more masculine categories, the increased complexity of maleness has had an impact. "Beer is the ultimate masculine category," he says. "There's probably still an element of badge and the assertion of identity and gender identity, but it's a lot more subtle even than ten years ago. A lot of brands have decided there is a more clever way."

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