Why brands need to change their approach to marketing masculinity
A view from Joseph Gelfer

Why brands need to change their approach to marketing masculinity

Old-fashioned ideals of masculinity is damaging for men's wellbeing and society as a whole, which means brands need to shift their focus, writes Joseph Gelfer.

The past couple of years have seen a significant shift in the way marketing and advertising portray masculinity. Previously, masculinity was mostly presented in one of two ways: either a glamorous James Bond-style masculinity that attracted ‘the ladies’, or a buffoon-style masculinity that was firmly under the wifely thumb. Thankfully, and somewhat belatedly, things are beginning to change.

All brands need to do their part in making the world a better place

The most obvious example of this change is the Axe/Lynx campaign "Find Your Magic" which sought to show different forms of masculinity, whether it be a guy in heels, driving a tired old car or using a wheelchair. Similarly, the recent Dove Men+Care campaign promoted different role models for men and masculinity. All of this is great, but it still feels like men are being given limited options: either they fulfil the traditional stereotype, or they have the kind of alternatives offered by these campaigns, which are mostly based on a rather rudimentary idea of complementing traditional masculine values with traditional feminine values such as nurturing and sensitivity.

Brands need to reappraise masculinity for two equally important reasons: one altruistic, the other self-serving. The altruistic reason is that traditional masculinity causes problems, whether it be its impact on men’s wellbeing or on women and their equal representation in society. All brands need to do their part in making the world a better place, so looking at masculinity can really be seen as part of corporate social responsibility efforts. The self-serving reason is that masculinity is constantly shifting and brands need an equally agile response in order to engage with consumers and remain relevant and competitive. By repeating tired clichés or offering alternatives of only limited imagination, brands are in danger of failing on both these fronts. How do we bring more detail to this process and do greater justice to the diversity of masculinity?

The Five Stages of Masculinity

The Five Stages of Masculinity is a new way of thinking about masculinity: in short, it’s a map of the different ways people perceive and understand masculinity. In the context of advertising and marketing, it can be thought of as The Five Segments of Masculinity, or a tool for psychographic segmentation. Distilled to its most basic level, the five stages (or segments) are as follows.

Stage 1 is defined as "unconscious masculinity", which means that traditional masculinity has been adopted by someone without them even thinking about it. People at Stage 1 are living their lives according to what they perceive to be "common sense" or "intuition" and do not actively address masculinity, perhaps because they are too busy surviving, or just don’t have the required critical thinking skills.

Stage 2 is defined as "conscious masculinity", which means that traditional masculinity has been consciously adopted by someone. People at Stage 2 look to various "proofs" of masculinity, such as historical evidence, biological determinism or even holy books.

Stage 3 is defined as "critical masculinities" and is largely aligned with feminist thought. People at Stage 3 are aware that society is often patriarchal and homophobic and want to counter these problems. They also tend to believe that masculinity is not biologically determined, rather socially constructed.

Stage 4 is defined as "multiple masculinities" and suggests that masculinity can mean anything to anyone. People at Stage 4 share many of the concerns of those at Stage 3, but they are less burdened by guilt from the problems caused by masculinity, and focus more on the freedom to be who they want to be.

Stage 5 is defined as "beyond masculinities" and proposes the simple truth that masculinity does not exist. People at Stage 5 understand how masculinity operates at the other stages, but ultimately believe it to be an illusion that society has created to keep people in line.

Reflecting or Guiding?

Each of these stages can be expanded to reveal various subgroups. Each stage understands masculinity differently. Each stage has its own challenges and opportunities. If advertisers and marketers are segmenting an audience for a product aimed at men, figuring out the stage (and subgroup) of the target audience is probably a more meaningful way of understanding it than other more traditional methods of segmentation.

Masculinity is complex and continually evolving and we must have thinking tools that reflect this complexity

The question then becomes, are you reflecting your target audience or are you guiding it? If you are reflecting your audience you need a message that resonates with its particular stage. If you are guiding an audience you need a message that points to the next stage. For example, before the recent campaign, Lynx was arguably reflecting a Stage 2 audience. However, Lynx now appears to be guiding its audience to Stage 3. There is another less generous way of thinking about this: it may be that "guiding" is simply a euphemism for product repositioning, and moving from one audience to another (only those strategizing a campaign can know the ultimate truth behind this)

The Five Stages of Masculinity offers a more granular way of thinking about men as both individuals and consumers. Masculinity is complex and continually evolving and we must have thinking tools that reflect this complexity. We also need to stay humble and remember what is actually driving change in this domain. In other words, advertising does not change masculinity; masculinity changes advertising


Joseph Gelfer is director of Masculinity Research (http://www.masculinityresearch.com). His books include Masculinities in a Global Era (Springer Science+Business Media, 2014) and Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy (Routledge, 2009).