Want to talk to modern men in advertising? First, you need to listen


Alec Doherty
30 October 2017
Reading Time
6 minute read


In partnership with

Harry’s was created to be different from other brands, making high-quality grooming supplies by real guys, for real guys.

It’s Nice That and Harry’s are partnering to challenge what being “a man” actually means. Last week, we hosted a life drawing event and exhibition that celebrates the diversity of the male form. Makings of a Man saw us bring together top creative talent and the It’s Nice That audience, to champion the qualities that make every man unique.

Martin Daubney is an award-winning editor, journalist and broadcaster who is considered the go-to voice on masculinity and men’s issues in the British media. In 2016 he co-founded the Men & Boys Coalition, and was recently co-author of the Harry’s Masculinity Report, the UK’s biggest ever academic survey into modern masculinity. Below he discusses how the portrayal of men and masculinity has been continually misinterpreted and highlights the work being done to overcome this.

There was a time, not so long ago, when big companies and their creative teams talked to men via advertisements in a language we all understood. Ads were cheeky, often politically incorrect, and sold us the basic dreams of being sexier, funnier and perhaps slightly less pathetic.

Today, in a world where the fear of offending somebody, somewhere has never been greater – and masculinity is often held up as the root of all evil – that nuance has gone.

Today, with very few exceptions, “ad man” falls roughly into two camps: perfect, or pathetic. At the perfect end of the spectrum, where you can almost taste the testosterone, we have “hunkvertising,” starring elite athletes, millionaires, celebrities and male models.

Men like David Gandy – the high prince of one-dimensional success symbols – pornographically display their perfect bodies in cologne ads, causing great swathes of the male population to suck in their midriffs in collective despair. Yes, now it’s our turn to be objectified, and cue the sound of the world’s smallest violins from women, who’ve suffered this since the 50s.

To prove they’re in touch with their inner metrosexual – yet still formidably heterosexual, right lads! – Premier League footballers smear full-sleeve tattoos with Nivea, or masterfully apply Head & Shoulders.

For decades, there has been the constant, success-shaming message of Gillette: “the best a man can get”. But in an internet age where you can instantly find somebody buffer, hotter and richer on Instagram, what man can be – or even wants to be – “the best?” More to the point, what does “the best” even mean in 2017?

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the bumbling buffoons of “dadvertising”. Cue the Asda dad who ruins Christmas by burning the family turkey, as his super heroine wife rolls her eyes, before saving the day. Or the hapless half-wit in the ClearScore ad whose dog is more competent at securing his personal credit score.

Neither of these narrow takes on masculinity is obtainable: few can ever be the “hunk,” and nobody wants to be the losers of “crap dad ad”.

To confuse matters further, in a desperate bid to carve out difference and scream “hey, we’re progressive, guys!” we’ve seen huge men’s brands performing some of the biggest U-turns in advertising history.

There is no bigger example of this than Lynx deodorant, or Axe as it’s masterfully called in the USA. For 20 years, Lynx’s laddish “spray more, get more” message was about as subtle as a Glasgow kiss. Then, out of the blue, the brand dabbled with transgender politics.

Choosing the most testosterone-drenched (and expensive) ad slot on the planet – the Super Bowl Final half-time – Axe unleashed its
Find Your Magic campaign. Starring a big-nosed “geek,” a gay male couple, a man in a wheelchair and a transgender black man dancing in stilettos, it certainly ticked all the diversity boxes.

But the regular guys – the vast majority of the fee-paying public, lest we forget – had been airbrushed from existence as advertisers deserted masculinity’s middle ground.

"Lynx’s laddish “spray more, get more” message was about as subtle as a Glasgow kiss."

– Martin Daubney

This is doubly confusing as the big women’s brands have consistently been getting it spot on. By rejecting perfection and embracing body diversity, Dove, a $200m bit-player in the women’s soap brands in the 1990s is now a $4bn colossus, driven by its consumer-centric “campaign for real beauty”.

Yet there has been scant few examples of a corresponding brand message for men. Sure, Dove has dabbled with a more progressive masculinity online. In 2015 its Dove Men+Care range mined the “dads as heroes” trope with the #RealStrength video.

This “dads as primary carers” message is undeniably sweet – and won huge support from women – but, to put it crudely, where are advertising’s DILFs? Today’s heroes of a more progressive masculinity are out there in the real world if you look hard enough.

In my journalistic work I’ve trawled the world looking for the most inspiring modern masculine role models, and the closest I came to perfection was in Stockholm. In Sweden – where men have been empowered for over 40 years to be equal parents via the country’s brilliant shared parental leave system – stay at home dads, called “latte papas,” stride the parks like statuesque, lumbersexual Vikings.

Bushy of beard, skinny of jean and pushing buggies or wearing papooses that are additions to, not deductions from, their masculinity, they are the equality-movement-where-everybody-wins made flesh. But I don’t see men like this anywhere in advertising. In fact, where are the men, period, in advertising for baby products?

Part of the problem is that the previous, narrow definition of masculinity has expanded. Progressive, modern men (and especially millennials) are junking the bits of masculinity that no longer work – such as sexism and stoicism – and embracing new bits, such as realising the importance of their mental health, while becoming more relaxed about gender roles.

So when Harry’s, an American grooming company, decided to launch in the UK, the first thing they decided to do was take a temperature test of where British men are at.

To do that, they teamed up with University College London and commissioned the biggest-ever academic report into British masculinity, speaking to over 2000 men aged 18-85. Published this week, it’s called the Harry’s Masculinity Report.

Athleticism – attaining the perfect body, the key thrust of so much of the male grooming sector – was the least desired of all core values, with a mere 7.42% ranking it as very important.

Instead, top of the list of core values were selfless qualities such as reliability and dependability, with 97% of men saying these were moderately to very important to them. British men value health highly, but as a supplementary benefit to mental health, as opposed to a shallow, one-dimensional solution to happiness.

This decline of the “manly man” and rise of a more emotionally literate, caring man is the precise opposite of how today’s big grooming advertisers set out their stall.

You can’t hope to own this new space without proving it, which is why the Harry’s Masculinity Report is being launched in Parliament on 16 November 2017, and we are calling for cross-party action on men’s mental health. The ethos is “if we expect male customers to care about us, we’ve got to prove we care about them”.

Harry’s flipped the telescope. Says Harry’s co-founder Jeff Raider: “The study means that we can speak to men confidently in the knowledge that we aren’t alienating them and making them feel they have "be the best” to be a success. Better is achievable, being the best is harder”.

The Harry’s Masculinity Report proved that British have moved on: now are the other brands ready to do the same?

Harry’s was created to be different from other grooming brands, standing apart from the big brands that overdesign and overcharge. Harry’s makes high quality grooming supplies that are made by real guys, for real guys.

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