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Underwear ads lose the macho: How marketing embraced real men

These days, more and more advertisers are telling men they don’t need to be the buffest or most interesting man in the world, just themselves.

By: New York Times |
September 9, 2019 12:09:49 pm
Screengrab from the Hanes ad.

By Tiffany Hsu

Are you a man who plays dress-up with your daughter? Do you enjoy bowling, and are you terrible at it? Do you have hopes and dreams and insecurities and flaws and a belly that looks more like baked Alaska than Hawaiian rolls?

You, sir, could be an underwear model.

A number of ads for briefs, boxers and other products aimed at men have lately turned away from old notions of square-jawed masculinity.

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In a Hanes commercial that made its debut last month, “Every Bod,” a wide range of men perform an elaborate musical number in their skivvies.

A recent Jockey commercial focused on a man getting emotional as he described his battle with alcohol and drugs.

The underwear brand Pair of Thieves made a hilariously awkward “cool dad” the star of a commercial for socks.

Other clothing companies have also turned away from the stereotypical imagery once common in underwear ads. Campaigns from Play Out Apparel and GFW Clothing show models of unclear gender, while a diverse crew appears in a promotion for TomboyX that includes hashtags like “#genderless” and “#androgyny.”

“There are male brands and women brands,” said Katie Martell, a marketing consultant. “But progressive brands see that the future is on the spectrum.”

The emphasis on men with ordinary bodies and others who don’t fit tired stereotypes seems like progress for an industry that, a decade ago, featured a shirtless hunk scented with Old Spice. These days, more and more advertisers are telling men they don’t need to be the buffest or most interesting man in the world, just themselves.

“The possibility of change begins with this sort of foundation,” said Scott A. Lukas, a professor who created the Gender Ads Project, which examines advertising imagery with an eye toward what it says about notions of gender.

Schick got on board with a commercial that told potential customers, “It takes a man to be yourself.” And Dollar Shave Club echoed the theme with a commercial that showed one man playing video games on the toilet and another shaving his legs while in full makeup to a soundtrack of Steve Lawrence crooning “I Gotta Be Me.”

The challenging of stereotypical notions of gender has been a feature of marketing campaigns aimed at women at least as far back as Nike’s “If you let me play” campaign in 1995. Dove’s “Real Beauty” ads, of more recent vintage, also functioned as a critique of ads that placed women in categories like “bimbo” or “housewife.”

The revised approach has had its detractors, though, especially when the ads contain mixed messages. Wrangler’s “More than a bum” campaign, from 2016, drew the wrath of critics who said it paid lip service to feminist ideals while reinforcing outdated ideas of what it means to be a woman. Other companies have been accused of engaging in insincere “femvertising” while blocking women from leadership roles.

As marketers reconsider manliness, recent ads have promoted fathers who braid their daughter’s hair (Pantene), cry at their weddings (Travelers) and apply eyeliner (Just for Men). The clothing company Bonobos has urged men to “#evolvethedefinition” of masculinity.

Axe’s “bathsculinity” commercials, created by the 72andSunny agency, feature a man soaking in a bubble bath while musing that “tingle” is “not the manliest word, not like ‘machete’ or ‘hand grenade.’ ”

Such ads are variations on a news-making, #MeToo-influenced commercial from Gillette earlier this year that was critical of toxic male behaviours like brawling, bullying, catcalling and mansplaining.

While that 1:49-second spot had its fans, it also inspired a backlash, receiving criticism from the Fox News show “Fox & Friends,” media personality Piers Morgan, actor James Woods and thousands of others who clicked the thumbs-down icon on YouTube. A watch company, Egard Watches, went so far as to counter Gillette’s message with an ad of its own that said, “We see the good in men.”

Late-night host Stephen Colbert came down somewhere in the middle, saying that, while he was “sincerely moved” by the Gillette commercial, he was wary of the tendency among corporations to sell products through “moral lessons.”

Martell, the marketing consultant, also struck a note of skepticism to describe message-heavy campaigns. “It’s virtue hustling and it’s woke-washing,” she said. “And it’s trendy. Advertising has been so mired in stereotypes and tropes about men and women that anything that looks like reality is celebrated right now.”

Some observers said that the new style in ads for men’s products might not really be intended for a male audience. “I bet it’s women,” said Lisa Wade, a sociologist specializing in gender at Occidental College, who noted that women do much of the spending on such products.

“That’s what women are craving right now,” Wade continued, “because of their uniquely exploited and objectified status in American society. It’s about money, the bottom line — the people behind these ads are feeding into some kind of cultural desire.”

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