Gender socialization is heavily influenced by advertising. Hyper-masculinity appears to be prevalent in advertising content geared at men. Because advertising is a socializing agent, this could be damaging. Hyper-masculinity’s acceptance and idealization in advertising, as well as in our culture as a whole, should be questioned. Many young men are currently taught that being a man entails being aggressive, dangerous, and rough. Instead, we need to train boys and men how to be men in ways that do not harm themselves and others in advertising and everywhere in society. Because hyper-masculine mentality is frequently represented in advertising, it may be escalating the violence against women and other issues.
In this essay, I would like to outline the toxic effects that are often resultant outcomes of portrayal of harmful gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity in advertisements. Advertisements do not always depict men as they are, but rather use socially desirable notions of masculinity to infuse those traits into the product being marketed. Advertisers may couple products with culturally ideal masculine representations like hyper muscular, hyper masculine, powerful and rough and tough male models to increase the attraction of what is being sold. The advertisement’s theme is that by purchasing the product, one’s masculinity can be increased, making one feel and appear stronger, tougher, and more powerful to others. Males may be persuaded to buy the goods if they are concerned about not living up to the defined norm of masculinity because there is so much societal pressure on men to live up to the cultural ideal of masculinity. How does the language used in this advertisement create meaning for the viewers? The advertisements that I have chosen are a vintage advertisement by Van Heusen in the 1950s and all of Axe Body Spray’s general advertising style that is well known to be feeding into toxic masculinity ideals and what they did to change it.
The vintage Van Heusen advertisement was published by Van Heusen in the 1950s a time following the World Wars. This was a time when advertisements flourished in print media, and along with that flourished notions of gendered capabilities of the sexes. The advertisement, clearly being one about ‘ties for men’ had no reason to be sexist, if that was their only motive. One of the first things that catches the eye of the viewer is the tagline, “show her it’s a man’s world”. This is placed right above the man’s face with a smile of arrogance, in exact relation to how the man is placed above the woman here in the advertisement. Kneeling before him is the woman who is supposedly his wife, in a submissive manner with a tray of food; like a slave to their master.
It is important to study this advertisement as this was merely one among an influx of sexist advertisements that prevailed at the time. “During WWII, the women took control of the workforce while the men were off fighting as a result of the need for more laborers. A problem arose then when the soldiers came home. Veterans eventually displaced the majority of women workers, and the traditional idea that ‘a woman’s place was in the home’ gained popular acceptance once the battles were over” (Kearney, 2012, as cited in Stephhana, 2017). The Van Heusen ad here represents the transformative time post war, when the increased level of freedom women enjoyed was suddenly cut off the instant men can back to reclaim their previous jobs; hence forcing women back into the roles that were forcefully assigned to them.
According to me, Van Heusen, to their own detriment, managed to convey exactly what they wished to here. What’s reflective of the line, “show her it’s a man’s world” is the fragility of the male ego. Below the image of the husband and the wife, one can notice the expressions used to describe the ties, such as “man-talking” and “power-packed” that supposedly “tell her it’s a man’s world”. These sorts of descriptions seem almost nonsensical to me as this looks like a panicked, ego-stricken attempt to take back what was once theirs. We can see how fragile the male ego was, power and authority merely being a façade, with their need to gender a piece of clothing as simple as a tie, to assert their dominance once again.
The way I perceive it, with the use of the language and graphics in this advertisement, the need to present ‘men’s ties’ in this manner comes from the fact that ties are what constitutes a work attire. The time of publishment being in the 1950s, and consequent the loss of a sense of identity men experienced due to their wives being able take over their occupations with no difficulty in their absence; the visuals of advertisements played a great role in re-assertion of women being put back in their places. This depiction therefore converts these representations from mere advertisements to promotion of social propaganda in an attempt to preserve the patriarchy. This usage of images and language creates meaning and enforces these meanings into the lengths of society. In this case, an advertisement such as this, aids to sustain the patriarchy, where men are deemed to be ‘naturally’ superior. The assumed ‘naturality’ of this constructed meaning helps to stress that these concepts are unchanging.
Even though advertisements with such explicit depictions of toxic masculinity and sexist connotations do not exist anymore, the society we live in is still not free from the mindsets that revolve around these concepts. The depiction of the relationship between the husband and the wife in this advertisement is very much a reality even in today and ingrained in most cultures around the world. These ideas are often passed on from one generation to the other. This is true because the society that encouraged this form of media in the 1950s, when the advertisement first came out, were responsible in passing these mentalities to their succeeding generations.
21st Century Advertisement
Yet another example I would like to examine is the range of Axe body spray advertisements. With a general target audience of young teenage boys, these advertisements act as prominent socializing agents that make young boys associate their identities with what is portrayed as content ‘for’ them. Axe is known to use the ‘sex appeal’ in their marketing strategy. But such an appeal is utilized by them at the expense of inaccurate depiction of the effect of a mere body spray on relationships, the inaccurate depiction of women and their resultant objectification. In most Axe commercials, the advertisements depict a man at a loss of connection with women, using the body spray because it markets hypermasculinity. Upon using it, swarms of women come to the man, depicted as mere sexual objects. Examples of the ads include one, of a woman who spanks herself with a mannequin arm of a mannequin that was just demo-sprayed, another one being of a woman who is suddenly head over heels for a man who she was previously unattracted to, that is before he sprayed himself with Axe body spray. The Axe advertisements are severely critiqued for their unrealistic depictions of attraction and masculinity. These unhealthy depictions lead to negative consequences in young boys’ minds who use the product, to have negative relationships with rejection and a consequent hyper sexualization of women. To implement this method further, they came up with the ‘Axe Effect’, that anchored ads with these unhealthy conceptualizations for over 20 years.
What Axe did to redeem themselves from their impractical advertising for the past two decades was the release of an advertisement called ‘Find your Magic’ in 2016. It includes everything that goes against the ‘hypermasculine ideal macho man’ stereotypes, with lines and images such as “Who needs a six pack?”, a man who is enjoying dancing in heels, a man with a big nose, a big-bearded man snuggling kittens in a very affectionate manner etc. This video focused on the versatility of men and how the outdated hypermasculine stereotypes enforced on males by other males do not really resonate with a majority of men in society. Axe’s global vice president highlighted about how the portrayal of women as mere sexual objects must be done away with and they should instead be portrayed as active participants in conveying the progressive messages. For example, there are scenes of a boyfriend being driven around by his girlfriend to places; and while that is a normal thing, it was a duly noted scene conveyed by the previously unhealthily hypermasculine brand, by people who watched the advertisements. This turn of events is a positive one and helps change the unhealthy and unrealistic ideas that people have with masculinity and relations with women, and also exposes the younger audiences to a more healthy and positive way of forming their identities.
Also Read: Gender Studies: Overview
Although in general, men are most often than not regarded as the privileged sex, masculinity studies work to raise awareness about the highly overlooked fact that men also suffer from the various stereotypical and restricting prescriptions society has created on what it means to be a “real” man. One of the unifying features between the 1950s and the present day in the ‘maleness’ that is advertised is the undeniable reliance on heteronormative stereotypes. As we have observed that in recent years, LGBTQA+ communities have been able to voice out for themselves and the raising of awareness of their needs has gained momentum, making the need for representation rather crucial. Through the analysis of advertisements of both then and now, advertisers that continue these trends are increasingly met with criticisms for their portrayal of biased male stereotypes. I firmly believe that with the help of social media and the correct utilization of its potential, restrictive barriers defining masculinity and femininity can be gradually broken down, and society can move towards a path that encourages fluidity and diversity of ideas and identities.
Stephhana. (2017, September 28). It’s a Man’s World. TheFuture409. https://thefuture409.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/its-a-mans-world/.