Images of Men in Advertising


This article originally appeared in Issue# 48

"What is a man?"

This may seem like an odd question to be asking, but it's one that's answered all the time in print ads and television commercials. Ads and commercials, with their images of cowboys, successful businessmen, construction workers, sophisticates in tuxedos, muscle men and others, advertisements may seem to be flashing by casually. But they actually represent countless – if often unconscious– decisions by writers, advertisers, producers, programmers and others about what men look like, say and even think.

As each ad answers the questions: "What images of men will sell my product to men? To women?" They shape viewers' images of men as well. Stale Roles and Tight Buns, a video and slide-show project of the men's cooperative OASIS (Men Organized Against Sexism and Institutionalized Stereotypes), freeze-frames these images for a closer look at what they say about contemporary cultural constructions of masculinity.

Advertising narrows the definition of what it means to be a man.

According to the advertising archetypes presented, men are in charge, self-contained and often alone. When shown with other men, they seem ready to unleash their aggression at any moment. When shown with women, they must be dominant. The male body can be used to sell any product, but whatever the fashion, the air of aloofness and barely controlled power is palpable.

Chosen from among the thousands of selections in mainstream media by OASIS volunteers, these images of men from hardhats building dams to captains of industry rewarding themselves with the best whiskey– are powerful and disturbing. Only a few more recent ads focus on men in families, men with children, or men shown in partnership with women or other men.

In general, these concentrated views of manhood suggest the many ways in which advertising negatively affects men by narrowing the definition of what it means to be a man in American society. Upon re-viewing them I realized anew how much the role of the strong, silent, authoritarian, militaristic and threatening male pervades societal ideals. Although it's neither realistic nor a positive role to emulate, it also shapes men's views of themselves and how they measure up to masculine role models.

Typically, my students at California State University/San Bernardino have a difficult time learning to step back and analyze these images. Although they may be familiar with the issues presented by women's liberation, the concept of men reacting against male social roles is a radical new idea. Innovative programs like this video and slide show can certainly help.

Fortunately, although the creators of Stale Roles do give scope to the stereotypes, they didn't stop there. A few advertisers have begun to concentrate on another view of masculinity by portraying images of men who are gentle, caring, sensitive– even able to hold babies. Such images offer alternative social roles for men unwilling or unable to restrict themselves to the role of the strong, silent loner on horseback. Instead, they affirm the idea that men, like women, experience a broad range of feelings and emotions.

Stale Roles' primary value, then, is as a tool that uses the media itself to strip away the mask that society has insisted men wear. The recognition that men need not deny their feelings and pretend to be something other than what they really are is the first step toward more complete images of men. Only when we understand ourselves can we demand that this understanding be reflected in the media.

NOTE: Produced in the late 1980's Stale Roles and Tight Buns is no longer available, except perhaps in video libraries. The ideas in the video and in this review, however, are fundamental to critical analysis of male images in advertising and are still useful today.

Author Bio: 

Tom Nakayama is Professor of Communication and Director of Asian Pacific American Studies at Arizona State University. He is an affiliate faculty of Women's Studies and Justice and Social Inquiry. He has held visiting positions at the University of Iowa, University of Maine, and was a Fulbright scholar at the Universite de Mon-Hainaut in Belgium.