How Advertisers Woke Up to the Aesthetic of New Masculinity

Gone are the days of the testosterone-fuelled he-man displaying the benefits of shaving cream, cigarettes and man-soup. The gendered norms of masculinity are changing and the approaches of the ad-makers are changing right along with it.

ASOS, Go Play, 2017
ASOS, Go Play, 2017

It’s no secret that advertising has been a man’s world from the beginning. Anyone who has seen Mad Men knows that. The ads of this era (1960s and ’70s) presented gender as a dichotomy; women were sensitive and submissive, as shown in campaigns like the Playboy shoe ad captioned “Keep Her Where She Belongs”, and the super-creepy advert from cosmetics brand Love’s Baby Soft. In contrast, men were strong and independent—think The Marlboro Man, Cadbury’s Milktray Man or Campbell’s Manhandlers. Men valued power and dominance, while women wanted nothing more than a hoover for Christmas.

This wasn’t entirely the fault of ad-makers; their strict binary gender roles reflected everyday reality, and appealing to the zeitgeist sells. But the zeitgeist, it is a-changing. Over the last couple of years, with the emergence of #MeToo and #Time’sUp, the more traditional representation of masculinity has come to be labelled “toxic”. In response, many are calling for a step away from media portrayals of traditional gender roles and stereotypes, hoping that this will contribute to the end of widespread harmful masculine ideals and messages of misogyny in day-to-day life.

Brands have responded and the reactions to many recent advertising campaigns aimed at women have been positive. Ads such as Sport England’s This Girl Can, Bodyform’s Libra La Vulva and, most recently, the RAF’s No Room for Clichés and Nike’s Dream Crazier, show a new kind of femininity, poles apart from the infantilisation of Love’s Baby Soft. However, a recent study by media brand, The Book of Man, found that sixty-nine per-cent of men continue to feel misrepresented by brands.

In January, shaving brand Gillette attempted to address this in its campaign, The Best a Man Can Be, which argued that men needed to stand together against years of toxic masculinity and its negative consequences. The brand’s contribution, however, was met with the furious chanting of that inescapable phrase, “Not All Men”, and the ad quickly made its way onto YouTube’s top twenty most disliked videos of all time.

“Much more successful are the brands who concentrate on catering for the possibilities of masculinity outside of its ‘toxic’ past”

While Gillette’s sentiments should certainly be applauded, it’s not difficult to see why it failed to click with viewers. Its muted colours and humdrum homeliness create an aesthetic reminiscent of the 1990s Neighbours sitcom, while the outdated laughter track feels grating. These features, along with the flashback to its own original advert designs and shots of a black-and-white cartoon, seem intended to emphasize that the attitudes and actions that they’re condemning are obsolete and have to stop. The effect, however, is that the campaign feels irrelevant, and sermon-like in its preachiness.

Much more successful are the brands who concentrate on catering for the possibilities of masculinity outside of its “toxic” past. They focus on rebutting the physical ideal of tall, dark and handsome (and ripped), which has recurred in adverts for brands such as male cosmetics company Old Spice, as well as on non-conforming expressions of gender and identity, through the fashions, adornments and beautification that have long been the domain of women.

Fashion brands in particular have capitalised on this focus on a new masculine aesthetic. SuitSupply’s visually arresting SS18 campaign featured male model couples kissing and embracing, while January’s London Fashion Week Men’s AW19 saw male models walking down the catwalk wearing bright red lipstick, vivid eyeshadows, skirts and fluffy slippers. Pose actor Billy Porter attended the 2019 Oscars in a velvet tuxedo ballgown by Christian Siriano.

ASOS’ Go Play campaign for its face and body makeup is an excellent example of how brands are able to subvert traditional binary roles simply by refusing to make a big deal about gender. Concluding with the tagline, “Endless Ways to Be You”, the advert is about individual self-expression, and underscores that not conforming to masculine stereotypes can bring a new appreciation of what it means to be beautiful. The attitude filters into the visuals of the campaign itself—advertising becomes much more interesting when we acknowledge that men like pretty things too. Crucially, unlike Gillette, ASOS’s campaign feels playful with bright colours (and glitter!) in modern settings. There’s not a preachy tone anywhere in earshot, merely a representation of the new normal.

In the last couple of years, Lynx (“Axe” outside the UK) has made an abrupt about turn from its go-to depiction of women falling at the feet of a man with one squirt of an aerosol, and is now one of the brands most consistently producing content which challenges hyper-masculinity. Its 2017 adverts, Find Your Magic and Is It Okay for Guys…, focused on presenting a more mature masculinity; refuting traditional claims of what men had to be, and instead displaying the myriad ways men can express themselves.

“Advertising becomes much more interesting when we acknowledge that men like pretty things too”

Showing Gillette how it’s done, Lynx’s 2019 ASMR tutorials are actively hilarious. The ad’s knowing, wry satire refers to the recent online fondness for ASMR in which certain sounds are intended to create tingling sensations in the body of the viewer. This is coupled with the format of the much-loved Youtube beauty tutorial, as, in a whisper, the protagonist invites men to imagine that they’re putting on a “foamy brassiere,” before shaving his chest according to tips that he learned from his mother (“thanks mum”). At its core is a harnessing of the power of a certain sensitivity, a traditionally feminine attribute that the advert makes clear it is okay for men to reclaim.

Crucial to the appeal of this ad is its body positivity. The leading man is no Terry Crews or Isaiah Mustafa, but this doesn’t stop him getting naked in front of a camera and telling the world about his methods for shaving his “bean bag”. It is a quiet self-assurance, one that doesn’t have to resort to the laddish behaviour or domineering authority that is all too often associated with masculine confidence. It is the acknowledgement of a new masculine aesthetic in advertising, one which finds beauty in colour, humour and “dad bods”.