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Thursday 18 April 2019
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Commentary

Understanding men

It’s a man’s world; you wouldn’t understand, Stag’s advertising has been telling Caribbean women for years.

Well, the message really is one targeted to men about the idea of our masculinity; and fundamental to it is women’s incapacity for understanding. But it’s not just the notion of separate sexual spheres (there are things women too eagerly assert men will never get). In some ads (one placed on a Solomon Hochoy Highway overpass) the slogan was used to legitimise reckless drinking to cope with a negative experience.

Last year, in the middle of the CPL cricket competition, Stag’s partner brand, Carib (more familiar in the worlds of women and people older than Stag’s existence) counselled us to hit any annoying wives and girlfriends for six, and get back to the cricket. They later apologised. The year before, their social media page responded when newspaper editors placed on their front page leaked photos of a uniformed special reserve policewoman, foot cocked up on a blue couch, and promptly suspended without pay. A meme of a Carib bottle reclined on a blue couch was posted, stilettoed legs in the air, getting a leg up on its competition.

Marketing science is supposed to be knowing what sells. So consumer appeals that reinforce what is increasingly labelled as “toxic masculinity” (it’s a big and debated basket, but clearly things like drink to drunk, lash people, and be unaccountable to women fit) probably aren’t doing so entirely out of bad mind and woman-hating values. It’s probably some conviction that this is good for business.

So folks on the Womantra page were understandably disbelieving this week when Stag’s #LiveRight ads showing men touching other men and older women appeared in newspapers below the tagline: Things will only get worse when good men do nothing. A black-and-white video airing in prime time, in which no beer bottles appear, talks about masculine uprightness, sacrifice, and being “fierce protectors of all women,” because “that’s what being a man is all about.”

Stag’s masculinity marketing makeover occurred the same week US razor-maker Gillette had a reinvention of their own. They pivoted from their slogan of 30 years The Best A Man Can Get to The Best Men Can Be.

It’s an explicitly articulated social marketing campaign against toxic masculinity — “to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette. In the ads we run, the images we publish to social media, the words we choose.” Because “brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture” and “we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.” “Let’s do it together,” they urged, “inviting all men along this journey with us…to help each other be better,” announcing $3 million in donations, and launching their own motivational video.

Almost a million YouTube viewers have given it the thumbs down, many pledging to buy other razors. “Virtue-signalling from corporations,” Meghan McCain dismissed the effort on The View. Gillette’s “good man” campaign seems thoughtful. And risky. But unlike the cleverness and irreverence of their toxic ads, Stag’s “good men” print ads look and feel lazy, or worse, like government messages. Their video is preachy.

“You don’t look like you could hit nobody” was the first response from readers to my November column where I related a kitchen conversation with a brother about masculinity and violence. My point was that violence is such an ordinary part of our lives.

I complained that this idea of being “good men” is a non-starter in addressing intimate-partner violence and the masculinity that drives it. That instead, men owning our violence and our capacity for it is critical to change. As a way to depathologise, and therefore engage with it. When we were shaming people for having unsafe sex, I argued, we didn’t get very far with HIV prevention.

Last year at a Coalition Against Domestic Violence strategic planning event, my friends Peter Weller and Gabrielle Hosein argued about whether we change men’s behaviour or we change the culture, systems and ideology that legitimate toxic masculinity.

What I know (and Gillette must too by now) is that we don’t change culture by all lining up to say “Be a good man.” Especially in a society where we routinely see unjust people rewarded, and know Stag’s line that honesty and truth “always count for more” is bull.

So, enough of the good men narratives. Until we create spaces where guys can be honest about not being “good” men, men aren’t likely to do the hard work of exploring other options.

That’s where I think we need to invest our efforts at change. In creating those spaces. In understanding where men are: the places the old Stag ads recognised. Not in imagining where we’d like us to be.

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