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NO GIRLS allowed

Marketers give the hurting male something to hold onto

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Men still wincing from the recession are being offered an unlikely salve for their psychic pain: shopping.

From house paint to soft drinks, whisky to wheels, consumer products of every stripe are being framed as the embodiment of masculinity.

Dr. Pepper Ten, for example, lifts its no-girls-allowed pitch straight from the Little Rascals clubhouse, positioning the diet soda as the antidote to chick flicks, decorum and "lady drinks."

It's a heavy burden to place on eight ounces of carbonated water. But experts say the strategy makes sense in light of recent cultural shifts that continue to challenge traditional assumptions about masculinity.

Canadian employment rates suggest men lost nearly three times as many jobs as women during the economic downturn, while women's earning levels saw a growth rate double that of men's between 2000 and 2008.

At the same time, men have amplified their presence in the home, with nearly three-quarters helping with early child care (compared to 57 per cent in 1986) and 59 per cent participating in core housework (up from 40 per cent in 1986).

The macho marketing zeitgeist is seen, by some, as a way of tapping males who are struggling to reconcile those changing roles.

"It speaks to the anxiety about what it means to be a man," says Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox. "But it's not an appeal to strength; it's an appeal to vulnerability -- a way for men to reclaim some masculine space so women can't compete."

The ads don't so much sell merchandise as the idea behind it: that this guy may be frying the bacon instead of bringing it home, but he still drinks from the milk carton and cranks the volume to 11.

Canada's CIL Paints just launched its first "paint colours for men" collection, rebranding popular household hues with more manly names: Butterscotch Tempest, for example, becomes Beer Time; Juliet's Potion is now Zombie Apocalypse; and Venetian Turquoise has been dubbed Bro Code.

Dr. Pepper's "It's not for women" tagline is designed to get males to rethink diet pop, which market research suggested was perceived by that cohort as too girlie.

Ads for the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle feature a male driver high-fiving and fist-bumping strangers he encounters on the street. And Wiser's whisky, a product of Corby Distilleries Ltd. in Ontario, has won awards for its "Society of Uncompromising Men" series, which depicts dudes rebelling against such apparent cruelties as holding a woman's purse while she shops.

Katz describes the collective result as a "caricature of manliness." And indeed, not everyone is buying in.

"Economic shifts (are) adversely affecting men's domination over women," says Toby Miller, a gender studies scholar at the University of California-Riverside.

"But guys still make a lot more for the same work as women, on average. They still dominate politics. They still dominate sports. The pain shouldn't be too bad. Buck up, chaps."

Jeffrey Hall, a communications and gender scholar, notes that economic data show the men hardest hit by the recession were those in the lowest socioeconomic classes. In other words, not the ones with the disposable income to "worry about the type of skin care they're using."

To that end, Hall says there's nothing deeper afoot than advertising's long tradition of using gender stereotypes to shill product.

"The success of Axe Body Spray is great example of how a hyper-masculine, highly sexualized campaign allows (a brand) to capture a new market segment," says Hall, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas. "I think this is more of a cosmetic shift than a real shift in social trends."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2011 A2

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