Understanding How Advertising Manipulates Men


As a small business owner, the more you understand advertising, the better you can start to use it effectively for your own business.

This is a broad 3,300 word introduction into the warped world of gender marketing, focusing on the emotional psychology, perceptions and triggers advertising and nature have downloaded into men. When you think about advertising, you probably think about materials tailored towards women, since ladies shop and consume more than men. Right? Isn’t that stereotype accurate?

Let me remind you of the famous line from Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club: 

We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.

There’s no doubt advertising teaches females from a young age about the importance of fashion and consumption, but women don’t actually spend more money than men. Yes, females do spend more on clothing and grooming products, but males spends far more on food, alcohol and entertainment. Also, as you’ve seen in your news feed recently, there are jobs where men’s wages are higher than women. So based on this notion, I assume the male species has more money to spend.

As a small business owner in our current social media era, you have to either hire a social media agency to manage your marketing, or you have to become your own marketer. As advertising continues to eat away time of your day from clicking away from pop-up ads, to commercials that interrupt your online video viewing, advertising isn’t going away – it’s only becoming more intelligent and annoying. It’s also becoming the lifeblood of many online businesses. Think about all the podcasts that are supported by advertisements instead of subscribers. Think about all the free video series you watch, free blogs you read and free social media platforms you access daily, all without costing you a cent. How do you expect these daily freebies to continue to exist? You have to accept the need and hindrance of advertising.

So, as a small business owner, the more you're educated about marketing and advertising, the better you can approach your customers. You can use what’s worked in the past, or if you disagree, we live in a time where the conversation can be changed and you can craft a strategy that allows you to tailor your message towards men.

Advertising Is Not Reality, It’s Art That Creates Reality

Before we dig into how your small business can start marketing towards men, let’s clarify something. Advertising isn’t about painting reality as it is. It’s about creating art, that shapes reality. Without advertising you wouldn’t be reading this on a phone or computer. Without advertising you wouldn’t be wearing the clothes you’re wearing or drinking the beverage you might have next to you. Advertising is the communication vessel that has told you do this, don’t do that.

Oddly enough, advertising is found in nature among the cornucopia of species. Australian Peacock spiders use their colors to attract mates. Flowers use their hues and scents to attract or deceive pollinators. Birds sing songs to advertise food. Dolphins use echolocation to communicate teamwork, and rattlesnakes shake their rattle, advertising to you what’s hiding around the corner. Are they poisonous or not? You can’t tell if the advertisement is real or fake, but you’re not going to risk it to find out are you?

Market Segmentation

If you’re selling to males, you have to start thinking about ways to convince them you can solve their problems, while piggybacking on the marketing tactics that have been used on men for decades. Market segmentation is the name of the game. Group men into pools that will buy what you’re selling, and disqualify everyone else. Big advertising agencies know how to pool men together, and they know where and when to poke and prod all the vulnerable areas of the male mind. They know when to build men up, framing them on a gold pedestal and they know when to demoralize and illustrate them as weak little boys, being scolded by a pot-belly coach.

My favorite line on market segmentation is from Perry Marshall, who uses a term called, “Racking the Shotgun.” This metaphor is fundamentally based on the idea that you should only sell your product to people who are less intelligent than you. It sounds harsh, but later in this article I’ll put this idea on segmentation in a positive light.

Segmenting Levels of Masculinity

Grouping men into one large pool is pointless, unless you’re selling condoms. The only thing all men share is their reproductive parts. And if you think you can group men into large age groups such as millennials, good luck with that. Millennials range from 18-34 and you don’t need too much marketing knowledge to know the values and priorities of a 21-year-old versus a 31-year-old are very different.

Let’s play a quick game to understand segmenting better: Think about what a 25-year-old male cage fighter looks like. Now think about what a 25-year-old male video game designer looks like.

It’s highly likely you imagined the cage fighter to be shirtless and muscular with a few battle scars, while the video game designer was thin, wore glasses and a t-shirt with some witty science fiction reference. You imagined one man to be more masculine because he appears to be loaded with more testosterone and portrays what advertising defines as masculine. Can you start to see that advertising has shaped your reality, perceptions and thoughts?

Now, if you were trying to sell to these guys, do you think they might have different wants and desires? Maybe they have some different pains that need solutions? Other than their gender, age and their need for air, food and water to survive, would you put these two guys into the same pool? No, you wouldn’t. They’re two very different people. But, both guys have been ingrained with the same ideologies of what a man should be according to advertising.

Illusions Advertising Has Exploited in Men

Since advertising started showing men as cowboys smoking cigarettes in canyon country, to showing men with zero body-hair on a boat, alluring gorgeous women with their cologne – men have been painted in different lights. But there’s 2 themes that have remained consistent in advertising, which compose the core message always being - men are superior to women.

Theme: Men Control Women

Go watch any nature documentary, and somewhere during the film you will come across a species where the male is king. He doesn’t have one queen, he has many. He fights other males to prove he’s the alpha and advertises his toughness with teeth, claws or some behavioral movement. Remember, advertising is in nature and advertising professionals know how to exaggerate this.

This documentary scene where men are superior, is copied and reinforced in multimedia to inform men this is the norm and way of life. Ads tell men they are dominant, and women are inferior. From beer ads where women are merely sexual objects, to clothing ads where a well-dressed man is crawling with attractive women, to the football player surrounded by cheerleaders, to many genres of music videos where a guy singer is surrounded by female dancers.

This ideology of women being inferior aligns deeply into the primary thing that sells in advertising, sex. In ads, men are portrayed as being dominant. They are on-top and in control of the woman who lays there and happily obeys. Never do you see mainstream advertising tailored for men, showing the woman in control.

You likely see an ad everyday which portrays men as superior to women. Females are illustrated to be objects, not humans who play on the same field as men. We can start to see how the glass ceiling and equality issues are created and supported here, which is fueled strongly by the advertising illusion that men are smarter than women.

Theme: Men Are Smarter

In advertising, men are shown as being more knowledgeable than women, always having the right answer to the problem. They are portrayed as being the boss – the executive with the brains and power, and women are secretaries only mentally capable of making phone calls and getting coffee. In ads men are heavily portrayed as being smarter than women, unless it’s a cartoon, sitcom or comedy. This is when it will flip and the man will be portrayed as an imbecile and the woman will be the “smarter” one, who is gullible and compassionate enough to tolerate his stupidity.

By force-feeding the male ego that he is superior and has a higher IQ than all women has been shown across the buffet of advertising multimedia. From vintage ads that illustrate women as being clumsy housewives burning cookies, to modern beer commercials where women are reading children’s books – advertising tells men that women are incapable of simple tasks, elevated intelligence and are dependant on men to open jars and their very survival. But as concrete as men appear in advertising, in reality they have their soft spots.

4 Vulnerable Areas Advertising Exploits in Men

Guys Are Born with Blue-Collar DNA

There’s a flat-tire in a snowstorm? No problem. Pull out the jack and tire-iron. It’s time to be manly. From a young age, men are told from advertising and authority figures that they should never panic and should always be able to handle whatever situation arises, efficiently and effectively. When in reality, most of the time guys are winging it. In reality they don’t know what is wrong with the lawnmower and you’d be surprised how many guys don’t know how to change a car tire. But advertising exploits the idea that men can fix anything without an instruction manual, because they are born with the DNA of every blue-collar job under the sun. At least, that is what they are told to believe.

Guys Are Peacocks

Insecurity is heavy in men. From a young age they have to trick themselves into thinking they are going to be the breadwinners of their family, and have all the expensive toys that advertising tells them to have. This is a way men can use a yardstick to measure their manhood. It’s their bird-brain telling them to show the other peacocks around how powerful and colorful their tail-feathers are.

Whoever has the biggest and prettiest bank account, homes, vacations, kids, wife, boats and cars wins this silly game. The idea that men stand around puffing up their chests, trying to impress other men is beneficial to keeping people employed in more ways than one. Since this game is profitable and from a wide-angle lens is needed to keep the economy afloat, it’s an established game to partake in if you want to succeed in capitalism.

Obviously, humans can survive without SUV’s and yachts. But without those items, there would be a long line of people without the money they received for their part in the production and process. So, peacocking can help your business. Especially if you’re selling something that will boost men’s egos. And in reality what is the point of most things you own and experiences you do, other than so you can brag?

Guys are Warriors and Worriers

Guys are hard-workers. Many men pride themselves on working long hours, in difficult conditions and getting phenomenal results under extreme pressures. Working decades at a job they despise shows commitment and the strength to endure. Contact and combat sports show men can handle bruises and blood, and consuming large food portions is the fuel that drives them forward. The majority of men correlate determination and tenacity with being a tough man. They pride themselves on being a soldier drudging on, grinding out hard times and proving they have the testicular fortitude to be a real man.

This notion of working hard and building one’s empire is easily exploited with the fear of the empire walls crumbling down. Beneath the warrior shell is the haunting worry that something bad is going to happen to their castle. Typically aimed towards middle aged men who have worked for decades, and sweated to build their assets. Planting the seed, suggesting to them that these years of hard work and financial stability can be stolen from them in a moment, is a trigger advertising pulls to sell them the need of protection and security.

Guys Are Always Successful

Guys don’t fail. Ever. Every guy is a successful, ultra-intelligent being that should be sculpted in bronze and remembered as a mythology god. Right? Besides the cartoons I mentioned early, advertising and media will promote men as being successful, solely because deep down, men are part of the human race and we all feel like we’re frauds who somehow fluked their way to where they are now.

Men have been told from an early age they can be premier athletes, rock stars, astronauts and presidents. They are continually fed the idea from parental figures that they will be successful in whatever endeavor they choose, and advertising capitalizes on this train of thought exploiting the notion that they are successful, yet not successful enough.

Shame, Shame, Shame.

It’s interesting we dwell in a digital culture that encourages and piggybacks on shame. A person you never heard of, can tweet a joke or their opinion, and within minutes that person can be shamed from every corner of the world. Suddenly this fellow everyday human becomes a worldwide villain.

In the large context, shame is intended to make people sad. Happy people don’t tend to buy and consume as much as sad people. So, if you’re a stereotypical tycoon who wants more and more money, your ideal consumer would be depressed about themselves and current status in life. This is where advertising starts to dig deeper into men’s insecurities.

Advertising Is A Mirror

Maybe it’s more of a funhouse mirror that distorts reality, but regardless advertising is driven by you seeing yourself in the ad. That's why ads consistently portray handsome, Photoshopped men and the same mirror tactic is used on ads for women. The goal is to make the reader think they’re looking in a mirror and comparing themselves to something that is unrealistic. Then the reader will start picking themselves apart, creating problems that don’t really exist. This is seen all across advertising and even business plans. Create a problem, then sell your solution that fixes the problem you created.

This is why women are told to get plastic surgery to fix their defective physiques, and why men are told to hit the gym and consume a rainbow of supplements to add muscle and sculpt six-pack abs. From birth, guys are shaped by masculinity that has been defined by marketing minds. From locker room bullies, to angry athletic coaches, men have been groomed from early on that being mentally and physically weak is shameful. Because only women are weak, not men.

Advertising Will Bring Up Your Past

In advertising, we already covered the theme that men are portrayed to be superior to women. Well what happens when a man is suddenly not superior to a female in the real world? Animosities from the past bubble to the surface.

When a man is reprimanded by a female authority figure, it can trigger thoughts of his mother, former teachers or other maternal figures that he has previous aggressions with. Ironically, shame and embarrassment triggers anger and sadness, which helps sales increase. But this goes deeper. As I mentioned men have been illustrated in advertisements for decades as the more intelligent sex, so shaming a man’s intelligence plus his hierarchy among the genders is the ultimate trigger.

Remember I mentioned Perry Marshall’s “Racking the Shotgun” term in the intro? It’s the idea that you need to sell to people less intelligent than you. Remember when I said I was going to put this idea in a positive light? Good.

How Perceptions Created By Advertising Are Passed Down

Advertising is ingrained deeper into your everyday life than you might think. Oral story is still a powerful vessel. Many people, both men and women repeat the beliefs and values that were told to them by authority figures, which you can track down through generation after generation. For many families, the man is the head of the household, and he is the one who sets the rules and delivers any punishment. He is person at the helm, navigating the ship and his course of travel is the only option.

I was sitting at a beach park, and overheard a conversation with a father and son. The kid was looking up at a tree and asked his dad if those things hanging from the branches were pineapple. The dad said yes, those are pineapple and explained to his son that guys climb up the tree and cut them down with a machete. The kid accepted this answer, and now accepts the reality that pineapples grow from trees and to harvest them, men must scale up the tree and cut them down.

FYI, pineapples don’t grow on trees. They grow on the ground. If you see a tree in Hawaii that looks like it has pineapple, it’s probably a breadfruit tree. FYI breadfruit doesn’t even really look like a pineapple if you put them side by side. But my point is, the dad in this quick conversation had to take the role of an expert and explain to his son how a pineapple tree works. Even though he was 100% incorrect, he still had to play the role of being superior and all-knowing. Thanks to advertising, these notions are embedded in him to be all knowing and wise, because if he wasn’t he would be a failure worthy of shame.

From a business perspective – in this situation, I could have pulled down breadfruit from the tree, told this father and son that these were Hawaiian Royal Pineapples, or some other fabricated name and sell the idea deeper to them. This would benefit me if I was trying to sell them pineapples.

This is what “Racking the Shotgun” is. This father, showed me he was not educated on pineapples and was likely vulnerable to all the tactics I mentioned in this article. Even though this individual likely had a higher income, higher formal education and more colorful peacock feathers than me, I could combine my knowledge on pineapples with advertising tactics to convince him to become a customer of mine. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, all I’m doing is listening, paying attention and using perceptions that have been indoctrinated in everyone.

However you want to interpret the idea, and however you want to pitch your business to your customers is up to you. But don’t forget that men do buy things. And yes, the advertising industry has given you a bearing on how to start marketing towards genders, using segmentation tactics and building upon what has worked in the past.

Chris Brock