Mask for masc: How do you advertise public health for men during a pandemic?

Let’s face it, when compared with women, men aren’t very good at being proactive about the coronavirus.

Men are more likely to say wearing a face mask is uncool and a sign of weakness, according to a study by researchers from Middlesex University London. A Reuters poll released in March found a consistent gender gap across other behavioral categories. Here were some of the poll’s findings:

  • 45% of men said they’re “very concerned” about the virus vs. 54% of women

  • 56% of men said they’ve avoided close physical contact with others vs. 65% of women

  • 58% of men said they’ve been avoiding large public gatherings vs. 72% of women

  • 60% of men said they wash their hands and use disinfectants more frequently vs. 73% of women

Public health researchers and communicators have found men often require special messaging specifically targeting them to break through, and understanding what works could be crucial to fight Covid-19.

The highest-profile example of the pandemic gender split is in the White House. President Trump has said he won’t wear a face mask, and he didn’t wear one to a facility in Arizona that was making masks earlier this month despite signage stating masks were required.

Meanwhile, first lady Melania Trump posted a photo of herself wearing a mask on social media, encouraging Americans to follow CDC guidelines and wear face coverings in public.

As the CDC continues to study the spread of the COVID-19, they recommend that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures can be difficult to maintain. Remember, this does not replace the importance of social distancing. It is recommended to keep us all safe.
April 9, 2020

This isn’t anything new. Overall, men are more risky when it comes to health, even for behaviors like wearing sunscreen and seatbelts, a 2006 study found. One factor behind this trend is advertising.

“A lot of the ads about health and wellness you’ll see are geared toward women or girls, both graphically as well as verbally,” Dr. Sal Giorgianni, senior science advisor for the Men’s Health Network, told Yello in an interview. “Men are just not taught from a very early age to think of health as part of what they should be doing as men, so you have a very different mindset about it.”


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During the 1918 pandemic, some who worked in public health felt that health education didn’t resonate with men and that more “manly” advertising should emphasize discipline, patriotism, and personal responsibility, according to a study on messaging of the era. PSAs were dominated by images of men and boys.

Posters from 1918 from the Rennsselaer County Tuberculosis Association (left) and U.S. Public Health Service (right).

Modern messaging for men

Health and wellness advertising targets women more often because “there’s a bias within advertising circles that in healthcare, men are not the decision makers,” Giorgianni said.

Some health categories do a better job of reaching men, like STDs and anti-smoking, but more often than not, men are shown in a secondary role, he said.

Some ad campaigns that are directed at men use male athletes as spokesmen. Olympian Michael Phelps launched a campaign in 2018 with Talkspace, an online therapy company, in which he talked about his struggles with mental health.

In 2015, the blood thinner Xarelto tapped Miami Heat player Chris Bosh, NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, golfer Arnold Palmer, and comedian Kevin Nealon to promote the drug.

To better reach a male audience, Giorgianni said, advertisers need to apply the same strategies they’d use “to sell an F-150 truck or cologne or some other consumer products.”

“You can’t just take a message for women and make it blue,” he said. “Identify the different demographics, use images that look like those men. I mean these are just sound principles of any marketing campaign.”

Pandemic-related public health messaging faces an additional hurdle due to partisanship, said Meredith Conroy, an associate professor of political science at California State University and friend of the newsletter.

“Many preventative behaviors, like wearing a mask and social distancing, might threaten some men’s masculinity, causing them to overcorrect or reject recommendations from health professionals,” she said. “Add in the political element — with conservatives framing these orders as infringing on civil liberties and personal freedom — and you have a perfect cocktail for disobedience from conservative men in particular.”

That perceived threat to masculinity was on display in the comment section of a recent Instagram post by former pro wrestler Steve Austin in which he wore a mask. After a follower commented that the mask went against Austin’s reputation, Austin replied, “Shut up dude.”

Like during the 1918 pandemic, public health advertising today could emphasize concepts like patriotism and personal responsibility.

The same study that found men are more likely to perceive wearing a mask as uncool also found that messaging about protecting “your community” was more effective than messaging about just protecting yourself.

As states begin to reopen following lockdown orders, measures like social distancing and wearing masks will be important. Giorgianni, the Men’s Health Network science advisor, said he’s especially worried about a gender gap when it comes to a future Covid-19 vaccine.

If women get it but not men, he said, it’s like “weeding only half the garden.”

Top photo credit: University of Oregon