A broad range of studies have explored how commercial businesses use images and ideas concerning gender identities and roles to sell products, services and brands. There is also a strong body of work on connections between masculinity, brand relationships and men’s consumer experiences (Woodruffe-Burton 1998; Zayer and Neier 2011). What remains less explored is marketers’ strategic use of representations of masculine identities and gender roles to recruit people who provide the commodity that will then be sold.
Since 2016, in collaboration with Dr Laetitia Mimoun and Dr Lez Trujillo Torres, I have explored how marketed ideas and images related to masculinity are used in the service of the sperm donation industry in the UK and Australia (Sobande et al. 2019), which depends on donors to provide the sellable commodity (sperm). As part of this work, we consider how certain constructions of masculinity are rendered (in)visible in sperm donation industry media and marketing narratives. We also analyse how such marketing can depict dualistic and heteronormative dynamics between men and women, while upholding prescriptive and exclusionary notions of masculinity.
Masculinity in media and the marketplace
My research focuses on how issues concerning identity, inequality and ideology take shape in media and marketplace settings. I particularly explore how racism, sexism and interlocking forms of oppression manifest in consumer and popular culture contexts. Such work involves analysing how different people are represented in advertising, including campaigns aimed at specific gender-based demographics.
Many industries are rife with examples of institutions and brands producing allegedly “feminist advertising (femvertising)” and attempting to portray themselves as challenging gender norms. Still, stereotypical media and marketing representations of gender roles persist. Accounting for how marketers mobilise images and ideas related to masculinity can aid understanding of societal gender conventions, shifting marketplace landscapes and connected commodification processes.
Representations of masculinity in consumer and popular culture have undoubtedly changed over the decades. Examples include various Gillette razor adverts, such as their controversial Super Bowl commercial which Time magazine claims calls out “toxic masculinity”. Myriad fashion brands are declaring themselves gender-neutral and attempting to subvert gendered expectations of who their target audience is. In addition, Lynx’ “Men in Progress” campaign reflects branding activity intended to challenge conventional perceptions of masculinity and what it means to be a man today. Nevertheless, the extent to which such marketing can tackle stereotypical social attitudes regarding masculinity, if at all, often remains to be proven.
(Super)heroes, soldiers and “real men” wanted
Gender is neither merely a binary issue nor is it solely determined by biological ones. Despite understandings and experiences of gender identities being complex and varied, many constructions of masculinity in media and marketing are still rooted in heteronormative and restrictive binary conceptualisations of cisgender masculinity and femininity. A prime source of analysis of representations of masculinity is marketing content aimed at potential sperm donors in countries where they cannot be legally compensated for donating.
Globally, the sperm donation industry is valued at more than 3.5 billion US Dollars. Regulatory constraints have contributed to sperm shortages in both Australia and the UK, where it is illegal for sperm banks to financially reward donors. These challenges were heightened in the UK after it ended donor anonymity in 2005.
To tackle regulatory constraints and improve donor numbers, sperm banks in Australia and the UK market the act of donating sperm as a confirmation of masculinity, especially by drawing on depictions that connote hegemonic expressions and embodiments of masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). These marketing strategies which draw on masculine archetypes involve humour and the use of arguably stereotypical, hypersexualised and romanticised images. In some cases, donors are represented as being dutiful saviours and everyday heroes, including when depicted as working in life-saving professions (firefighters and lifeguards). In others, they are framed as superheroes, as is indicated by visual symbols such as capes and accompanying text which explicitly ascribes them a super-heroic status.
While media and marketing depictions are open to interpretation, they also exist within representation regimes anchored in dominant cultural conventions. Amidst rhetoric and representations that circulate in these sperm donation industries is an emphasis on the need for “real men” and “heroes” to come forward. Heroism is strategically linked to fertility and masculinity, as are attributes including selflessness, stoicism and strength. Some examples of such advertising make use of ideas and imagery linked to military service, including by using imagery and phrases associated with the famous Lord Kitchener propaganda poster that served to recruit soldiers to the British Expeditionary Force in 1914. At times, donors are clearly framed as “soldiers” responding to a “crisis” (sperm banks’ need for donors).
Although sperm donors in Australia and the UK produce a commodity in the sperm donation industry, they are also positioned as consumers through marketing which highlights what they will receive in exchange for donating (affirmation of their masculinity). Thus, donors are situated at the crossroads of roles as both consumers and producers (Humphreys and Grayson 2008). The use of masculine archetypes in sperm donor advertising is a key example of how gender stereotypes and scripts are deployed as part of contemporary marketing efforts intended to facilitate both the production and selling of commodities.
The ideal donor is often represented as embodying the template for a traditional superhero character, with a white and notably athletic physique. At times, they are specifically alluded to as coming to the rescue of women. This type of sperm donor marketing reinforces heteronormative and hegemonic ideas concerning masculinity, as well as associated gender relations, particularly when the donor’s allegedly romantic credentials are hinted at. Masculinity is expressed and embodied in a wide range of ways, which is scarcely reflected in the content of sperm donation industry marketing material.
(Re)producing stereotypical and exclusionary representations of masculinity
When marketers use language to infer that sperm donors are “real men” they uphold essentialist ideas about men, which can contribute to the ongoing stigmatisation that infertile people face. When framing sperm donation as being a masculinity-affirming experience, marketers may also be perpetuating stereotypical ideas about masculinity in ways that erase the experiences and identities of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals. Such issues require more attention as part of future research related to sperm donation industry marketing and various forms of assisted reproductive technology and fertility advertising.
Stereotypical representations of masculine identities continue to proliferate in media and marketing contexts. Although there is increasing indication of representations that resist reinforcing narrow notions of heteronormative and cisgender-centred masculinity, they are in a distinct minority. The road to challenging oppressive ideas about gender identities and relations cannot be paved by commercially-oriented marketing content. Regardless, media and marketing representations of people continue to both reflect and influence society (Hall et al. 2013). As such, there is a need for continued interrogation of the social function of media and marketing which upholds restrictive constructions of masculinity and gender dynamics.
As the global sperm donation industry continues to boom, are we likely to witness a rise in associated marketing that represents a broader range of gender identities than is commonly conveyed in contemporary content to recruit sperm donors? What would the effects of this be? Answers to these questions are yet to be determined, but as public discourse concerning pregnancy, reproductive rights and different gender experiences continues to evolve, surely, so too should gender representations in related media and marketing.
Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, J.W. (2005) ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’, Gender & Society 19(6): 829–859.
Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (eds.) (2013) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: SAGE.
Humphreys, A. and Grayson, K. (2008) ‘The Intersecting Roles of Consumer and Producer: A Critical Perspective on Co-Production, Co-Creation and Prosumption’, Sociology Compass 2(3): 963–980.
Sobande, F., Mimoun, L., and Torres, L.T. (2019) ‘Soldiers and superheroes needed! Masculine archetypes and constrained bodily commodification in the sperm donation market’, Marketing Theory.
Woodruffe-Burton, H. (1998) ‘Private Desires, Public Display: Consumption, Postmodernism and Fashion’s “New Man”’, International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management 26(8): 301–310.
Zayer, L.T. and Neier, S. (2011) ‘An Exploration of Men’s Brand Relationships’, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 14(1): 83–104.
Francesca Sobande is a lecturer in digital media studies at Cardiff University. Her research interests include how racism, sexism and structural inequalities manifest in media and the marketplace. Her work has appeared in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Consumption, Markets & Culture, Marketing Theory and Celebrity Studies. Her co-edited collection (with Akwugo Emejulu), To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe, was published in May 2019 by Pluto Press. Francesca’s forthcoming book, The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain, will be published in 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan.
IMAGE CREDIT: Author’s own.