How Years of Macho Food Marketing Is Killing Men

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Sloppy Joe, anyone? Photo: Tom Kelley/Getty Images

When I was a kid, my after-school journey home was a junk-food-themed gauntlet. A few hundred feet out from the schoolyard I’d hit up the nearest corner store, picking up enough chips, chocolate bars, and candy to sustain me along the quarter-mile bus ride to the subway station. There, I’d graze at a small food court, before boarding a westbound bus for ten minutes, which deposited me at a donut shop.

The flavors that defined this journey were those most young Canadians in the 1980s enjoyed: Hostess chips in many varieties (ketchup, baked potato with bacon, dill pickle); Doritos; Skittles; and Mentos that turned my spit as viscous as motor oil; questionable Jamaican beef patties retrieved from a warming cabinet; and Cinnabon, the mall rat’s siren song. All of this was washed down with the sweetest sodas on the market: bright-orange Crush, pink cream soda, toxic-waste-colored Mountain Dew. I was 10. What else was there?

One snack stands out as a particular after-school favorite. It was the chocolate bar Mr. Big, one of those rare birds available only in Canada (produced today by Cadbury), which was a vanilla wafer layered with peanuts and rice crisps, two-thirds of a foot long, covered in milk chocolate. What’s gotten me thinking about Mr. Big wasn’t simply its size, or taste (sweet and crunchy, but kind of hollow), but the overtly sexualized nature of the thing, and the way that was sold to me, a tiny, insecure young male.

I can distinctly remember the tag line from the ads. “When you’re this big, they call you Mister.” It was a triumph of the golden age of macho food television advertising. In one spot, a tall bully interrupts a younger “geek” at a school dance, who swings around, places a Mr. Big in his hands, and says “That’s Mister Geek to you.”

In another, an announcer talks about the average male’s growth during adolescence — “exactly the size of a Mr. Big” — before a sultry blonde in the mold of Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale appears and takes off with the taller of two boys. They even put the fucking candy bar next to a ruler, to drive the point home.

Looking back now, it’s amazing how effective this was. I was a prepubescent boy, buying my manhood each day, by shelling out a buck-twenty-five for an edible chocolate penis. Thank you Dr. Freud.

The idea of manly food is preposterous. Calories are calories. The fact that my wife craves nachos more than I do, or that my daughter’s favorite food is steak, is not some aberration. It’s just good eating. The penis or vagina of the nacho eater does not (let us pray) alter the nacho’s taste.

Yet each day men are assaulted by food advertising urging them to eat like “real” men. Eat a Manwich, a manly portion of Chunky soup, a KFC Double Down sandwich, and be sure to wash it down with a Gatorade, but only once you’ve manned up and pushed over a vending machine.

There’s an incredible disconnect between the way real men eat, and the way “real men” are supposed to eat. In the wild, men eat an astounding variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits, and even fish. But as Bruce Fierstein put it in his 1982 book, “Real men don’t eat quiche.” In the advertising world of manly foods, “real men” eat as though life were one endless tailgate. If it doesn’t contain the chance of diabetes, apparently “real men” won’t eat it.

According to Katherine Parkin, an associate professor of history at Monmouth University, and author of the book Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, the sexual segregation of food marketing took shape in the 1950s, under the pioneering psychologist Ernest Dichter, who applied the theories he’d learned under Sigmund Freud to shape the new field of motivational research.

“Dichter believed that by convincing Americans of a food’s sex and its resultant gendered identity, as well as its sensuality, advertisers could suggest their foods to meet consumers’ need to fulfill their gender roles,” Parkin wrote in a research paper. “Dichter believed that many people categorized the sex of foods. However, his own subscription to a gendered taxonomy of food is evident in his assessment of the findings. For example, Dichter posited, “Perhaps the most typically feminine food is cake … The wedding cake [is] … the symbol of the feminine organ. The act of cutting the first slice by the bride and bridegroom together clearly stands as a symbol of defloration.”

This kind of overly sexualized couch philosophy may sound like demented bullshit (“Happy Birthday! Eat a vagina!”), but the ad world ate it up. Though they overwhelmingly aimed food ads toward women, who were (and remain) the primary food purchasers for households, increasingly foods became targeted by sex. If it was meaty, macho, or phallic (Dichter basically felt the Oscar Meyer wiener song was a penile love poem), it was manly enough to be sold to men.

“The manly foods — for example, a 4,000-calorie manly frozen dinner — all play on a notion that these foods will make you a man and ensure your virility,” says Parkin.

It’s actually worse than that. Manly food ads present a cleverly crafted challenge to our manhood: Are you man enough to eat this shit?

And shit it is. Manly food, as opposed to equally patronizing “lady food” (diet sodas, low-calorie cereals, herbal teas), are pretty much universally unhealthy. Huge quantities of processed, salty meats, wrapped in refined carbohydrates, saturated in chemical cheese goos, and fortified with colored sugar water. Are you man enough to get a colonoscopy? Because that’s what’ll happen if you buy into this crap.

“What our research has shown is that mere exposure to food advertising makes you eat more,” says Dr. Hedy Kober, who runs the Clinical & Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Yale, and studies the health effects of advertising on diet and health. And when it comes to responding to unhealthy food ads, we men are really no different from innocent children preyed upon by the Trix Rabbit. We are fed a socially constructed appetite, and we go out and indulge it.

“What targeting does is orients your attention to this ad more,” says Kober. “Oh, let me pay attention to this, because he’s a manly man like me. Most men want to be a manly man. You don’t think you’re LeBron James, but you want to think you are, and exactly because of that, he shows up in McDonald’s commercials,” and the health consequences of that association show up on our asses. “How much money do you wanna bet that [LeBron James] doesn’t eat McDonald’s?”

The consequences of this kind of marketing are real. Men suffer from heart attacks and fatal coronary heart disease at twice the levels women do, and obesity rates tend to be considerably higher for men as well.

As the owner of a chain of “healthy” quick-service restaurants once told me, it’s really really difficult to sell men healthy food. Men may eat salads at home, he told me, but they’re loath to order them in public, lest they feel like a woman. To bring in males, his chain had to add wraps, chili, and far more traditionally “manly” foods.

Some healthier foods have succeeded in targeting men, especially the health-conscious variety. I’ve seen chia seeds sold as the food of Aztec warriors, and butter-soaked coffee as the nectar of mountain climbers. But can you sell a man a carrot? Or a bag of arugula? The loop of manly food marketing creates a closed cycle. The methods are so skewed toward defiantly indulgent bro-crap that anything else you try to sell that way just falls flat.

An example Parkin loves to cite is Powerful Yogurt, a protein-enriched Greek yogurt that came out in 2013 and was marketed as “the first dairy product for the needs of active men.” The press dubbed this Brogurt, and Jezebel brilliantly highlighted the company’s messaging of a high-protein, all-natural, fertility-enhancing, creamy product as the ultimate ad campaign for semen.

“If it’s high protein, all natural, why wouldn’t women want that too?” Parkin asks. “They’re also eating yogurt and working out. How can it be that we still want men to be catered to in this hypergendered way?”

The reason is simple. Manly food marketing persists because it works. As sure as Macho Man admonishing a 12-year-old to snap into a Slim Jim works. As sure as the craven Bud Light Lime ad featuring a UFC “octagon” girl cavorting topless in a pit of limes works. As sure as those Mr. Big ads worked.

The only hope, as far as I see it, is that our taste as men continues to grow. Fifteen years ago, the idea of men talking among themselves about their favorite cookbooks and picking their own dandelion greens was unfathomable. But today, the male foodie is increasingly the norm.

“It’s really only the past five to ten years that men caring about food has been acceptable,” says Alex Grossman, who has directed several manly TV commercials for brands such as Gatorade. “When I see Jack Links spots …it’s dude humor. It has zero effect on me. If something looks delicious, I don’t care if it’s uni on soft scrambled eggs … yeah, I want that.”

I don’t think sea urchin and eggs is something I will ever willingly order, nor would I test my mettle with a lasagna made of bacon and Big Macs, but that’s the point. The true mark of that self-assured confidence, the attitude endlessly repackaged and sold to us by food marketers, comes down to eating what makes you feel content and maybe preserves your life. If, once in a while, you find yourself hankering for Manwich and a bottle of Bud — or a chard fritatta and a glass of rosé — well, bon appétit.

How Years of Macho Food Marketing Is Killing Men