The Depiction of Men in the Americas

Trends / Realness
We are
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Mar 15, 2024
In February, we unveiled a mural titled, “Look Back, Move Forward” with the Unstereotype Alliance at the United Nations in New York City. What did we learn from looking back at the depiction of men in advertising since the 1950s? Fundamentally, it hasn’t changed much.
At Getty Images, we’ve helped shift the narrative around visual representations of women, non‑binary, and transgender people. But until now, we haven’t done a complementary investigation into how men are depicted, under the assumption that they are the status quo against which “diversity” is defined. It makes sense that men have been overlooked—generally, women are more looked‑at in advertising than men. Across North America, Latin America, and Brazil, our customers routinely search for and download more images of women than men, and a study by CreativeX confirms that in 2023, women were featured in global advertising +34% more often than men.1 The way that men are depicted—even cis‑gender, heterosexual men—is a key part of closing the loop on diversity and inclusion, and it's time to make this change happen.
Looking at men
When we look at depictions of men in advertising with a sympathetic eye, they are, in some ways, more limited and negative compared to those of women. Our VisualGPS visual analysis of the most popular visuals across the Americas shows that women are depicted in a wider variety of scenarios, with more optimistic color palettes, emotional range, and individuality. While women often experience negative pressure from advertising in the form of body‑shaming, a report from our partners at New Macho found that men feel it, too, mainly in the form of pressure to make money and achieve material success.2 The stakes heighten considering the cultural backlash percolating around the idea of an imagined “traditional” masculinity, leading a surprising 40% of Gen Z in North America who think that power and authority are signs of male strength (26% in LATAM, 29% in Brazil), our VisualGPS consumer survey found. Resonant with Ken’s storyline in the blockbuster hit Barbie (2023), these limited depictions of men reflect a set of social expectations that can feel stifling to men in real life.

At the same time, Americans of all genders don’t necessarily want to do away with all tropes of traditional masculinity—they just want to see a broader, more multidimensional vision of what men look like today. Our VisualGPS consumer survey found that 77% of consumers of all genders said they think men should be “strong, assertive, and dependable” (71% in LATAM, 82% in Brazil)—and on the other side of the coin, 82% want men to embrace being nurturing, emotionally sensitive, and vulnerable too (88% in LATAM, 90% in Brazil). This makes sense in the context of a culture which currently embraces softer expressions of masculinity: from the menswear‑obsessed masses, to the gender‑fluid styling of celebrities like Bad Bunny and Timothée Chalamet; to queer icons like Ru Paul and Elliot Page; to the emotional openness of sports superstars like the NBA’s Steph Curry and soccer star Lionel Messi. Considering these cultural shifts, there are many opportunities for brands to expand their depiction of men to be more creative, inclusive, and accurate in relation to how men see themselves today.
What does a successful man look like in 2024? 
Our VisualGPS image‑testing revealed that men prefer a more personal, sensitive depiction of success than what brands are showing them. Men and women alike gravitated towards an image of a Black father and son as the picture of success, far ahead businessman in a power suit, a limo, or private jet. Yes, men are more likely than women to be pictured in scenarios related to concepts of success, expertise, and service—but the flip side is that men are far less likely than women to be pictured embodying concepts of relaxation, care, and togetherness, which are all important aspects of being a healthy person of any gender.

Richard Reeves’ book On Boys and Men (2023) identified disparities in success for men of color, men in “caring” professions, and a mental health crisis3—and these social disparities map directly onto gaps in the visuals used by brands. For example, while white men are still more likely to be pictured in business leadership positions than women overall, women of color are more likely to be pictured than men of color. And men are far less likely than women to be pictured as teachers, nurses, or doctors; or as therapists or patients. There is an opportunity to correct these gaps in visual choices in tandem with the societal shifts we hope to see.
Where are there opportunities to choose more progressive depictions of men?
Our VisualGPS visual analysis found that brands' visual choices tend to reinforce the idea that masculinity is fragile—in particular, by excluding emotion, sensitivity, and affection, whether platonic or romantic, between men. For example, in keeping with the general pattern, visuals showing LGBTQ+ men are used less than those of LGBTQ+ women; platonic friendships between men are also far less likely to be seen than those between women (‑32% less in North America, ‑42% less in LATAM, ‑24% less in Brazil). Although men are shown as fathers about as often as women are shown as mothers, they are far less likely to be shown as affectionate towards their children than supporting them on their shoulders, a metaphor for financial support. With a crisis of loneliness mounting amongst men,4 it’s more important than ever to choose visuals which affirm that emotional connection is an important part of being a man.

Another surprising disparity is how little we see men depicted in scenarios of self‑expression, identity‑exploration, or leisure. For example, most visuals show middle‑aged men in the prime of working or child‑rearing, with clearly‑defined roles in society—leaving out depictions of men in the more freewheeling life stages of youth and old age. Additionally, men obviously like video games, but brands may be misunderstanding why. Although most popular visuals depict gaming as a competitive activity, our VisualGPS consumer survey found that 7 in 10 men in North America and LATAM see video games as a creative outlet for identity exploration—compared to 5 in 10 women (8 in 10 men, 7 in 10 women in Brazil). Finally, the rise of menswear over the past decade in particular has been well‑documented,5 but popular visuals of shopping are still dominated by women, and there is much room for improvement of men's styling. Men today are expressing their identities in so many new ways, but brands are missing an opportunity to choose visuals that meet them where they are.

Lastly, we’ve written about the importance of showing male mental and physical health, and body positivity is an important part of this as well. The concept of “body positivity” is completely dominated by visuals of women with larger bodies, even though men experience bias due to body size too (15% in North America, 22% in LATAM, 25% in Brazil). Concepts such as success and support are often visualized through visual metaphors of physical strength, thereby leaving out men with disabilities. And although the “woman laughing alone eating salad” is a well‑known visual trope, we see images of men cooking and eating healthy food far less, despite the rise of foodie and wellness culture in male spheres as well.

Currently, there is a wide gap between past depictions of men and what it means to be a man today—and therefore, myriad opportunities for brands to choose visuals of men that will feel fresh and resonant with people of all genders now.
[1] CreativeX
[2] New Macho
[3] Richard Reeves, On Boys and Men
[4] Talkspace
[5] The Business of Fashion
[6] Quartz

Video Credit: 1455783713, Lighthouse Films
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