Males, Masculinity, and Consumption: an Exploratory Investigation

ABSTRACT - This article describes an exploratory investigation of masculinity and consumption. Depth interviews were conducted with 30 French men of varying ages in order to determine the extent to which products, brands, and consumption play a role in the development of self-image and conceptualizations of masculinity. The findings revealed four main issues reflecting denial of brands, products, and consumption as central aspects of the lives of male consumers. The authors consider the role of personal and social fears as underlying these various forms of denial.


Allan J. Kimmel and Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes (1999) ,"Males, Masculinity, and Consumption: an Exploratory Investigation", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 243-251.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 243-251


Allan J. Kimmel, Ecole SupTrieure de Commerce de Paris, France

Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes, Ecole SupTrieure de Commerce de Paris, France


This article describes an exploratory investigation of masculinity and consumption. Depth interviews were conducted with 30 French men of varying ages in order to determine the extent to which products, brands, and consumption play a role in the development of self-image and conceptualizations of masculinity. The findings revealed four main issues reflecting denial of brands, products, and consumption as central aspects of the lives of male consumers. The authors consider the role of personal and social fears as underlying these various forms of denial.

Self-image and gender are two personality-related variables that have increasingly captured the attention of consumer researchers as capable of shedding light on consumer decision making, brand selection, and product consumption. Nonetheless, the relationship between self-image and gender, though much discused in the behavioral and social science literature, has received relatively scant research attention from the perspective of consumer behavior. In no place is this lack of research more obvious than in the realm of masculinity and consumption. Within the social and behavioral sciences, the focus on men has occurred largely within the context of a long tradition of examining how they differ from women in attitudes, experiences, relationship behaviors, and the like. This work has relied on such concepts as sex role identity, gender role orientation, and attitudes about gender roles in order to explore individual differences among males and females (Winstead & Derlega, 1993). While the subject of gender also has been widely treated in the consumer behavior literature, it is mainly feminine roles (Joy & Venkatesh, 1994; Thompson, 1996), differences between men and women (Meyers-Levy & Maheswaran, 1991), gender biases (Bristor & Fisher, 1993), or sex role differences (Meyers-Levy, 1988) that have been emphasized.

In recent years, researchers have begun to focus their attention on the role of gender in helping to explain the link between consumers’ self-image and consumption. As a fundamental aspect of one’s self-concept, sexual identity not only influences product and brand choices but is in turn shaped by them. In the same way that male and female consumers can be characterized as having masculine and feminine traits, many products also may be seen as sex-typed, possessing masculine and feminine attributes. As such, consumers often opt for products and brands that provide a congruence with their self-image or enable them to achieve a more desired self-image. However, given the paucity of research on masculinity and its relationship to consumption, little is known about man’s relationship to products, both sex-typed and non-sex-typed, and the ways in which products and brands serve as vehicles by which men can achieve a desired level of masculinity. In this paper, following a review of the concepts of self-image, gender, and masculinity, we present the findings of an exploratory investigation of masculinity and consumption.


From a social cognition perspective, self-image is considered as a cognitive structure or schema that is used to interpret one’s experience (Greenwald & Pratkanis, 1984). As a cognitive generalization about the self, the self-schema serves to process and organize information derived from an individual’s social experiences (Markus, 1977). Because such schemas are derived from experience, their contents vary from person to person and differentially affect how people process information.

It is generally maintained that the self is a multi-dimensional construct and that various kinds of self-concepts can be distinguished. For example, the "actual self-concept" describes how people realistically perceive themselves, the "ideal self-concept" reflects how they would like to be perceived by themselves and others, and the "social self" refers to how people think they are perceived by others. These distinctions are both influenced and shaped by the individual’s consumption environment. Thus, a product or brand may be selected because it is believed to be consistent with one’s current self-image or instrumental in helping the consumer attain a more desired ideal-self. The link between self-concept and consumption is perhaps most evident in the development of the "extended self," which is the self as extended by one’s personal possessions (Belk, 1988). That is, for many consumers, a self-identity is in part formulated and reflected by the products and objects that they use and surround themselves with (Csikszentmihalyi & Halton, 1981). Individual differences in materialism have been noted among consumers who vary according to the extent to which they view worldly possessions as central to their lives and gauge the worth of themselves and others in terms of the proucts they own (Richins & Dawson, 1992).

The actual component of the self that most strongly influences the selection of products and brands is no doubt tied to the consumption context. Thus, in order to fully understand the functioning of the self-concept in consumption situations, it is relevant to add a contextual dimension to the analysis. One can speak of the actual self in a private context ("how I see myself now"), the actual self in a public/social context ("how I think others see me"), the ideal self in a private context ("how I would like to see myself"), and the ideal self in a public/social context ("how I would like others to see me"). Recent research on self concept/product image congruity revealed that such situational variables as the size of the social group, the formality of the occasion, and the physical characteristics of the public situation, are important for understanding the public or private context in which particular products and brands are selected (Hogg & Savolainen, 1998).

Consistent with these ideas, it has long been maintained that the self identity of consumers can be defined in part by the products they acquire or use, the meanings products have for them, and the attitudes they hold towards products. For example, self-image congruence models posit that products are selected to the extent that they correspond to some aspect of the consumer’s self (Sirgy, 1980). According to Sirgy (1980), the image induced by product attributes activates a self-schema that induces the same images, resulting in the emergence of either congruent or incongruent states. In this view, the greater the congruence between product (or brand) image and self-image, the more a product (or brand) will be preferred. Congruity has been found between consumers’ self-images and a variety of consumption choices, including cars, beer, soap, toothpaste, cigarettes, and shops (e.g., Dolich, 1969; Bellinger, Steinberg, & Stanton, 1976). However, as Solomon (1999) has pointed out, in many cases it is unclear whether people buy products because the products appear to be similar to their self-image or because they assume that the products coincide with their self-image because they bought them.


An additional consideration in the self-concept and product selection process is seen in the impact of gender and sex roles on purchasing behavior. Since the early 1960s, researchers have considered the impact of changing roles on marketing strategies and consumer decision making (Aiken, 1963; Dickens & Chapell, 1977; Hawkins & Coney, 1976; Stuteville, 1971; Tucker, 1976). As societal expectations determine the norms that define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors for men and women, the resulting differences in sex roles invariably have implications for consumption decisions.

The study of sex roles and consumption is often complicated by the fact that there is considerable overlap and confusion about the labeling and meaning of concepts used in gender research (Winstead & Derlega, 1993). As a result, terms such as sex, gender, sex roles, and gender identitity are sometimes used interchangeably. In an attempt to clarify the differences, gender researchers typically make two distinctions in their analyses: a biological distinction between male and female and a social distinction between masculine and feminine. The former distinguishes differences between men and women in terms of physical characteristics (or sex), whereas the latter bases differences in sociocultural influences (or gender). Thus, "sex", refers to biological phenomena associated with being male or female, whereas "gender" pertains to "the meanings that societies and individuals ascribe to female and male categories" (Eagly, 1995, p. 145). Gender identity generally is regarded as a psychological phenomenon in which individuals label themselves as male or female; gender role identitity (or gender role orientation) refers to the individal’s endorsement of personal characteristics considered appropriate for women and men. Masculinity and femininity are thus relative, given that a male can act in a feminine way and a female in a masculine way, and different traits can be considered as appropriate for either gender. Given these distinctions, it is clear that gender is more than a personality variable; rather, it can be seen as "a pervasive filter through which individuals experience their social world" (Bristor & Fischer, 1993).

Beyond the influence of sex (a biologically linked characteristic) and gender role orientation (a personality linked characteristic), male and female behavior is also determined by the ways that individuals have internalized their culture’s attitudes about gender roles. The sex role (or gender ideology) approach to understanding gender differences focuses on society’s assumptions about the proper roles of men and women and the ideal behaviors that are emphasized for each sex (Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1993) Gender role attitudes might include beliefs that men should give priority to their careers, that women should work outside the home, that men and women should share in the housework, shopping, or childrearing, and so on. In one early perspective, Parsons and Bales (1956) argued for a separation of sex roles that stresses an instrumental role for men and an expressive role for women. By contrast, Blood and Wolf (1960) suggested that the assignment of role depends on systems of regulation adopted by spouses according to the capital they possess in order to optimize their respective roles. Recently, Kaufmann (1995) has suggested that the relationship between men and women can only legitimately be considered by taking into account the distinction between public and private settings. In his view, the male role has changed very little in the private realm, but in the public realm it has undergone some clear changes, where women have made increasingly significant advances.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that people generally acquire either a masculine or feminine gender role. Accordingly, it is presumed that the self-concept of the individual who has acquired a masculine role would include such traits as dominance, independence, self-confidence, assertiveness, strength, and ambition. By contrast, an individual who has acquired a feminine role would have an emotional, affectionate, yielding, submissive, gentle, dependent, and gullible self-concept. Based on this distinction, it was concluded that femininity and masculinity were merely end points on a single continuum of gender or sex roles, and that people could be characterized as falling somewhere on a range from feminine to masculine. Consistent with cultural expectations that accord the masculine role to men and the feminine role to women, these traditional role assumptions tend to be firmly ingrained in many marketing communications (Artz & Venkatesh, 1991; Bellizzi & Milner, 1991).

During the 1970’s, researchers began to question the assumption that masculinity and femininity exist as opposites on a single dimension (Bem, 1974; Spence & Helmreich, 1978). For example, social psychologist Sandra Bem (1974) argued that masculinity and femininity are separate dimensions, such that individuals can be described as varying in the degrees to which they exhibit masculine and feminine characteristics. Bem also argued that the two dimensions are not strictly dependent on biological differences, suggesting that men and women do not necessarily possess sex-typed masculine and feminine traits. Thus, individuals can incorporate various degrees of masculinity and femininity in their self-concept, regardless of their biological category. Moreover, some individuals may be described as both masculine and feminine ("androgynous"), while others may not include either dimension in their self-concept ("undifferentiated").

In order to better understand and measure the influence of sex roles on consumption, some researchers have focused on the links between the sexual images of consumers and products. In one early study, Vitz and Johnston (1965) obtained an association between the masculine image of a product ad the masculine image of a person. Elsewhere, Fry (1971) found that feminine men were more likely than masculine men to smoke less masculine cigarettes. More recently, data from the 1988 National Survey of Adolescent Males revealed that American males who held traditional attitudes towards masculinity were less likely to use condoms than males lower in masculine ideology (Pleck, Sonenstein, & Ku, 1993).

The influence of gender on consumption has also been observed in terms of sex differences and shopping behavior and buying goals. For example, a survey investigation of Christmas gift shopping patterns revealed that while women report being more involved than men in the activity, men tend to be more involved if they hold egalitarian gender-role attitudes (Fisher & Arnold, 1990). Dittmar, Beattie, and Friese (1995) found that men tend to impulsively buy instrumental and leisure goods projecting independence and activity, whereas women are more likely to purchase symbolic and self-expressive goods that are linked to appearance and emotional aspects of the self. This sex difference is apparent in the purchase of clothing, with men stressing the functional (self-oriented) benefits of clothing and women emphasizing benefits more associated with social (other-oriented) concerns.


The denotative meanings typically offered to define the term "masculinity" emphasize qualities or conditions of being masculine; that is, attributes traditionally considered to be characteristic of a male. Masculinity is not a biological characteristic; rather, it is culturally defined and varies according to societal and temporal contexts.

Over the course of the twentieth century, a variety of approaches to the study of masculinity can be discerned (cf. Connell, 1996). The psychoanalytical approach stems from the work of Freud, Jung, Adler, and other psychoanalysts and clinical psychologists who linked masculinity to developmental conflicts in the child and various unconscious processes. Despite a strong strand of masculine superiority in their writings (cf. Samuels, 1995; Seidler, 1997), a primary focus of the psychoanalysts was on femininity, and this emphasis is apparent in their conceptualizations of masculinity. For example, Jung theorized that the feminine interior of masculine men was shaped by unconscious "archetypal" images.

A second perspective on masculinity has evolved from thinking in the disciplines of history, sociology, and anthropology, and has been labeled the "New Social Science" approach by Connell (1996). Consistent with this approach, some historians have argued that masculinity is deeply enmeshed in the history of institutions and economic structures and further shaped by social interactions. According to the social science perspective, masculinity is perpetually challenged by new societal practices and conventions and thus is not a stable object of knowledge. Recently, Seidler (1997) has suggested that the mass-mediated conceptualization of the "new man" who desires a stronger role in child rearing and a more egalitarian relationship with his partner, was quickly denigrated as effeminate in the 1990s. As another example, Seidler points out how the context of an economic crisis, such as that experienced in the West during the 1980s, can lead to a reestablishment of masculine ideals, as reflected in an intensification of work among both men and women. A recent analysis of the biographical narratives of a group of young male offenders in Great Britain revealed that drug use, drug dealing, and other crimes serve as important cultural and emotive resources for scripting a particular, powerful masculine identity on the street (Collison, 1996). Such findings are consistent with the attempts of contemporary social scientists to recast their ideas about masculinity in terms of social theory and cultural studies. It should be noted, however, that these conceptualizations of masculine identity are place (as well as time) specifi and predominately reflect "Western" notions.

Another perspective on masculinity, briefly described above, is represented by the sex-role approach, which has predominated in the behavioral science literature during recent decades. The role approach to masculinity originated in comparisons of men and women in attempts to explain their respective places in society (Connell, 1996). As applied to gender, roles are seen as specific to definite situations or societal expectations. From this social-psychological perspective, two broad theoretical approaches have been adopted in attempts to provide greater insight into the nature of the male gender role. Trait perspectives emphasize the sources and consequences of the extent to which men actually possess characteristics that are culturally defined as masculine, such as independence, self-sufficiency, and virility. By contrast, normative perspectives, derived from the social constructivist view of gender roles, focus on the nature and consequences of the standards used to define masculinity within a culture.

Pleck, Sonenstein, and Ku (1993) have explained the difference between these two sex-role approaches by suggesting that one can define a "traditional" male in terms of gender-related personality traits, as a male who actually possesses culturally defined masculine characteristics, or in terms of a normative conception, as one who believes that men should have these characteristics. These two interpretations of masculinity imply different approaches to assessment at the individual level, with an emphasis on trait measures or attitudinal measures, respectively. A related concept within the normative perspective is "masculinity ideology," a subset of sex-role attitudes that "refers to beliefs about the importance of men adhering to culturally defined standards for male behavior" (Pleck et al., 1993, p. 12).


The concept of masculinity has been the focus of renewed interest in recent years in large part because the place of man in society and the image of man have continued to undergo changes. Some attributes and objects traditionally associated with masculinity have been overtaken by women, including knowledge, work, money, vote, the control of procreation and birth control (Sullerot, 1992). Other traditional attributes have lost their importance or utility for society, such as physical strength. Technical developments have decreased the difficulty of numerous tasks; for example, the truck driver has power steering, the farmer a tractor, and so on, and these changes have opened up such traditionally masculine jobs to women. Moreover, the evolution of economy from industry to services favored the rise of women in professional milieus.

These changes have led to corresponding modifications in sex roles, particularly in everyday life and in consumption (Costa, 1994; Fausto-Sterling, 1992; Fischer & Arnold, 1990; Menasco & Curry, 1989; Schmitt, Leclerc, & DubT-Rioux, 1988). Women now play a greater role in purchase decisions once regarded as falling within the traditional responsibility of males and are progressively considered as serious buyers of traditionally male products. For example, more than 60% of American new car buyers under the age of 50 are women (Candler, 1991) and approximately half of all condoms sold are now bought by women (Cutler, 1989). Other changes in sex roles are evident in the depiction of men and women in advertising, where reversals in the traditional portrayals of the central characters are becoming more common. For example, the recent American positioning of cigars as a symbol of rebellion for successful, trendy consumers includes images of female cigar smokers in marketing communications. Although women continue to be depicted in traditionally stereotypic roles in a majority of advertising messages, men are progressively presented as sex objects, helpless, or incompetent vis-a-vis competent or powerful women. This is seen in arecent campaign by Kookan, a women’s clothing firm, which has run attention-getting mass media and outdoor advertisements in France depicting miniaturized men at the mercy of dominant women. In short, traditionally masculine values have come to be increasingly disparaged as feminine values have taken on progressively greater importance. The man is no longer the absolute reference, the one with the absolute power.

As threats to the universal dominance of man continue to become manifest in contemporary society, changes in consumption behavior can be anticipated and represent an area of growing research interest. For example, within competitive, consumerist cultures, men constantly compare themselves with others; products and brands become an obvious overt sign of one’s standing relative to the competition. Thus, the power to purchase new commodities is not only linked to the expectation that personal satisfaction will follow, but also becomes the way in which men may assert themselves in relation to other men (Seidler, 1997). In this way, owning a fast car provides a boost to one’s self-image because it is an indication of success; owning a faster car than others strengthens one’s masculine image because it conveys the idea that one is doing better than others. In this way, consumption objects represent a focal point for protecting the male ego and helping to shape the masculine self-concept.

Just as female role expectations and conceptions of beauty change with the times, the nature of masculinity has varied across the ages, and the evolution of the male sex role is typically accompanied by corresponding changes in the marketplace. According to Badinter (1992), during the 17th century, "les PrTcieux" appeared, a new kind of man who adopted some attributes of femininity and moved closer to women in both clothing and manners. A similar sort of male ideal seems to have reappeared in recent years. Although many products have a sexual dimension, such as cars, cosmetics, beer, and the like, products related to the body have emerged as increasingly relevant to the masculine self-concept. A growing number of marketers seem to have recognized that the way a man cares for his body is demonstrative of the way he desires to be perceived as a man. Thus, formerly "feminine products" like fragrances, hair dyes, jewelry, and personal care products have begun to be marketed to male consumers, but not with complete success in some countries. These products are often positioned as appealing to men who do not conform entirely to the masculine stereotype, but who embrace an ideal personality that includes such traits as romantic, tender, and playful, albeit accompanied by confidence and independence (Solomon, 1999).


The present investigation was intended as a starting point toward developing a more complete understanding of masculinity and consumption, particularly in terms of how the symbolic nature of products and brands serves as a vehicle by which men can achieve a desired level of masculinity. Using an exploratory, depth interview approach, we attempted to shed light on contemporary masculine self-images, product and brand symbolism, and the product usage and brand selection of male consumers. A primary interest in this research was to identify the various representations of men and masculinity as revealed by male consumers, and to suggest implications for marketing strategy. This interest stems from the expectation that the traditional image of masculinity has changedCnot by moving closer to the traditional image of femininity, but through a representation that differentiates masculinity from femininity in a new and different way.

Consistent with these goals, our investigation centered on two guiding questions:

* How do men define themselves, and in what ways does product consumption help assist them in their self-definition?

* How do product purchases help male consumers project their masculinity or play out their male roles?

In order to narrow the scope of this preliminary study, we focused the depth interviews on products related to the bodyCspecifically, fragrance and personal care products. In recent years, researchers have begun to focus their attention on the "sociology of the body", in attempts to discern how consumers naturally draw distinctions between self and body (Synnott, 1993; Thompson & Hirschman, 1995), and the implications of body image on consumer rituals of self-care (Rook, 1985) and the pursuit of beauty ideals (Bloch & Richins, 1992). Body-related products have grabbed the attention of marketers in recent years and there is growing evidence that the way a man cares for his body is indicative of the self-image he wishes to convey.

We chose to utilize the comprehensive interview approach in order to better understand the complex world of lived experience from the point of view of those who live itCin this case, male consumers of various ages and backgrounds. This approach was successfully utilized by Kaufmann (1995) in a related subject: the presentation of women’s bodies on beaches. Because of the interpretative nature of the qualitative interview approach, the methodology also enabled us to benefit from the dual culture (American and French)/dual gender (male and female) makeup of the authors of the present article who served as interpreters of the interview texts.


In order to examine the relationship between men and products, we utilized a semi-structured interview guide with questions intended to stimulate an open-ended conversation between the interviewer (a female business student [Six out of 30 interviews were conducted by the second author.]) and the interviewee. The first part of the interview guide pertained to the relationship between men and products and between men and the universe of consumption. Respondents were asked about products and brands that they considered to be masculine, products that are specifically for men, products that a man cannot use or cannot buy, shops that pose difficulties for themselves or male consumers in general. Explanations (such as physical, cultural, and the like) were sought relative to responses to items dealing with products that our interviewees held as inappropriate for men.

The second part of the interview guide focused on specific products which the interviewee was to consider in terms of whether they projected a masculine image. The product list consisted of the following: umbrella, scarf, ring, bracelet, earring, suit, fragrance, face cream, shaving cream, skirt, tight t-shirt, shoes with heels, bleached or dyed hair. They also were asked to identify magazines and television programs targeted to men. The final part of the interview pertained to a general consideration of men and masculinity in contemporary society. Respondents were asked to describe what it means to be a man today; how they differed from their fathers or grandfathers; desired and appropriate qualities that men must have; and the importance of appearance, attire, and personal care for men.

Each interview was conducted individually in a private setting and lasted between 30 minutes and one hour. Respondents were informed about the general nature of the research objectives and were assured that their anonymity and confidentiality of responses would be protected. The respndents, who were all French, consisted of 30 volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 65 years old and varying in educational level, profession, and place of residence (see Table 1). All of the interviews were conducted in the French language and transcribed into English by the second author.


Although the interviews touched on a number of marketing-related themes, four main issues appeared to stand out as most relevant to the research questions that served as the focus of the present investigation: (1) the denial of differentiation; (2) the denial of consumption; (3) the denial of the seductive nature of the male body; and (4) the image of man in daily life and advertising. Each of these areas is considered below, with representative interview excerpts.

1. The denial of differentiation.

Several comments from our respondents reflected the belief that in contemporary society, the differentiation between men and women in terms of sex roles and sex-typed behaviors is no longer evident, or at least is less apparent than in the past. For example, one respondent commented that "there is no longer any difference between a man and a woman ... today in behavior; it is no longer really the man who leads the couple." Another stated that "products are for everybody; only advertising tells you if it is for men or women or the presentation, the packaging, but the products are the same." This egalitarian view is exemplified by magazines, which, according to one respondent, "Are for everybody, not only for men; even magazines for men can interest women and vice versa." Relative to magazine consumption, one respondent pointed out that perhaps the only gender-specific exception is for sex magazines (and videos), which is viewed as a more hidden or private example of consumer behavior. Such perceptions of egalitarianism in products and product usage extends also within the realm of sports and other recreational activities: one respondent pointed out that bicycle riding "can be shared with men or women." A denial of differentiation was also seen in our respondents’ reactions when asked to identify specific products as masculine or feminine. A large proportion of responses revealed a difficulty in linking traditionally sex-typed products such as umbrellas, bags, scarves, skin cream, tight t-shirts, hair coloring, and fragrances with either male or female usage.



Several interviewees were rather adamant in their denial of sex-typed categories for people and things. According to one respondent, "I refuse categories, so except for the differences of nature, nothing is specific." When our respondents identified gender differences, they focused on the obvious, biological/physiological ones, such as hormonal or physical capabilities linked to strength: "The biological man can be found at work, with his aggressive instinct,... the definition of territories... there are the dominant ones and the dominated." It is only for biological differences that distinctions in product usage were mentioned; that is, in terms of the difficulty for men to use body products for women.

Various interpretations of the apparent egalitarianism on the part of our interviewees are possible. Particularly when interviewed by a female, our male respondents may have been reluctant to point out differences among men and women and consumption objects because of a fear of appearing sexist in front of a woman. The denial of differentiation may also be attributed to the changing marketplace, where unisex products (e.g., CK1 fragrance) and advertising have become more commonplace. In such a context, admitting differences could also be seen as admitting a traditional or conservative point of view, out of touch with current trends, which might be disparaged in interview and non-interview contexts. In this regard, one responent referred to the "bad image of men before," which included such traits as macho, aggressive, and rude. The refusal of differentiation was consistent with an apparent view on the part of the interviewees that it is impossible for men to have their own products and still maintain a desire for equality. Further, to deny equality would pose the risk that men could become a minority, further threatened by the growing social and economic gains won by women. These ideas are consistent with the work of Kaufmann (1992), whose long-term research with couples has revealed equality as a personal and social (as well as political) imperative within a democratic system.

2. The denial of consumption.

In a number of regards, our interviewees appeared reluctant or unable to acknowledge that consumption plays a major role in their lives. Generally speaking, consumption was perceived as more of a feminine concern, associated with the household and tasks typically performed by the woman. According to our respondents, men are more oriented toward the domain of work, which is outside the home, with the exception of household tasks for which they are more apt to take responsibility, such as electrical or other manual repairs.

More specifically, the denial of consumption was reflected in our respondents’ comments regarding personal objects, which are not seen as a fundamental male preoccupation. For example, one interviewee commented that "a man doesn’t need a bag because he doesn’t need products to take care of him, like beauty products ... a man only needs his keys and (identity) papers." When asked to freely recall brand names associated with male products, the majority of our interviewees were unable to list more than three or four. The brands Gillette, Mennen, and Brut were commonly cited, which corresponds to the respondents’ tendency to identify shaving as the only truly masculine consumption area.

Another common tendency among our respondents was their assertion that products for men are much less numerous than those available for women. According to one respondent, "for clothes, it is much more limited than for women; for body care products, all that is not soap or shampoo is less for men. Very few men use face cream; when they use it it is because they have skin problems." One point that was emphasized has to do with the labels used to name products; that is, when men use certain products typically associated with female consumption, the products are often called something else: hair spray for women vs. hair gel for men; a bag for a woman vs. a wallet, saddlebag, or backpack for a man. Other examples that were cited are reflected in different French words for the same product, depending on whether the product is for a man or for a woman: a woman’s scarf ("foulard") vs. a man’s scarf ("Tcharpe"); a woman’s suit ("un tailleur") vs. a man’s suit ("un costume"); a ring for a woman ("une bague") vs. a wedding ring ("une alliance") or signet ring ("une chevaliFre") for a man.

In the view of our respondents, products, tasks, and activities considered as masculine are generally exhibited outside the home and are traditionally associated with men. Three categories of products and activities were apparent: (a) economic products linked to the traditional role of the man to earn money and to take part in urban life (e.g., business magazines, politics, "a suit and a tie"); (b) products or leisure activities requiring strength or violence (e.g., judo, karate, boxing, football, weapons, taking out the garbage can, closing the windows and shutters, cleaning large windows, alcohol consumption) or linked with nature (e.g., fishing and hunting) or sex (e.g., erotic magazines, pornography); and (c) technical products or leisure activities (e.g., cars, computers, remote control). Some products were discussed by combining the technological and aggressive elements; for example, the masculine car is perceived differntly from the feminine car in terms of power, size, and aggressiveness.

Other products or tasks were discussed by our respondents in the context of the egalitarian discourse described above. That is, certain household tasks, such as cleaning the table or washing dishes are performed not so much because they represent masculine activities, but because they enable the man to obtain equity relative to the work done by the woman in the relationship. As one respondent described it, it is the man’s responsibility "to wash up when the woman has prepared a good meal."

While few of our respondents were willing or able to identify products that they perceived to be masculine in nature, they were more apt to discuss products as linked with man’s identity, as defined by their jobs and the work they perform (outside of a consuming world). For them, the identity of men is not in the area of consumption or shopping because these are viewed as aspects of the feminine world. Indeed, shopping has long been stereotyped as a woman’s pastime and our respondents appeared to maintain this feminine connotation (cf. Firat, 1991). Masculine products were not associated with the body, appearance, or fashion, with the exception of shaving. Shaving is also the masculine activity for which our interviewees were most able to offer masculine brand names; they also exhibited familiarity with technical brands. Among the masculine brands identified were Nike, Adidas, Rolex, BMW, Lacoste, Bic, Celio, Levi’s, Philips, Armani, Microsoft, and Apple. Some of the younger interviewees appeared more able to name brands than older respondents, especially for fragrance brands.

Overall, the interviews portrayed the world of consumption as a foreign one for French men. Our respondents had difficulty naming and speaking about brands, and their comments tended to reveal that consumption is not a domain that is central to their lives. Familiar brands were largely limited to sports (e.g., Adidas, Reebok), fashion (e.g., Levis, Celio), and shaving (e.g., Gillette, Mennen, Bic).

3. The denial of the seductive nature of the body.

Consistent with the overall tendency among French consumers towards discretion and the avoidance of ostentation (Mermet, 1996), our respondents revealed an aversion to showing or displaying their bodies in public settings. In their view, to show one’s body is to reveal an overt attempt to attract or to seduce. This denial of the body is apparent in one respondent’s belief that "men can’t use overly exuberant products, not too showy products, because it is more typically women who show themselves." Although it was the younger interviewees who gave more importance to appearance, rarely were products spontaneously offered as relating to the body or to seduction, with the exception of fragrances and shaving products. The product most frequently mentioned as inappropriate for the man is nail polish, which combines seduction and artificiality. The interviewees indicated that they do buy soap or shampoos, but primarily in order to clean themselves rather than to be handsome or seductive. According to one interviewee, "a man cannot be too interested by body products."

Our respondents also revealed that they find it difficult to buy products specifically for women, such as hygiene products or women’s underwear, and rarely purchase such items for women; however, there were indications that while it might be possible for them to buy such products, it is the use of such products that is seen as more forbidden. This contrasts with the tendency for many women to make purchases for men of such items as underwear, shaving products, and the like. The denial of the body evidenced by our respondents carried over to their aversion to advertisements that presented men in an unnatural way, as too affected or mannered.

4. The image of man.

A number of comments from our interviewees reflect a belief tat the image of man has undergone a variety of changes in recent years, to the extent that it is quite different to be a man today than during previous generations. According to one respondent, to be a man today "is to have a good job, this hasn’t changed, but what has changed is in what the family means; a man is not admired because of the cohesion of his family, but more because of his job." The importance of work was emphasized by several interviewees, including one who maintained that "men get from their work a position a social position, so for them it is very important; it is through their work that they represent something." Today’s man is also viewed very traditionally as "courageous, strong with muscles, all that looks natural." While there is perhaps nothing new about these portraits, unlike their fathers’ generation, men today "now have to share," in the sense that the concept of head of the family no longer exists and there are now shared responsibilities for educating the child.

In general, our respondents were critical of the depiction of men in advertising. A typical view from one respondent claimed that male characters are portrayed as "too feminine, too sophisticated, artificial, precious, and over-refined; men and women in advertising look similar, with a lot of muscles and a baby!" Another respondent suggested that the man in advertising "is diminished to some extent, like before they were relentless, tough towards women, now they victimize the men."

Our respondents revealed varying conceptions of masculinity: for one, masculinity represents vanity, a word for women to qualify men; for another, it means "bestiality; masculinity is to be a male, and to be a male is to be an animal." Another respondent characterized masculinity as "strength, not physical strength, but interior strength." Also evident in their remarks was a fear to be revealed as a minority, in the sense of being in a weaker position relative to women. Thus, one respondent commented that "some men don’t like to go into clothes shops or underwear shops with their women because here, for the first time they feel discomfort, they are in the minority." Other indications of this fear were apparent in their suggestions that men feel guilty with respect to not taking care of their family or in their refusal to receive orders from a woman. According to one respondent, "to assume the difference from the other gender, without trying to be too close with the other gender, is to be normal, to be considered as somebody, to #feel well in one’s skin.’" Our younger respondents, who perhaps have more to prove, were more likely to focus on the social side of masculinity than were the older respondents. One spoke of masculinity as being "handsome, big, with muscles and [body] hair," and another spoke of "a big guy full of muscles with hair everywhere."

What emerges from these varying portrayals of the male image and masculinity is a set of characteristics or aspects that differentiates men and women. A man can be defined strictly in relation to a woman, in terms of physiology, musculature, and a predilection to face events as well as possible by taking an active attitude in attempts to control the environment. For older men, masculinity is to be responsibleCto face responsibilities and to keep one’s word.

Our respondents also revealed how a fear of homosexuality makes it difficult for men to accept equality with women: equality implies that one recognizes the feminine side of man and the possibility of homosexuality. One respondent admitted that "it is difficult for me to imagine buying products which would give a feminine connotation to the use of these products, for instance, toiletry products that would give a too feminine side, clothes which would give the illusion of homosexuality, or something like that." Consistent with this view, another respondent suggested that some products that have a feminine association are linked to "the dark side of men, sometimes homosexuality, sometimes maginality, violence. Earrings on men are associated with hooligans, bad boys, evil company."


Do men define themselves and their masculinity in terms of the products and brands they use? Our interviews with male consumers suggest that the answer to this question is not an obvious one. Respondents exhibited a degree of difficulty in discussing products and brands in general, as well as in terms of gender associations, and their comments reflected an unwillingness to admit that products and consumption represent central aspects of their lives. Nonetheless, there were indications that these tendencies may be based in part on fear: fear of condoning traditional attitudes about male and female roles; fear of becoming a minority relative to the position of women in society; fear of admitting a feminine side to their self-image (and the corresponding fear of homosexuality); and fear of admitting that products and brands represent important aspects of their public and private self-images.

We expected that the symbolic nature of consumption objects would serve as a vehicle by which men develop their sense of self and their masculinity. To whatever extent this is true, men tend not to be willing to admit it. However, care should be taken when considering the generality of our findings in light of some methodological limitations of the study. As an exploratory, qualitative investigation, our goal was to obtain preliminary insight into the link between self-image, masculinity, and consumption. Given that our sample was limited to males residing in the Paris region of France, it is unclear whether similar findings would be obtained from other samples. Additionally, the fact that the interviews were conducted by women may have inhibited the responses of male interviewees, particularly when discussing issues related to self-image and sexuality.

Further research on male consumers is necessary in order to clarify the marketing implications of our results. Some of the issues worthy of future consideration include the apparent difficulty in targeting men when marketing products with gender-specific symbolic associations; the importance for advertisers to project an image of man that is more consistent with the way their targets perceive themselves and their place in society; the implications for retailers of the reluctance of men to enter women’s shops; and the importance of labeling similar products differentially for men and women. A logical next step in the research process is to pursue the notion of consumption denial in a quantitative assessment of the role of products and brands in the definition and construction of the masculine self-image.

The use of culturally diverse samples and a focus on age and materialism as moderating variables in future studies of masculinity and consumption is also recommended. Future research on masculinity also might benefit from a focus on women, in terms of their conceptions of masculinity and the consumption circumstances that stimulate the masculine side of their personalities.


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Allan J. Kimmel, Ecole SupTrieure de Commerce de Paris, France
Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes, Ecole SupTrieure de Commerce de Paris, France


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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