Real Men Buy Paper Towels, Too

Mike LaFavore sees himself as a pretty liberated guy. Both he and his wife work long hours--he's executive editor of Men's Health magazine, and she's a free-lance writer--so they split household and child-care chores. Grocery shopping? LaFavore, 40, considers himself a master. "I'm certainly not embarrassed to be seen shopping," he says. One thing he adds, though: "I would not be caught dead with coupons."

Meet New Age Man and his shopping cart. Marketers are trying harder than ever to entice him to buy products tht have been traditionally purchased by women. LaFavore knows about this interest firsthand. The current issue of Men's Health, a 650,000-circulation monthly, sports full-page ads for Dannon yogurt, Advil pain medicine, Colgate toothbrushes, Kraft salad dressing, and Nutra-sweet. Other marketers such as Kmart, Campbell Soup, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have run ads showing men cuddling babies, shopping shrewdly, and dispensing peanut butter.

DENTED EGOS? Behind such efforts is the brute force of statistics. With 70% of women holding jobs outside the home, millions of men are doing chores their fathers would never have dreamed of. According to market consultant Allen McCusker, president of Canaan Parish Group, in New Canaan, Conn., men bought 25% of the groceries in the U.S. last year, up from 17% five years ago. Nielsen Marketing Research says males buy billions of dollars' worth of such ho-hum items as detergent and baby food (table)--products whose markets have recently been growing sluggishly, if at all. Small wonder, then, that marketers are taking aim at men after battling for decades to influence women's purchases.

Marketers are treading carefully, though. They're wary of denting male egos forged in the tradition that the only things men should buy are booze, cars, and electronics. Peter Hirsch, creative director of Kmart's ad agency, Calet, Hirsch & Ferrell Inc., has seen men thrash out this shopping angst in focus groups. "Men sit there with their football shirts and their baseball hats and say, 'I do the shopping and take the laundry down,'" he says. "Then they look around, because they don't want to be the only bozo doing the laundry."

To put embarrassed male shoppers at ease, Hirsch has devised hundreds of TV spots for the $35 billion retailer. Many show men shopping at Kmart for such unmacho items as baby shampoo and children's books. The key is casting a manly type. Take the spot of a dad tossing baby shampoo into the cart while talking to his infant. The actor. Mike Starr, had a more violent role in the movie Goodfellas: He helps orchestrate a heist before showing up dead in a garbage truck. Kmart, whose sales increased 8% last year, is so pleased with the campaign that it plans new spots with similar themes.

SPORTS NUTS. Campbell Soup Co. has also tried to appeal to maleness since Anthony J. Adams, the company's research director, found that 80% of all men do some major food shopping every month. So the marketer has deliberately been using more men in ads and buying pages for Chunky Soup in such male-oriented magazines as Sports Illustrated, Field & Stream, and Rolling Stone.

Adams also wants Campbell's TV ads to reach men as well as the traditional core audience of women. In a spot for Campbell's Prego spaghetti sauce, Prego drips more slowly than rival Ragu through cheesecloths into glass bowls. How doesn that work for guys? It's competitive, for one. Says Adams: "Comparison advertising strikes a familiar chord with men, because they're big sports nuts." And the idea of rib-sticking satisfaction is also supposed to grab men. Prego has been holding on to its 26% market share, while Ragu is down.

Other ads emphasize the nurturing side of New Man. In a current commercial by Grey Advertising Inc. for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Jif peanut butter, a mother and two fathers sit in a playground with their children. "Funny. All you guys used to talk about was sports and cars," muses the mother. "Yup," says one father. "Now, it's playground and peanut butter." One little girl's mother is nowhere to be seen--a big change for P&G, which intoned for years that "Choosy mothers choose Jif."

Plenty of companies, though, don't much like to discuss any efforts to reach male shoppers. J&J's ads for Baby Diaper Rash Relief show the hairy hand of a man, wedding ring in view, lifting a baby. Seems like a clear bid for the paternal vote. But J&J will say only: "This ad demonstrates a commitment to understanding the changing lifestyles of parents." Scott Paper Co. won't identify the audience targeted in ads for Baby Fresh wipes, which depict a baby smiling at a man's partially hidden face.

Why the reticence? Some cynics say the pitches are really women's ads in politically correct clothing. The logic: Women find reassurance in ads where men are enthusiastically shouldering their share of family chores--whether or not they actually are. "The presence of fathers in ads is very popular among mothers," says Dan Ambrose, publisher of Child magazine.

Some marketers do say ads with men help them reach women. In a current commercial for Upjohn Co.'s Motrin IB pain reliever, a burly father sits down to a make-believe tea party with his tow-headed daughter, while an announcer says a bad headache almost forced this dad to forgo teatime. The message seems straightforward: Motrin is strong enough to relieve a man's headache. Nope. "It really isn't an effort to target men," says Bill Sever, director of analgesic brands in Upjohn's Consumer Products Div. Sever thinks women will reason that a painkiller that can help a big man will work for them, too.

"Pshaw. That's not what I play back when I see the commercial," says consultant McCusker. "This ad shows that men are now doing things differently and suffer from the same pains women do." Still, McCusker agrees that subtlety pays when selling such products to men. For starters, there's the risk of alienating women. Or men. "Men still do have this macho complex," he says. Once again, sexual politics makes Presidential politics look like child's play.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE