What makes an ideal man? Page through the advertisements placed in a standard American men’s magazine, and you’ll find one idea: He is a stomping, yelling, shooting, drinking, fucking, tough guy. He has big muscles and a limited emotional range—stoic, angry, horny. He exists in dark alleyways, war zones, and fast cars. He holds his beer bottle over his crotch to approximate a boner.
If advertising is meant to be aspirational, these ads are presenting a pretty sad version of what American men can aspire to be. And advertisers aren’t selling this hyper-masculine ideal to just any man: They’re specifically targeting the younger, poorer, less-educated guys in the supermarket aisle. In the latest issue of the journal Sex Roles, a trio of psychologists at the University of Manitoba analyzed the advertising images in a slate of magazines targeted at men, from Fortune to Field and Stream. They counted up the ads that depict men as violent, calloused, tough, dangerous, and sexually aggressive—what the researchers call “hyper-masculine”—then indexed them with the magazine’s target demographics. Hyper-masculine images, the researchers found, are more likely to be sold to adolescents, who find higher “peer group support” for manly-man behaviors. They’re also sold to working-class men, who are “embedded in enduring social and economic structures in which they experience powerlessness and lack of access to resources” like political power, social respect, and wealth, and so turn to more widely accessible measures of masculine worth—like “physical strength and aggression.”
The magazines pushing this image most aggressively are Playboy and Game Informer, whose ads play on hyper-masculine tropes about 95 percent of the time. (Compare that to magazines like Golf Digest and Fortune, which rely on those images for about 20 percent of ads). Playboy and Game Informer represent two different segments of the hyper-masculine demo: The playboys and the gamers are both bringing in a low annual household income, but the playboys are older (the target age for readers is 30 to 39) and less likely to have attended college than their gaming peers. So while Game Informer’s socially-mobile twentysomethings can conceivably age out of these hyper-masculine tropes, Playboy’s readers are stuck with them.
These advertising trends speak to the latest development in Hugh Hefner’s sexual revolution. When Playboy launched in 1953, it was billed as a liberating, sophisticated, and intellectual response to conservative sexual norms. It featured icons like Marilyn Monroe and Ray Bradbury. It was not, in fact, inconceivable to read it for the articles. Sixty years later, the magazine’s advertisers are chasing a readership of middle-aged men who are undereducated and underpaid. Its vision of masculinity now looks constrictive. And its titular image—that of the wealthy man of leisure—plays ironically. Playboy’s version of sexual revolution was never very empowering to women and gay men. But if the tactics of its advertisers is any indication, it’s not a very liberating mold for straight guys, either.