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Communication to men

Men are a law unto their themselves when it comes to their health. But research suggests that they are moving from denial to having an enquiring interest in healthcare messages. So how do you tap into that Mars way of thinking?

Is it a simple biological fate – innate and inextricable – that a man's lifespan will be 10 per cent shorter than a woman's? Even with so many advances in medicine, it never seems to change. But is it biology or chemistry? Perhaps the real root of the statistic is men's attitude towards their health. Men often seem blindly optimistic about their well-being. As such, they are missing opportunities to extend their lives, either because of everyday distractions or just plain denial.

But finally, it looks like men's attitudes about their health are changing. In the past five years, researchers have seen an increasing trend toward personal wellness and healthier living across all consumer segments. This increase can be attributed in large part to the advent of the internet and other forms of digital communications.

More than ever, men are hearing or reading stories about the benefits of healthier living and drug and treatment efficacy. How then to turn this interest into action? Getting men to commit to a lifetime of health consciousness means reaching them with messages that cater to their shared attitudes and motivations, regardless of age, and then to their specific generational tendencies and priorities.

Be specific – men like it told how it is
Clarity is a virtue in any communications programme. For men and messages about their health, it's an absolute imperative. From diagnostic criteria and consequences of inaction to drug or treatment benefits and side effects, be clear! A message may not be relevant to every man, but be sure you are enabling the audience to make an intelligent, informed decision.

If relevance is established, be specific about next steps or you might waste that initial interest. A doctor's visit might be the ultimate objective, but other actionable items, each with their own reward or incentive, are necessary.

Given men's inclination to avoid or ignore health messages, anything other than perfect clarity about what is being discussed, how it's relevant, what the benefits of action will be, and how they can help themselves will go unheeded.

Use statistics to support the facts
Clarity for men means empirical evidence. Men react to statistics, be it box scores or stock tickers. In health matters, it's not enough to say men are simply "at risk" from something like prostate cancer once they reach a certain age. The message must say one out of six men is likely to develop prostate cancer and continue to build a powerful argument from there.

Provide statistics on risk by age group and highlight hereditary risks. You must create a statistical roadmap to relevance: if the numbers add up, a man will get it.

Speak his language
At the risk of generalising, there are some oft-discussed characteristics of the male mind. Men are often linear and goal-oriented. They tend to be analysers interested in ideas, problems and their solutions. They want facts. This explains why specifics and statistics are effective. It also opens up other opportunities for message resonance.

Men are often fascinated by science and technology and how they are incorporated into the world around them. Interest them beyond the personal. Create a greater context so they are engaged on a number of levels. Information and understanding is empowering. Action then becomes a prudent, rational decision.

Appeal to his competitive side
Men are ambitious, achievement-oriented and competitive. But the fact that healthy, vigorous men are more likely to perform better in all areas of their life than those less than healthy is often lost on men. It may be difficult to get men to understand prevention and risk, but as health pertains to goals, achievement and the status that success affords, a message is more effective.

Illness plays a significant role in achievement in its absence and presence. Men have proven again and again that they will ignore their health not only when they are healthy – thereby missing out on opportunities to avoid issues later in life – but also when they are limited or suffering.

It seems more 'masculine' to play through the pain. But what if they understood just how much better they could be? What if they understood how something was holding them back? Talk to them about peak performance. Speak to their ambitions.

Keep him proud
Men are not just a proud lot. They are optimistic and confident in their abilities. In early adulthood, they eagerly embrace independence. As responsibilities increase, they take pride in their role as providers. But once stricken, life and career are interrupted. Along with issues of performance, it's also important to communicate how much health issues can be limiting or even debilitating.

This works with men in good health, as well as with those confronting illness. Any message that doesn't articulate maintenance of, or a return to, independence and normalcy will be inadequate.

The launch of Viagra was a transformative event in the advancement of men's health consciousness. While the drug addresses only issues of intimacy, it does attend to larger issues of performance and pride.

It's been 10 years since Viagra was first introduced and it is easy to argue that men's interest in healthcare products and doctors' prescription pads has not been the same since. While there are myriad reasons other than ED for men to seek medical advice, Viagra's greatest achievement may be that it got more men to believe that health concerns can be discussed and treated so that they can feel like themselves again.

Make him feel responsible – for himself and loved ones
Men are more apt to consider their health as an act of responsibility to their family. The insurance industry (life, disability, long-term care) trades in the emotional resonance of duty to loved ones. In other words, what would happen to your family should health issues end in disease or death?

While men do not traditionally react to messages that are meant to elicit an emotional response – and though family is perhaps the most emotional of subjects – the trigger is still a practical one.

"What if something happened to me?" is an important question, and it is easy to imagine how a man's honest assessment of such a scenario would engender action. If they won't do it for themselves, they can at least do it for their family.

Here, though, messages of responsibility are more appropriate to the middle generations – Gen X and Baby Boomers – who are still actively paying mortgages, funding children's education, establishing retirement funds, etc.

Reach out to his family with information too
Since on their own men are more than likely to ignore a health message, reach the people they are most likely to listen to – their family.

Men still look to their doctors for advice, but getting them there is often the work of fathers, sons, brothers and wives. Family plays a huge role in informing men about hereditary risks, and more generally, as a trusted and persistent voice.

In our work for a product used in the prevention and treatment of prostate cancer, we helped create the very first 20 Questions for Dad conversation guide. According to the Journal of Social Psychology, men's relationships with their fathers are among the most influential and socially significant male relationships formed over the course of their lifetime. Many of their most important discussions occur within the father/son relationship. Yet, health isn't always one of them. Family history or personal experience makes the issue real.

The women in a man's life also play an enormous role. Again, they can be a source of family history, a voice of encouragement, and supportive in lifestyle and diet. Because of this, reaching men with messages about their health often means reaching out to Ladies Home Journal, Redbook and other exclusively female media channels. 

Show him a role model
Healthcare is, of course, a specialised field full of very educated men and women dealing with highly complex systems (our bodies) that are utterly intimidating and mysterious to the uninitiated. As such, most people rely exclusively on their doctors for advice.

As a trusted authority, however, doctors are available only within the confines of an office or hospital or clinic. A physician's prescription and advice are essentially endorsements, but that support is insular.

Another professional authority, however, can effectively take their place. Again, we need only look at Viagra's success with former presidential candidate and esteemed American politician, Bob Dole, as an example of how the right spokesperson can validate a health message by testifying to its effectiveness, dispelling myths and misconceptions, and overcoming fear or concerns about displaying weakness.

We recently worked to great success with former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman as a spokesperson for a drug that alleviates migraine headaches. Mr Aikman had long suffered from migraines, but he didn't seek treatment until after he retired from football. Instead, he always 'toughed it out' – a common reason men don't seek out a doctor or treatment. He was a recognised and respected figure who not only asserted that the drug worked, but made it plain that there was no reason to suffer.

Think about his life-stage
Men share some similar attitudes regardless of age. But because priorities naturally shift across generations, which kinds of messages will be heard will vary. Millenials, those who are  between the ages of 18 and 31, are the 'now' and the 'know' generation. They are the first generation to grow up immersed in the digital revolution. They live with laptops, with the internet, with cell phones, with MP3 players.

They regularly seek, receive, and even expect, information. And while they're ready to listen, marketers still need to speak their language. These young adults maintain an active lifestyle, but exhibit only a moderate level of health consciousness. They are the generation whose interest is more likely to be piqued by an approach which focuses on performance enhancement and virility instead of longevity and long-term health.

A multivitamin, for instance, should focus on improved physical or mental performance, increased energy, and/or building better immunity to everyday ailments such as colds, so that they may maintain regular peak performance.

The stereotype of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976) as being seemingly directionless is all but gone now as Gen-Xers settle into adulthood and generally live productive lives. But studies indicate that the generation is by far the most stressed.

They are feeling more and more burnt out as responsibilities mount and social safety nets such as national insurance, pension plans and health insurance that previous generations relied on look as if they will go or diminished by the time their turn comes. However, Gen-Xers are willing to listen, which is not surprising given that they grew up along with the Internet with all the information and analysis it offers.

They understand health and emotional well-being issues are interrelated and have indicated that they will make significant sacrifices to improve these areas.

Those golden years…
Not surprisingly, Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are the demographic most interested in receiving health messages. Boomers are intent on redefining what it means to be retired. Many are active and expect to be vigorous once they leave the workforce. Those that have previously ignored their health now have no choice but to pay closer attention to it if they're serious about enjoying the later stages of life.

Marketers would be wise to craft health messages that tap into their interest, ability and opportunity to enjoy an active, fulfilling lifestyle. Don't forget, too, that once retired, they have more time to research their health than other segments.

The Swing Generation, born between 1933 and 1945, and the WWII Generation, born before 1933, are also much more likely to listen to messages about their health.

Physician visits are more frequent, and treatment and intervention is likely to already be a part of their lives. The doctor is still easily the most trusted source of information, but wives and families are also likely to play a big role in enquiring into their well-being and encouraging treatment.

Keep the conversation going
A single advertisement or article or conversation may very well get a man to a doctor. But the most effective communications programmes create a continued presence in a man's life. If he doesn't immediately act, he is not likely to revisit or research a message. If he sees a message again and then again, however, and if he hears about it from a friend, father or wife, then he is more apt to heed that message's call. 

Each generation has overlapping but also distinctive media preferences. Millenials like to be in the know and even see information as a form of status. They look to the internet for information, but magazines are also extremely popular. Gen-Xers also rely on the Internet to get informed, but they listen to a lot of radio as well. Baby Boomers are actually the largest online demographic, but they also still turn to TV and newspapers for information. The Swing and WWII generations are gaining comfort with the Web, but still rely primarily on newspapers and television to stay informed.

An informed choice
So we know that men are more receptive than ever to messages concerning their health. From issues of vanity to vulnerability, they are actively seeking information and answers to healthcare questions. But the messages that resonate must strike a balance between their general attitudes and inclinations and their generational priorities.

Just because men are reading and listening more, this does not mean that they will automatically take action. They want facts and they need to understand health as part of a greater context. They will still make up their own mind and on their own time, but they can't do it alone.

The author
Sally Ann Barton is head of North American Healthcare at Cohn & Wolfe. She can be contacted at

14th November 2008


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