NOT A MAN AMONG MEN…
Why don’t ‘alpha male’ marketing tactics work on me?
Whenever I see a product described as “ultimate strength,” or an indecipherably butch aftershave ad, or a snack bar with a hand grenade logo, or virtually anything to do with shaving, I feel totally discombobulated. I try to picture the man that those products are being aimed at and I can’t get much further than “probably plays rugby.”
And yet these products are everywhere. I’m sure it’s an effective strategy when applied to the population at large… it must be, right? It’s so ubiquitous that it must work. But it still feels to me like it’s the narrowest possible view of masculinity. An outdated (and, to be honest, potentially harmful) stereotype of men as stoic, macho brutes; Action Man figurines made flesh. The branding doesn’t speak to me.
So, clearly I’m no alpha male… Does that make me a beta male?
Well, maybe. You could certainly make a case for it, if you were so inclined: I work with ‘soft skills’ like languages. I love cats. I cook. I talk about my own mental health struggles. I’ve read a lot of Virginia Woolf. But I also like football. I’ve felled trees. I love dogs. I’ve been punched in the head. I’ve read a lot of Hemingway. So where does that leave us?
Obviously, these facts about me are pretty meaningless. They just happen to play into certain stereotypes about male personality types. And to be honest, I’ve never really been comfortable with the concept of alpha and beta males to begin with.
It doesn’t sit right. It doesn’t map well to the range of men I know and have met throughout my life: they don’t fall into one of two categories. Very few are self-described “alphas” like the brashly swaggering candidates you see on The Apprentice. Even fewer would like to be. So where did our ideas about masculinity and the alpha/beta binary come from, and why are they so widespread?
Well, as is the case for so many of our misguided assumptions about human nature, it comes from the animal kingdom.
In a study of pack dynamics, the world’s foremost wolf researcher, Dr L. David Mech proposed the idea that wolves formed groups made up of multiple families (the pack) and the adult males would fight amongst themselves for supremacy. The winner became the dominant force, leading the pack and having his pick of the females to breed with. The losing males – the betas – had to submit to the dominance of the alpha or faced rejection from the pack, becoming lone wolves.
There are a couple of problems with applying this to human society, though.
The first problem, and it’s a pretty significant one, is this:
PEOPLE ARE NOT WOLVES.
We have different social structures and roles. We think differently, have different instincts. We have speech, technology, agriculture, philosophy, and on, and on, and on. Applying the behaviours of animals to humans in the belief that there is some sort of incontrovertible natural order – the law of the jungle, the dog-eat-dog world – is not just nonsense, it’s harmful. The idea that violence is a man’s only route to a life free from submission is dangerous.
The other problem, if you needed more, is that the theory of the alpha/beta binary isn’t even correct.
Don’t believe me? Ask an expert. Ask our friend Dr. L. David Mech:
In his writing and research since that study, Mech has tried to undo the misconceptions that his research set in motion.
The data his study was based on was taken from wolves in captivity, where multiple family groups were placed in unnatural proximity, forced to find a way to co-exist in a confined space alongside other animals that they did not know.
In the wild, wolf packs are simply families, with roles and duties shared between healthy adults.
But the aplha/beta dynamic was a simple idea that appeared to back up a wrong-headed assumption that suited people who wanted to sell products to men. And now here we are: designating men roles in a binary that is too simplistic even to describe the behavioural patterns of wild animals.
Marketers: if you’re looking at your target demographic and you’ve used a generic descriptor like “alpha male” as shorthand, maybe it’s time to take a step back. Regardless of whether it’s effective (or just seen as effective), what assumptions are you making, and what harmful stereotypes might you end up perpetuating?
Like so many things, gender isn’t black and white. It exists along a spectrum. Most men aren’t the stereotypical “alphas” or “betas” that this kind of marketing imagines. They’re somewhere in between. They’re just men.
So stop selling to the big, bad wolf.
I’m on the hunt, I’m after you.