Valentine’s ads often tell a very particular story: that men are forced to spend exorbitant amounts of money on romantic gifts, otherwise their partners will think less of them. Here’s what experts have to say about the cultural narrative surrounding Valentine’s Day and how it can affect some men’s mental health.
Ostensibly, Valentine’s Day is an occasion for romance, a day when we celebrate and remind each other of the supreme importance of love. It’s actually a gold rush for marketers and a vacation that many people despise. However, for some who are single, their isolation stands out. And for others in a relationship, it often holds them and their relationship to unattainable standards.
Many of those standards are propagated through advertisements. Every February typically brings a storm of ads promoting the narrative that the best (and perhaps only) way to show your affection to your spouse or partner is to spend a certain amount of money on a limited range of gifts. Marketing slogans like ‘Every kiss begins with Kay’ have successfully intertwined consumerism with romance.
Historically, much of the advertising surrounding Valentine’s Day has been directed specifically at men. The holiday has been described by marketers as a day when men in particular should go out of their way to buy opulent and flashy gifts, often for their female partners. There’s something of a self-perpetuating phenomenon here: Valentine’s Day ads tend to portray men as stoic purveyors and providers, which in turn perpetuates those male stereotypes throughout our culture, according to Dr. Andrew Smiler, author and therapist who specializes in the mental health of adolescent boys and men.
All of this creates a disproportionate amount of emotional stress on men. Smiler — whose analysis focused specifically on straight men — says the unrealistic expectations promoted by Valentine’s Day ads can make it a particularly difficult time of year for many men. “There is an expectation that a man in a committed relationship with a woman will get his jewelry, or at least ridiculously expensive flowers, and [that] there will be an expensive romantic dinner. That’s the standard expectation of what you do on Valentine’s Day… It’s a lot of pressure, because if you don’t, it’s often interpreted as a sign that maybe you’re not as invested in the relationship as you used to be. be or how you should be.”
Dr. Jennefer Ho, Senior Clinical Director at Executive Mental Health, expresses similar concerns: “First, ads can make single men feel distressed if they don’t have a romantic partner. Second, men in relationships may feel like they have to make grand gestures and purchases to show their love. There is an implication that men do not love their partners if they do not meet these expectations. There is also a message that making big purchases and gestures is the only way to show love.
”Impacts on mental health can include increased depression and feeling [as if they’re not] good enough. Also, men may experience anxiety as Valentine’s Day approaches. They may worry about buying the perfect gift or upset their partner if they don’t meet their expectations. I think it’s fair to say that the standard for men on Valentine’s Day is unattainable.”
Women, of course, are also the target of Valentine’s Day ads. The main difference seems to be that while men are often portrayed as gift givers, women tend to be portrayed as recipients. Both sides of that equation can inflate expectations that, if not met, can lead to feelings of embarrassment among men, disappointment among women, and general turmoil in relationships.
Valentine’s Day is by no means the biggest day of the year for advertising. That place is reserved for him. Super Bowl, which this year falls on the day before Valentine’s Day and has consequently overshadowed much of the holiday’s advertising space. But Valentine’s Day seems unique in its emphasis on a single narrative, repeated year after year: the man buys the woman a gift, gets sex in return, saves the relationship for another year. The story isn’t always told that explicitly, of course, but the implied plot is usually there.
“There are several problems with this whole setup,” says Smiler. “One is that it really reinforces the idea that men are only as good as their spending power… And then in exchange for that spending power, you get sex, or at least something sexual… So it really pigeonholes men. in this role not only as a household provider, but as [the one who provides] these great gifts to hold a woman’s attention, and especially her sexual attention. And presumably, if he’s wrong, there will be less attention and sex.”
What people and brands should focus on
To mitigate negative emotions around Valentine’s Day, Smiler says she tries to get her customers to start thinking about and communicating what giving gifts really means to them personally. Some couples may decide that it shouldn’t be a priority, and instead choose to celebrate their relationship in other, less expensive, but more satisfying ways. He says that advertisers can also play an active role in changing the sometimes damaging cultural narrative that currently surrounds Valentine’s Day.
“Ideally, this is one of two ways. It’s not a celebration of women’s love for men, it’s a celebration of love and romance. [so there] they should be gifts both ways… I’d like to see the commercials where the woman gives jewelry to the guy, just to see the other side. So maybe we can at least strike a little balance there, even though gift-giving is a sign that your love is still in the zeitgeist.”
Dr. Karen Freberg, a professor of strategic communications at the University of Louisville, offers this advice for brands looking to minimize the negative mental health impact of their Valentine’s Day ads: “Brands need to embrace empathy and The team behind the brands must ask themselves: ‘How would we feel if we heard these messages? How are we, as a brand, contributing to the general state of mental health of our audience? What are the different interpretations that our audiences could have with these messages? How can we reduce the stress level of our audience if they feel pressured?’
“I think if brands stepped back from asking these questions during brainstorming sessions, they would be more effective at this. Also, we cannot assume that everyone will view Valentine’s Day messages the same way. We don’t know what battles or associations audiences may have, so brands need to step back, reflect, evaluate, and then move on.”