What will it take to get macho men to wear masks? A recent study by U.C. Berkeley and Middlesex University London found that men are more likely to go out without a mask because they find them uncool, shameful, and a sign of weakness. Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, whose constituents include many fishermen and snowboarders, has some ideas about how to win them over. He has shared a new statewide ad campaign that uses humor to nudge all-American men to wear masks.
The ads look like they could be for a sporting goods brand or cigarette company. They feature men doing outdoor activities, like riding a snowmobile and hunting, wearing bandanas and parkas that cover their faces. Each features a little joke about the face covering in question. “Preventing disease is like fishing,” says one. “Only you never actually catch anything.”
The timing is auspicious. Coronavirus infection rates are spiking across the country. The Berkeley-Middlesex study revealed that the stigma attached to wearing a face covering prevented men from wearing a mask as frequently as they should. This gender divide is evident even at the White House, where Donald Trump is rarely seen wearing a mask (and has mocked Joe Biden for wearing one), while Melania Trump has encouraged others to wear masks on Instagram by modeling one herself.
Research shows that wearing a mask is an effective weapon in the fight against the coronavirus, reducing infection rates by about 25% in areas where they are widely worn. As infection rates hit record levels in many states, simply getting the population to wear a mask is one of the cheapest and most effective public health interventions at our disposal.
As journalist Hunter Schwartz points out in his newsletter Yello, getting men to care about health issues is not a new challenge. Men avoid going to the doctor, for instance, which is partly why they have shorter lifespans compared with women. There is a long history of officials appealing to masculine stereotypes to get men to care about public health. During the 1918 pandemic, for instance, ads were dominated by images of men and boys, and they tended to appeal to stereotypically masculine ideals like patriotism and heroically protecting your community.
Montana is among the first states to appeal to men who are self-conscious about wearing masks, but given that coronavirus infection rates are peaking around the country, others would be wise to follow. Cleverly, the campaign doesn’t refer to masks directly. It invites men to wear “face coverings” of any kind, including ski masks or bandanas. Pro tip: Buck Mason has a line of stylish bandanas that are made in the United States in a look that can only be described as bank robber chic. It doesn’t get more macho than that.