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OPINION | Meta Wagner

Gender-specific aging: ‘Just a number’ vs. ‘painful’

Ellen Weinstein for the Boston Globe

Last year, testosterone-replacement gels such as AndroGel and Axiron exceeded $2 billion in sales, and Premarin, an estrogen-replacement cream, surpassed $1 billion, largely due to relentless television advertising. But that’s where the similarity between advertising for men and women ends. And the difference speaks volumes about how advertisers feed into contrasting attitudes about men and women as they age.

In a TV spot for Axiron, a handsome man with a touch of gray and a scruffy beard narrates, “I always say, ‘Be the man with the plan.’” Fortunately, a blood test “showed [his condition] was low testosterone, not age.” Next, he’s bare-chested, applying the gel to his underarms while checking himself out in the mirror. Then, with his wife gazing admiringly, he’s flying to foreign lands, steering a motorboat through treacherous waters, and hiking near a crashing waterfall. In the same spirit, in an AndroGel ad, a man asserts that his low-T “was a number, not just me.”

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The message to men is clear and reassuring: It’s not your fault. You’re not getting older. You’re still hot and can afford exciting vacations and fun, expensive toys. You’re a man of decisive action!

Compare this with the advertising for Premarin, whose message is no less clear. Shots of worried women No. 1 and No. 2, with a voice-over: “Nobody told us to expect it — intercourse that’s painful.” Then worried women No. 3 and No. 4: “The problem isn’t likely to go away on its own.” And then woman No. 1, now looking determined: “So, it’s time we do something about it.” Finally, the tag line: “This is worth talking about.” In other words, be afraid. If you don’t use this product, your lady parts are going to — you know — and you’ll never have pleasure again.

It’s a blow for equality, in a back-handed sort of way, that these ads portray men and women alike as needing a hormone boost. Yet it’s also striking that women, who tend to live longer than men, are assumed to be more anxious about the challenges of age. And they probably are, not least because of ads and other media telling them they should be.

This is part of a broader pattern. Consider antidepressants, another highly advertised medication. Katherine Sharpe, author of “Coming of Age on Zoloft,” reports that 93 percent of magazine ads for antidepressants have featured a woman. This has contributed, she argues, to female antidepressant users outnumbering males 2.5 to 1.

Perhaps advertisers just know their audience. In a recent Atlantic article called “The Confidence Gap,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman cite research suggesting that men generally feel unjustifiably confident, while women feel underconfident. “Compared with men,” the writers declare, “women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”

It’s a blow for equality, in a back-handed sort of way.

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Yet playing to a greater tendency toward self-doubt among women isn’t the only option for advertisers. On a recent episode of Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer,” the host spoofs ads for estrogen-replacement cream and pointedly calls the condition “Low-E.” Women who know that a hormone count is not merely a number are just being smart. But, like men, they’d prefer the bitter pill with at least a little sugar coating.

Meta Wagner teaches writing at Emerson College and is writing a book on creative personality types.
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