Opinion //

The men’s health industry is bad for men’s health

Ease off your mates if they opt for a beanie in January or a cap indoors. Don’t let the corporations win.

Egg art by Ellie Stephenson.

I have for a long time strived to never punch down when it comes to a joke. Given my gender, sexuality, education, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, there are relatively few targets who meet this criteria. Fortunately for me, I always had one punchline to fall back on: male pattern baldness.

I have made jokes about guys who wear hats in the library, guys who must have left the house and forgotten to bring their hairline, and whether aliens are responsible for the crop circles you see on the tops of politicians’ heads. We men gifted ourselves the world and then demanded that everyone look the other way despite limited qualifications and rampant misconduct – surely we can deal with this modicum of mockery at our expense? Without analysing whether my jokes are funny, I never paused to consider whether they were fair. The atrocities that are men’s health ads have forced me to reconsider.

For those that don’t frequently watch sports, you might not be familiar with the “turning point” tagline foisted upon Ashley and Martin’s target demographic. Also unbeknownst to 50 per cent of the population, Facebook and Google have enabled Pilot to target people like me with entirely unnecessary advertisements promoting solutions to problems I was previously unfamiliar with. 

Pilot’s business plan is a simple one, founded upon the assumption that men don’t seek help because they are too proud to admit their problems, or embarrassed by the proposition of telling a doctor about issues with their follicles or their phallus. Telehealth companies have accurately determined that this barrier would be a particularly lucrative one to dismantle, and Pilot is one of the cabal of companies shipping the apparent magic bullet to baldness, fatness, and softness in nondescript packaging.

The problem with Pilot goes beyond men’s health specifically, and lies with their parent company Eucalyptus. Tim Doyle, one of its founders, jumped into the telehealth game after an extremely successful stint with direct-to-consumer mattress company Koala. When Doyle left Koala, their revenue had grown from $6 million a year to $100 million a year, and Doyle perfected the targeting of ads to consumers. Doyle summarised his marketing strategy in an interview with the Australian Financial Review: “We would just make so many ads. Some of it would go crazy well, some of it would do terribly, but people only saw the good stuff.” 

Doyle’s genius was making ads in-house, thus lowering their cost of production, and then progressively refining the ads in real time, based on which ones were receiving the most clicks. There was no chance of sinking funds into a failed campaign, and minimal costs associated with churning them out.

Online platforms allow advertisers to market as specifically as they want to. When the product being flogged is a memory foam mattress, the only ethical issue is that customers are being conned into buying a shit bed. When products address health conditions, ordinary salesmanship has the potential to become predatory. According to  the AFR, “One of the early lessons that Doyle still applies is finding the best place to advertise. For Pilot, which targets young men, ads placed on PornHub yielded good results.” Given the fact that porn addiction has been linked to erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, these patients might have been better served if their healthcare provider had suggested holistic treatment rather than a prescription. However, Pilot is better served by the second, because it is the one that makes the most money.

Eucalyptus has not been immune from the recent economic downturn. The Age reported Eucalyptus had to cut 20 per cent of its staff after an investor backed out of a deal. Tech start-ups can no longer haemorrhage money, and “cutting costs and chasing profitability has become a priority.” Presumably these measures will not negatively impact the vulnerable men Pilot targets, swooping in at their lowest point with costly treatments for problems that are not life threatening.

I recently messaged a mate of mine about his hair loss, and whether these companies have gotten to him. He said, “What’s wrong with the advertising? I don’t see much of it and don’t have an opinion on it”. My first reaction was that this really fucked over the point I was trying to make, but my second was the realisation that I had never properly asked him about how hair loss might have affected his mental health. So I did. “When I first made the choice to shave my head it was because I just hated the look of the thinning hair and didn’t want to be one of those guys who hangs onto every last hair”, he said.

We kept talking for another hour or so, and it was only when we were each about to go to sleep that he shared something more personal. “To be honest, I have been considering a transplant quite seriously, because the idea of attractiveness in my mind includes full hair. Not sure if I’ll end up going through with it, but it’s definitely something I’m weighing up.”

Ads for Pilot tell us that their service is terrific because they are discreet, but men’s health will only improve when it doesn’t have to be discreet. They tell vulnerable men that it is important to open up, but only if the person being opened up to is on Pilot’s payroll, and they do it with ads that have been vigorously refined until they are proven to generate sales.

I am grateful that the technology exists to give men self-confidence they lose when their hair starts to thin, and I hope the treatments become increasingly affordable. That said, I would prefer if baldness wasn’t the bogeyman for two-thirds of half the world’s population. So ease off your mates if they opt for a beanie in January or a cap indoors. Don’t let the corporations win.

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