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Male Compensatory Consumption

Male Compensatory Consumption in American History

The overcompensation thesis states that men cope with gender insecurities through extreme demonstrations of their masculinity.  In contemporary America, these might include eating red meat, driving massive trucks, or brandishing firearms.  This research investigates how such compensatory consumption has evolved and considers its societal impacts in the present day.  

Witkowski, Terrence H. (2020), “Male Compensatory Consumption in American History,” Journal of Macromarketing, 40 (4/December), forthcoming. 

Over a century ago, psychoanalysts Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud developed theories of “masculine protest” and more recent work in gender and identity theories have added additional lines of support for a male overcompensation hypothesis.  At times when economic, social, and cultural conditions present new threats to established norms of masculinity, some men may react to their insecurities through highly gendered forms of consumer behavior known as male compensatory consumption.  When expressed through sports or informal barbecuing, such activities can be relatively benign, even healthy, and positive.  Yet, in the forms of smoking, drinking, gun violence, some truck driving, and overt political extremism, male compensatory behavior might harm personal health, public safety, the natural environment, and social accord.  Support for the thesis exists but is not overwhelming and further research is needed. 

This article approaches male compensatory consumption in the United States from a historical perspective.  It presents evidence from four separate periods – circa 1900, the 1930s, the 1950s, and circa 2000 – showing cultural continuities and change in the meaning of masculinity, but also similarities and differences in the perceived threats, the groups of men most affected, and their apparent responses.  Threats to manhood have come in intersecting economic, social, and cultural forms.  The most serious employment problems occurred during the 1930s and to a lesser degree since the 1980s.  The nature of work changed around 1900 when increasingly industrialized scale production meant that men were losing their sense of traditional economic independence, and again in the 1950s with the rise of stifling corporate bureaucracies.  Women challenged male entitlement when they entered the workforce, demanded the vote, and demonized alcohol in the early 1900s, ruled the household roost in the 1950s, and agitated for equal pay in the most recent period.  Other threats appear to have been more cultural and rhetorical, appearing in books and the mass media and frequently promulgated by writers with a seeming misogynist ax to grind.  Advertising campaigns have leveraged male anxieties (the Cartilage Company circa 1907, Charles Atlas in the 1930s) and have offered images of highly masculine males and their activities (Marlboro cigarettes in the 1950s, Dodge Ram trucks today).

These historical findings provide insights into how compensatory consumption has evolved and the societal consequences of this market behavior.  Though the scope of this research has been restricted to the American experience, it is not hard to envision male overcompensation and compensatory consumption applying to men in different cultures and at different times