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The new abortion rights spokesmen: Dudes, dads, and plumbers

Campaigns have to motivate men, too.

A man wearing a pink Planned Parenthood shirt puts his hand over the megaphone for an anti-abortion protestor. Bita Honarvar/Vox; Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, homelessness, child care, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

At 11:30 am on June 24, less than an hour after the US Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Dave Portnoy, the controversial founder of Barstool Sports — a site dubbed the “Bible of Bro Culture” — posted a video to his 2 million followers on Twitter.

“We are literally going backwards in time,” he said in a self-described emergency press conference. “It makes no sense how anybody thinks it’s their right to tell a woman what to do with her body.”

“The woke left, the liberals, they’re crazy. They’re insane people,” Portnoy added. “Yet, I end up having to vote for a moron like Biden because the right is gonna put Supreme Court people in who are just ruining this country, taking basic rights away.”

The video went viral. It was a harbinger of how abortion rights would upend American culture and politics, and become a central component for Democratic advertising in the midterm campaign cycle.

“I’m no fan of Barstool, but the Dave Portnoy video that came out after the Dobbs ruling was surprising to me, and pointed to this new segment of the electorate that I hadn’t been thinking about,” said Josh Yazman, a political data scientist at Civis Analytics, a Democrat-aligned research shop.

Yazman is not alone. Over the last three months, as the threats to reproductive rights grew clearer, researchers, activists, and political strategists have started to think more intentionally about how best to target male voters with abortion rights messages. When Roe was the law of the land, advocates could focus their energies on challenging unconstitutional abortion restrictions in court. Now, reproductive rights battles will be shifting to the ballot box — meaning what male voters think about abortion suddenly matters a whole lot more.

Even for men who self-identify as pro-choice, their support for a woman’s right to choose has historically been fairly muted, as guys tend to treat reproductive rights as a “women’s issue” that’s best left for women to lead on. Researchers have found that among those men who have considered speaking out, many decide against it, fearful of saying the wrong thing or claiming connection to an issue that’s not sufficiently theirs. Even in the US Senate, male Democrats who support abortion rights tend to wait for their female colleagues to chart their federal action plans, wary of bad optics and criticism.

Eight in 10 Americans support legal abortion, “but until this summer it’s felt very controversial to people still ... and I think the people that we show [in ads] talking about supporting abortion care impacts that,” said Dina Montemarano, the research director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “I think people on our side are finally realizing that, and wanting to show that variety ... [that] the majority does include people who look and feel and act and think quite differently, and that’s good.”

As a result, campaigners have been experimenting with a host of characters not traditionally used in abortion messaging: young “dudes” talking about reproductive freedom as they fix a broken pipe, or male members of law enforcement talking about the importance of abortion access for public safety. There are ads featuring brothers, boyfriends, male doctors, and male faith leaders. In Minnesota, a recently formed grassroots group called Dads on the Doors is mobilizing fathers to stand up for their daughters’ abortion rights.

“No exceptions for rape? No exceptions for incest? $100,000 fines and jail time for doctors?” asked a white man identified as a “lifelong Republican” in a Beto O’Rourke ad that ran in mid-September. “I mean, this is a free country. We need a governor who gets that.”

Sometimes, like in the Beto ad, the particular message the male character is expressing is not so different from one featuring a female lead or targeted to female audiences. But in other cases, researchers are testing messages they say seem to resonate especially with male audiences — for example, narratives about men stepping up to protect women — even if, in some cases, those themes give women viewers pause.

Will Bunnett, a political strategist with the progressive digital brand agency Clarify, has been designing ads this election cycle for clients who support abortion rights.

“The hypothesis is that men are not super good at empathy or understanding and are more likely to listen if we sort of make it about them,” he told Vox. “So we’re looking to tap into male identity. And some of the ways that are proving most effective make me a little uncomfortable personally, but I’m already sold on this issue, and we’re trying to target the people who need to see something and get on board.”

For men and abortion rights, the messenger matters

In early August, Kansas voters cast their ballots decisively against a measure that would have allowed state lawmakers to further restrict access to abortion. It was the first time abortion rights were tested at the polls following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly two to one.

Ads sponsored by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the coalition that successfully defeated the amendment, featured characters including a male pastor, a male physician, and a male narrator warning of government overreach.

Ashley All, who served as communications director for the coalition, told Vox that they purposefully featured different messengers in their ads, even as the messages delivered —protecting the constitutional rights of women to make their own decision free of government interference — remained largely the same.

“Not only do you do a lot of research to figure out the best message to resonate with the broadest set of voters,” she said, “you look at who influences those voters that you need to move.”

In the weeks following Dobbs and the Dave Portnoy video, Yazman started experimenting with different characters in Civis’s pro-choice message testing and noticed that ads featuring “bros” — generally men born after 1981 — were resonating with different kinds of voters. “Traditionally pro-choice ads include older white women that care most about the issue, or young moms sitting in their kid’s playrooms,” he explained.

One ad test compared a 40-year-old white woman named Shannon who had an abortion after she had her first kid with a younger “bro” named Conrad sitting in his bedroom talking about the women he was afraid for in his life. “The bro’s overall appeal was similar, but a lot stronger with men, Republicans, and younger voters, while the mom did better with more traditional pro-choice audiences,” said Yazman.

Typically, Bunnett said, it doesn’t matter too much if the demographic of an ad messenger matches the demographic of the intended audience. With abortion, however, his team has noticed the opposite dynamic: Matching demographics appears to be a much more significant factor in driving an ad’s effectiveness.

Oren Jacobson, founder of Men4Choice, said they see men talking to other men as really key for mobilizing men as “stakeholders” on abortion rights, not just occasional “beneficiaries.”

“It’s harder for someone who is not a man to convince another man that abortion is their issue,” he said. “I think we have to reckon with the reality that a lot of men have heard women talk about abortion for decades and have largely ignored those voices.”

Certain abortion rights messages resonate more strongly with men

Given that many men feel hesitant to engage with abortion rights, advocates say providing them with specific ways to connect can increase their confidence.

“Men might be afraid to speak out because they think they’ll do it wrong, but when they see a man talking about it and doing so in a way that is very supportive, very clear about where they stand, very clear about why they’re fighting, that’s really powerful,” said Montemarano, the research director for NARAL, who led a deep dive into abortion messengers in 2020.

One particularly resonant ad category NARAL found is a “journey story” — an ad featuring a man explaining their path from not thinking abortion was important to realizing that their constituents or loved ones were being affected and they had to get involved. “That is incredibly powerful for men to hear because many of them are in some phase of that journey right now,” Montemarano said.

Another effective strategy: messages that “define the opposition” in a negative, repellent light. Bunnett said they’ve seen that some of their better-performing abortion rights ads with men have taken the approach of emphasizing that men who want to ban abortion are uncivilized, backward, mean, and rude. “Rather than trying to convince you that you’re such a manly man for thinking carefully about abortion, we’re saying, like, you just need to know you’re not the caveman over there.”

Jacobson pointed to the “Call Bullshit” campaign Men4Choice launched, which encourages men “to call bullshit on the assholes who are using their power to control someone else’s body,” he said. “We have to normalize that it is not okay for these guys to do that, and part of the reason it’s seen as okay is because guys like us just let it go.”

A third message that’s proven effective with men in particular is freedom from government control, which allows more conservative men to identify with the abortion rights coalition, even if they personally hold reservations about terminating pregnancies.

The value of freedom and the ability to make decisions without government interference “is something that men resonate quite emotionally with,” said Montemarano. It’s not that women don’t care about freedom, she added, but that’s always been an “easier and quicker” way for men to connect with the issue, whereas women tend to connect initially via other routes.

In Kansas, All told Vox their “government mandate” ad in particular resonated most highly among male viewers.

Harnessing men’s motivation to help women in need

Researchers studying which abortion messages seem to motivate men most effectively have noticed a fourth category, too: Men resonate with messages about caring for their loved ones and generally helping women in need.

Bunnett says some of their most effective ads have tapped into a “hyper-traditional sense of masculinity,” like themes about saving damsels in distress. “An ad might feature a guy saying, ‘Hey, you might not be able to get pregnant, but this is really, really important to the women in your life and they need you to step up,’” he said.

Bryan Bennett, a pollster with Navigator Research, a group that works to provide messaging guidance to progressives, said he typically sees men as notably less receptive to any given abortion message, by about 10 points, with the exception of messages about forcing women to carry to term under terrible circumstances.

Montemarano’s team also found this same pattern — that men are “powerfully motivated” by messages of supporting women. The fact that men often only seem to care about women’s rights as it pertains to their wives and daughters has long been a source of frustration in pro-abortion rights and feminist circles, and NARAL directly addressed the concern that such messages might reinforce patriarchy in a report published in 2021.

“We recognize that, as advocates, men’s desire to support women can sometimes feel paternalistic, disempowering, or condescending. It is certainly true that its manifestation in our society has often been all of those things,” their report read. “Yet we would not want to live in a world in which people did not want to support and care for one another. In our communications moving forward, we need to explore ways to effectively harness men’s desire to support women within a broader message framework that supports a woman’s agency, rather than in opposition to it.” NARAL added that they believe this is “eminently doable.”

Jacobson of Men4Choice said they’ve also seen pro-abortion rights language that can feel paternalistic. “The way a lot of politicians talk about it, it’s through the lens of their wives and daughters, and in our culture change work, we try to take that good intention and instinct and shift it, so it shouldn’t be that you have to know someone who might need an abortion to care about this,” he said.

But he distinguishes between “culture change” work, or challenging and changing societal norms and expectations, and immediate electoral messaging ahead of the November elections.

“I think advertising for a mail piece or a digital ad right now designed to get someone to vote in November necessarily should be different than what someone focused on long-term culture change is saying,” he said, and cited as an example the difference between saying a “woman could be criminally punished” for an abortion versus “a person could be criminally punished.” The former, at least in 2022, is more effective at motivating concern among voters.

In the coming weeks, Men4Choice and Planned Parenthood plan to jointly run ads targeted at young Black men in Atlanta. Planned Parenthood approached Men4Choice out of recognition that their own brand might be less resonant with those voters.

Yazman said that field research Civis conducted in September on millennial and Gen Z men found these groups were “pro-choice but persuadable” — meaning young men were open to abortion restrictions, and could be moved to support them if exposed to certain messages. This highlights the need for abortion rights advocates to reach young men before anti-abortion messengers do.

“I think the Dads on the Doors in Minnesota is great, but I think we also have to talk to 18-, 19-year-old men, so that when they get to that fatherhood stage of life they’ve already been thinking about abortion rights,” Jacobson said. “The older you get, the harder it is to shift your views.”

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