With an increasing number of people relying on sperm donation to have babies – from lesbian couples to heterosexual ones, where the male partner is infertile, or a woman who decides to have a child on her own – the demand for sperm banks has also increased. This has, in turn, meant sperm banks must recruit more donors. But recruiting new donors is not always an easy task – especially in the UK and Australia where it is illegal to pay donors or preserve their anonymity.
In a study recently published in Marketing Theory, my colleagues and I found that sperm banks in Australia and the UK solved this challenge by selling sperm donation as an experience that makes donors feel more masculine – appealing to traditional male stereotypes.
The sperm banks did this by using imagery of heroes saving ‘damsels in distress’ and soldiers defending their country against the idea of ‘foreign sperm’ invading. Indeed, sperm shortages had meant sperm needed to be imported from other countries, to meet rising domestic demand. But it seems the sperm bank campaigns have worked. UK and Australian sperm donation markets have started to recover from the dip in the number of donors experienced between 2012 and 2015.
Time and effort
There are a number of obstacles to recruiting donors. Donors must be willing to give their time and effort, – donating sperm will often involve several visits, a variety of medical checks, and the provision of a large amount of personal information. Yet, in the UK and Australia, sperm banks cannot pay their donors for this.
Plus, donors must provide their name and details so potential children can contact them in the future.
Our research looked at the advertising campaigns of eight fertility clinics and five sperm banks in the UK and Australia to try and understand how to recruit sperm donors without paying them. We saw that the advertising strategy of sperm banks relied on two main ideas of stereotypical masculinity: the hero and the soldier.
When using the image of a soldier in the campaign, ads represented the sperm donor as ‘fighting off’ foreign invasion – the soldier doing his part for the nation, and being noble and selfless. Some of the ads referenced old World War I recruitment posters claiming that their country needed them (and their sperm). Here the propaganda imagery and phrases are used to associate sperm donation with duty, honour, and patriotism. A more humorous version can be found in a short video clip where British sperm cartoons (proudly wearing the British flag) rally to frighten foreign sperms away. This presents the act of donating sperm as a (safer) way to fight a war for Britain.
The second image that sperm bank advertisers favoured, was that of the everyday hero, where the act of sperm donation is associated with saving lives. Central to this, is the idea that creating a life and saving a life are equivalent, using the imagery of lifesaving professions such as firefighters and lifeguards. In these ads, sperm banks present sperm donation as an (easier) way to prove your heroism.
Another image used was of a ‘white-collar’ man in a grey suit with a purple superhero cape. The ad seemed to suggest that he could achieve a sense of heroism simply by donating his sperm.
It is fascinating to see how traditional gender imagery can be used to market the experience of sperm donation as positive and masculinity-affirming, rather than awkward, scary, or even degrading. A much stronger motivation, than simply appealing to people’s desire to be altruistic, is needed.
But the experience of sperm banks can offer lessons to other organisations, such as charities struggling to motivate their donors to give time or money. The challenge is to frame the experience as ‘valuable’ to donors in the right way.
For sperm banks, the risk they face is of falling into simplistic, sexist tropes. There’s a fine line between appealing to and repelling donors. We found that the use of humour and irony, in this instance, seems to help avoid this trap. And, in doing so, it provides a valuable experience for men to reaffirm their sense of masculinity – though this may well have to evolve, as society increasingly challenges the ideas of traditional gender roles.