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Flora Men: Polyunsaturated Masculinity

After my dad had a health scare in the 1970s butter was banished from the Simpson household and replaced with Flora, probably partly as a result of this ad, which ran in heavy rotation for what seemed like most of my childhood. I continued eating it myself for years after leaving home.

Back then we – or rather, our mothers – were told that butter with its saturated fats was bad for you. Flora margarine which was ‘high in polyunsaturated fats’ and made from sunflower oil in an industrial process by the giant conglomerate Unilever, was massively marketed as Good For You. It was an extraordinarily successful campaign, encouraging a real shift in social habits.

But that was the 20th Century. Turns out of course that like other margarines Flora contained trans-fats and hydrogenated oils (though Unilever claims that today’s Flora doesn’t) which are now officially Bad For You. Badder in fact than saturated fats. Butter is no longer evil – but still tastes better.

Likewise, the thinking behind the ‘Flora for men’ ad itself seems hilariously outdated now, presenting a vanished world divided into ‘wives’ and ‘men’ – where ‘wives’ spend their time shopping (and cooking) for their ‘men’.

But even here the datedness/sexism is not as one-way as it might first appear: note how the men are separated from the world of consumption by the glass window. They’re left outside the supermarket, like tied dogs – and about as articulate. The ad, despite the ‘Flora for men’ tagline, is after all targeted at women.

The concept of ‘Flora for men’ seems to have been about giving permission to women worried about their man dropping dead before his time to buy Flora – don’t worry, your husband will like it because it’s ‘for men’. Despite its new-fangledness, the flower on the packet and the sissy name (apparently ‘Flora’ was the name of the wife of the head of one of Unilever’s marketing directors at the time).

And despite, above all, its ‘healthful’ qualities. Men weren’t supposed to care about their health back then. The notion that hundreds of thousands of them would eventually buy a glossy monthly magazine full of – constantly changing – hypochondriacal advice with the word ‘men’ and ‘health’ in the title would have been laughed at.

I suppose though that a secondary effect of the ‘Flora for men’ advertising was to ‘de-sissify’ Flora and to some extent health concerns for men, generally. Though today ‘Flora for men’ would probably be targeted at men directly as a separate line, in khaki-coloured, chunky tubs shaped like hand-grenades – with exactly the same gloop inside.

In the early 1980s Unilever ran another ad, voiced by housewives favourite Terry Wogan, which seems to be distancing itself slightly from the happy servitude of the earlier ad by jokily nodding to feminism, with a more assertive woman: ‘Some time ago Sarah Drake decided to change her husband. More and more women are coming to the same decision. They’re changing their husbands to Flora men’.­

And, in a way, they did.

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5 thoughts on “Flora Men: Polyunsaturated Masculinity”

  1. I may have ‘eaten at the Y’ but I’ve never knowingly encountered Canola. But we certainly seem to be growing a lot of rapeseed in the UK these days, judging by the blanket of yellow across the countryside in Spring.

    Hopefully it’s destined for ‘sustainable’ internal combustion not human intestines.

  2. Addendum: “more and more men are getting a taste for Flora” sounds like they’re going ‘downtown’ more often (Georgia O’Keefe =>Betty Dodson). Interestingly, overgrowth of ‘flora’ ‘downtown’ (i.e. bacterial vaginosis) accounts for the ‘fishy’ smell.

    I neglected to add that cooking with canona oil it smells worse than stale fish.

  3. Of course the biggest (and dangerous) canards of all is “Canola” (i.e. ‘Canadian’) oil. It’s actually hybridised rapeseed — a poison. Apparently they have a lot of rapeseed on the frigid plains of the Great White North. The name is supposed to suggest Canada, which as we all know can do no wrong. It was rubber-stamped by both the American and British Cardiology Associations as being “heart-smart”.

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