Skip to content

“Man Flu” – manufacturing an illness to sell a magazine

November 14th, 2006

Dr Petra

If you’re a woman or gay man and you get ill, your partner may not be all that sympathetic. But when they get ill their common cold suddenly transforms into ‘flu’. Or that’s what common stereotypes would have us believe.

So if you thought ‘man flu’ was a real problem, how could you test for it? You might look at prevalence rates for people suffering from colds or flu and see whether men reported more often with more serious symptoms. Or you could study men and women presenting at their doctors with flu-like symptoms and assess how sick they were and for what duration. You’d want to take into account things like their age, general health, diet, income and standard of living – as all of these could play a part in how badly they might be affected by a cold or flu. You might track infections as they spread across communities or countries, and you’d probably need to include physical exams, blood tests and other investigations to assess the nature, type and severity of infection. From that, if you found more men had worse symptoms that took longer to clear up you may conclude there was such a thing as ‘man flu’.

But you would never establish a new strain of infection simply by using a survey.

And yet many of today’s papers have all happily run a story that has no basis in science but has a whole lot to do with promoting a product, and has given misleading health information to the public.

It’s all down to ‘lads mag’ Nuts who have completed a survey of 2000 adults found that:
64% of men have been off work with flu compared with 45% of women
Men take an average of three days to recover from flu, women only 1.5 days
Men spend over £18 per year on flu remedies, women around £12
82% men think staying in bed is the best way to cure flu, whilst an undisclosed number of women (described as ‘most’ in news reports) prefer exercise
‘Man flu’ is most likely to strike in November

So let’s just think about this for a second. Firstly, this survey isn’t representative of the population. It’s an online survey where readers of Nuts website were invited to complete a questionnaire referred to as the ‘Man Flu survey’. That means readers are going to be mainly male, those who read the Nuts site and who’ve been directed to see man flu as something bad and something that exists. That rules out the majority of folk who don’t read the Nuts site. All those people may have very different answers to the ones given by the selective sample in this ‘study’. And if it had been presented as a health study or one about colds it would have generated very different results from setting up a study angle from the outset.

Secondly, the survey doesn’t diagnose any illness. It asked people to reflect back on being ill which isn’t a particularly reliable way of getting health information. To be more accurate you’d have to either follow people through their illness, or confirm their answers to health questions with their medical records (something reputable health surveys do). We know women are more likely to join in health research than men, and generally women underestimate answers whilst men overestimate health survey answers.

Thirdly this study clearly didn’t measure people’s experiences with flu since if you truly are affected by flu you wouldn’t be having a few days off work, you’d be sick for a lot longer than that.

And flu strikes at different times. Whilst the season for flu is autumn/winter in the UK the time it can start spreading can vary year on year. So to say ‘man flu’ always occurs in November is clinically incorrect. It’s also unlikely that men in the age group of Nuts readership (late teens early twenties) would be more at risk from ‘man flu’ (if it existed) since if there were a gender-specific strain of the virus it would still affect older, unhealthy or poorer men more.

This hasn’t stopped Nuts from piously claiming they’re advancing medical science with their ‘health correspondent’ saying: “We always knew man flu was a very real, potentially catastrophic sickness.” This is from a publication that is consistently invited to health-related events for men and consistently fails to bother to show up. That’s how much they care about their readers’ health.

But hey, this isn’t really about giving a toss about men, it’s about using a common stereotype to invent a disease that grabs column inches and then lets you promote your product. Rather than there being an outbreak of ‘man flu’ in November it’s just a case of them needing to boost sales figures now.

Whilst Nuts are completely irresponsible to manufacture an illness to sell their products, other media outlets have been complicit in this activity by covering the story and presenting ‘man flu’ as a genuine illness without questioning the ethics or robustness of this research….
Man flu is not to be sniffed at – Daily Record
‘Man flu’ no longer a myth – Independent Online
Man flu is confirmed – FemaleFirst
Man Flu really exists – The Mirror

Men may well find dealing with illness difficult, and may appear to complain more than women when they get sick, but this is due more to the culture they’re raised in rather than them having a specific ‘male only’ disease.

Interestingly if a women’s magazine were to suggest men were wimps when it came to being ill, or moaned about their health there would be a backlash with complaints about unfair treatment of men. Yet when a lad’s mag repackages this sexist assumption nobody seems to bat an eyelid.

‘Man flu’ does not exist. But you can be sure this will be now used as ‘evidence’ within the media to shore up countless health stories. And all because one lad’s magazine was so cynical it exploited an illness – and men in general – just to sell a few more copies of their magazine.

Comments are closed.