National Post

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Saturday, June 26, 1999

Men are tired of looking like idiots in advertising. Now they're fighting back

Meg Murphy
National Post


The Miner: In this O'Keefe's Brewing Co. ad from 1949, now part of the Royal Ontario Museum's Fifty Years of Advertising and Design in Canada exhibit, illustrator Rex Woods pays homage to working men. In ads today, men are often kicked, abused and portrayed as dolts.

A commercial for home garden equipment features a man presenting a flower to a beautiful woman. When she realizes he picked it from her own garden, she kicks and beats him till he falls down, then slams the door in his face.

Dominion and A&P run a Mother's Day newspaper ad suggesting children buy their mother a gift since "After all, she married your father."

A number of other ads rely on the instantly recognizable useless-man-in-the-kitchen stereotype as wife, children and pets look on in disdain.

"Men, specifically white men, are the only group that you can still denigrate and it can be called humour," says Greg Kershaw, spokesperson for Fathers Are Capable Too, an advocacy group for non-custodial parents formed in 1993. The problem, Kershaw says, is that the prejudices against men in most ads are the same ones faced by his group, representing more than 2,000 members across Canada, when fighting for the rights of a father after divorce.

Men are relentlessly portrayed as incompetent at household tasks and often made the apparently deserving victims of violence, says Kershaw. He points to the ad for home garden equipment. "She kicks him in the nuts and while he's bent over in agony she puts her fists together and slams him in the back until he collapses on the ground, and then she slams the door in his face. And this is humour," Kershaw says.

His group recently complained to Dominion and A&P about the "After all, she married your father" Mother's Day ad. "I don't have a problem with the ad as long as they run the same one on Father's Day," Kershaw says. Last year, the group filed an official complaint with national industry monitor Advertising Standards Canada after a major department store ran a television ad featuring a glamorous woman going off to work while her husband remained shackled to the kitchen. ASC ruled the ad "sexually objectified men" and the store agreed to stop running the commercial. The group's current target, Kershaw says, is a

Finesse shampoo commercial. In it, a man stands at the front of a half-empty circle of chairs and clumsily attempts to help other men develop an emotional vocabulary to use in their relations with women. "Again, the men all look like idiots," he says.

The advertising industry is becoming well aware of the thinning skin of the white male when it comes to advertising images. Steve Conover, creative director at Toronto-based ACLC Advertising, spent half an hour last month listening to an angry Calgary man who called to complain about a radio commercial created by Conover's agency for Harvey's Swiss Mushroom Melt. The ad's joke is based on the repetition of three great tastes. A man is talking to his wife and repeats everything three times. The punch line is "Let's go to Harvey's. Let's go to Harvey's. Let's go to Harvey's."

"I had a very long and really interesting conversation with this guy who was otherwise normal-sounding, other than the fact that he felt this was sort of a global conspiracy against the white male," Conover says. "He said to me, 'You are making the white man the butt of the joke. He looks like an idiot and I've had it.' And my immediate response was 'How could you tell he was a white male? It was radio.' "

The backlash against reverse sexism seems to have just begun, Conover says, but if it continues, advertisers may have to reconsider their approach since ridicule, it appears, is an essential tool of the trade. "It is getting really tough to poke fun at anybody," laments Conover. "Who can be the butt of the joke anymore, if the white male is forbidden and you have to be extremely careful on any other sort of identifiable group? What do you do -- make fun of dogs? You do that and animal rights people are going to be phoning up."

According to judgments rendered by the ASC's 18-person National Consumer Response and 12-person National Advisory Council on Gender Portrayal, reverse sexism has become a legitimate concern. The ASC's 1998 Ad Complaints Report found that 12 ads violated the ASC's gender portrayal guidelines and two of those were on the basis of reverse sexism. These included the shackled-husband ad targeted by Fathers Are Capable Too and a radio commercial for a restaurant chain in which a father is portrayed as helplessly incompetent in preparing meals for his family. This ad was deemed to "negatively stereotype men" and was also withdrawn by the advertiser.

Divorced dads' and men's groups may be the most reactive, but they're not the only ones complaining. ASC president Linda Nagel says her office has received a dramatic rise in the number of men calling over the past year. "Are the ads different or have men become more sensitive?" Nagel asks. "I think maybe a combination of the two."

In 1997, the ASC ruled that a commercial featuring a Coke delivery man who provokes sexual fantasies in female office workers irrelevantly objectified male sexuality. Columnists and unhappy consumers screamed that sensitivity around gender relations had reached a new level of absurdity. Consumers even called Coca-Cola Ltd. to express their distress about the ASC decision, says Laurine MacNeil, manager of public relations at Coca-Cola Ltd., which quit running the ad in Canada after the ruling.

"Sex is a reality and sex sells," says Ross Virgin, president of In Search of Justice, a men's rights group with 2,700 members across Canada. "But if the advertising watchdogs are going to say you can't do that for women, it must apply equally to men. Why is it not acceptable to objectify women, but okay to do it to men? That is unfair."

Bringing a different perspective is Shari Graydon, president of the national feminist group MediaWatch. Using a sculpted Adonis or a busty blond to sell a product is equally odious, but the threat to men, she says, is less extreme. "We haven't for generations irrelevantly sexualized men in the same way we do women. A man walking down the street and being whistled at by a bunch of female construction workers -- if we can even imagine that happening -- is not going to feel threatened, typically, in the way that a woman would."

The fact is, however, that while there may be more female stereotypes in advertising, there are also signs of change. At the Royal Ontario Museum's Fifty Years of Advertising and Design in Canada (running until Sept. 6), exhibits range from a 1975 "Toot, toot, tootsie, hello," ad for Tootsie Roll to the 1994 Operation Go Home ad featuring a lipsticked toddler above the slogan "Prostitutes Aren't Born." Elsewhere in the show, however, the white male appears as a consistently powerful figure. Whether sensitivity toward him increases with the current wave of advertising that, fairly or unfairly, belittles men, remains to be seen.

Copyright Southam Inc.