Globe and Mail

Men: ad industry's new target

By John Heinzl The Globe and Mail
Friday, April 6, 2001

He is a bumbling embarrassment, a dufus with a beer belly, an ignoramus who can't boil water, let alone fry an egg. But he sells a lot of shampoo and breakfast cereal.

Meet the advertising industry's newest punching bag: the white, heterosexual male. Men may wield most of the power in the real world, but in commercials, they have become objects of ridicule. You can't turn on the television without seeing a man make a nincompoop of himself.

And some men are not amused.

There's the dummy in the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency ad who doesn't have a clue about how to make an omelette; the blockhead in the Finesse shampoo spot who compares his wife's hair to the colour of his workbench; and the jilted bozo who eats Kraft Dinner from a dog food bowl.

They are geniuses compared with the Molson Export guys who stuff French fries up their nostrils.

"I used to laugh them off . . . but I think it's gone so overboard," says Dan Stevelman of Calgary. He's tired of ads that depict men as "fools who need a woman to show them how to function in society."

Some call it harmless humour. Others say it's sexist stereotyping. An advertiser would never get away with portraying women as drooling idiots -- at least not today -- so why do so many commercials mock men?

They're the only targets left.

"We live in such a politically correct environment that it is no longer acceptable to make fun of anyone in advertising other than straight, white men," says Chris Staples, a partner at Vancouver agency Rethink.

Female empowerment is another factor. Historically, ads have depicted women as either "housewives or whores," says Janet Kestin, co-creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto. The female character in ads was often "draped over the hood of a car or on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor."

Now, it's men's turn to be stereotyped -- as hopeless cooks, sports addicts and unromantic husbands. "Men are the new women," Ms. Kestin explains.

That doesn't make it right, critics say.

"I'm very disappointed in the way men are portrayed in ads. We're either buffoons, or the object of aggression," says Gene Colosimo, a director with Fathers Are Capable Too, a fathers' rights group.

He's not the only one troubled by this trend.

Gord Walter of Markham, Ont., was so upset about the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency's omelette ad, and another spot in which the man forgets to turn on the stove, that he sent an e-mail to the agency.

"If women had been portrayed as being such idiots the ad would (have) been yanked immediately due to the uproar of righteous indignation," he wrote.

The agency said that it was only trying to show that eggs are a "simple and

versatile meal solution." It wasn't trying to offend anyone.

Ads aimed at women may be especially likely to upset men, because they often point out male imperfections. Take the current Special K ad from Kellogg Canada called "Pass the Lotion." It stars a pasty guy with a bulging gut who asks his wife to rub suntan lotion on his back. The message is a healthy one: If guys don't obsess about their bodies, women shouldn't either.

But while most of the feedback from viewers has been positive, even that ad has drawn some flack. Some viewers "are not comfortable with the way we're laughing at the man in the ad," says Mark Childs, vice-president of marketing at Kellogg Canada in Toronto.

Should men be more accepting of this good-natured ribbing? Taxi, a Toronto agency, found out just how sensitive some men can be.

A few years ago, it created an ad for Salon Selectives hair products, called "Customized Boyfriend," in which a young woman imagined her guy turning into a hunk with washboard abs. As she was enjoying her fantasy, her boyfriend belched and suddenly reverted to his dumpy, out-of-shape self.

"We got some letters. In fact, I got excrement sent to me twice in an envelope," says Taxi president Paul Lavoie. "Obviously there are a couple of people out there who take it too literally."

Everybody needs to lighten up, says Judy John, senior vice-president and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett in Toronto, which created the Special K ad. "We're all taking ourselves too seriously. We are so politically correct now that we can't laugh at ourselves at all."

Mr. Staples of Rethink agrees. The way things are going, he worries that advertising will become so sanitized and so completely inoffensive that nobody will pay attention to it anymore. That would be a shame, he says.

It also wouldn't reflect reality. "You just have to look at real life. Life is funny and sometimes men are goofballs," he says.

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.