Stupid man bears brunt of abuse in ads

He's a loser: That's been OK with viewers, till now

May 30, 2004|By Kate Santich | Kate Santich,Orlando Sentinel

You've seen him in TV commercials. He's the guy who can't open a pickle jar or take care of his kids, the husband raised by wolves, the balding, portly fellow who leaps for joy now that a pill has solved his impotence. He's the one scalded by hot coffee and hit in the crotch with a bowling ball, though he doesn't seem to mind.

In the powerful dominion of television advertising, this hapless, sloppy, beer-drinking punch line is the modern American man. And critics say he's getting more than his fair share of abuse.

"If anything like this was happening to blacks or women or Jews, it would be considered a moral crime," says Warren Farrell, a California author and men's rights advocate. "We're being flooded with advertising in which either a male is being hit by a female, or the man is simply the jerk."

Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power (Berkley, $14), is one of a small but growing number of men -- and a few women -- protesting what they consider sexist, stereotypical and mean-spirited ads. Male-bashing, they claim, is the last politically safe perversion.

"At this point in time, if advertisers served up women the same way that guys are treated, it would be world war," says Steve Feinberg, chief creative officer at the Seiden Group, a New York ad agency. "

Late last year, a 40-year-old New Hampshire engineer and father named Richard Smaglick launched the Society for the Prevention of Misandry in the Media -- misandry being the seldom-heard counterpart to misogyny. Among his first efforts was a boycott of the clients of advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi because of a spot it produced for Wyeth FluMist.

In the ad, we see Mom laid up in bed, felled by the virus, and Dad in charge of the household -- much to the glee of the kids, who march off to school in a snowstorm dressed as if for a luau. Alas, poor Dad can't manage his own children.

Smaglick admits the boycott had little, if any, impact -- Saatchi & Saatchi declined to comment -- and he won't say precisely how big his group is. But he certainly isn't alone in his objections.

On a Web site for the Men's Activism News Network (MANN), readers have compiled a list of companies to boycott for their allegedly male-bashing ads. Ironically, the list includes perhaps the ultimate macho-man vehicle, the Hummer, which aired a spot showing a woman behind the wheel and a tagline that read: "Threaten men in a whole new way." Imagine the fallout, a man said in a post, if the roles were reversed, and a man were encouraged to "threaten women in a whole new way."

It's a point well-taken, says Matt Campbell, one of the site's administrators. "To get a sense of why there is a group of men finding the state of affairs so outrageous, just switch the gender roles for a minute and see if it would still be funny. Imagine having a laugh track when a woman's genitals are attacked."

Indeed, shots to the male crotch are a common theme. Consider an award-winning Washington Mutual spot in which a man is so relentlessly cheerful after a loan approval that he smiles through having a coffee urn accidentally tipped on him and a bowling ball tossed into his groin.

Though the agency declined to comment on the ad, it is clearly intended to be funny -- which raises the question of whether some men might be overreacting.

"I personally like stuff like that Washington Mutual ad because it gives you a break from all the bad news you see," says JD Strickland of Orlando, a 33-year-old single dad. "I certainly don't take it seriously -- and I think people who do could use their time toward better causes."

Erik Gordon, a University of Florida marketing professor, says the vast majority of men are likely unaware that there's even an issue. "There's a part of me that hears about these men protesting and says, 'Oh, God, are these the same guys who put greasepaint on their chest and bang drums around a fire?' But there's another part of me that wonders, when ads systematically portray men and dads as incompetents and boobs who can't open a can of coffee, how much are we undermining respect for fathers?"

Biting commentary

Ironically, most of the offending ads are created by men.

"They think it's their way to be feminists. They think women want to see men as dogs and pigs, and everybody can have a good laugh," says Barbara Lippert, critic for the trade publication Adweek.

And if there hasn't been an outcry until now, some advocates say, it's only because men who complain are labeled wimps. Their masculinity is questioned.

But until large numbers do protest, until companies are hit in the pocketbook, they're not likely to change course.

Donald Bruzzone, whose California research firm specializes in measuring audience reaction to advertising, doesn't foresee a massive outcry anytime soon. His polling after this year's Super Bowl left him astounded by public taste -- or lack thereof.

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