Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Decline of Masculinity - David Menzies

To paraphrase the old Molson Canadian tagline: I AM ... an idiot.

You read it right: I’m an incompetent goof. A pathetic primate who can barely function in our oh-so-complicated world.

Why the lowly self-assessment? No, I didn’t invest in Bre-X. Nor do I drive an Aztek. Rather, it’s the advertising industry that’s convinced me I’m a loser due to one glaring prerequisite: my gender.

For the last several months, I’ve taken note of several radio and TV ads whenever there was a script depicting two people of different genders. In every spot except one, men were portrayed as imbeciles.

Even if the script established the male character as a successful business owner, he still came across like the classic Phil Hartman character, Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer from Saturday Night Live. (The defrosted Neanderthal would continually note that the attributes of today’s world – “flashing neon signs” and “fast-moving cars” – would “frighten and confuse” him.)

In today’ advertising world, unfrozen cave men abound.

In a Toyota spot, a male Toyota owner is depicted as being virtually brain damaged when he addresses a female Toyota customer service clerk. He can’t remember (or doesn’t know) what needs to be serviced on his car. He doesn’t even know what he wants to drink. Thank goodness for the know-it-all service rep who tells him what needs to be done to remedy his motor (without even popping the hood). She also informs him he’s experiencing a craving for caffeine.

A Rogers Wireless spot promoting the BlackBerry Curve depicts a male commuter admiring the BlackBerry of a female. He mentions he plans on getting such a device himself one day.

“I was set up in minutes,” the woman explains.

“... In ... minutes ...?” says the fellow in a tone that suggests he’s contemplating quantum physics.

A CIBC ad establishes “Tom” as a successful businessman. Along comes a female customer who’s not in Tom’s line of business but, naturally, is an expert when it comes to Tom’s trade. She tells him to install a CIBC e-commerce solution in a tone reminiscent of how a principal would address a kindergarten student. Tom’s response: “They [CIBC] can put in an online ordering system?” Naturally, it is uttered with child-like wonderment.

Likewise, a Royal Bank spot features a successful male salon owner who apparently knows nothing about the salon business (from e-commerce to ambient music.) Naturally, a condescending female customer educates the poor doofus.

Of note, one man recently had enough of the male-bashing. Peter Regan, a single parent in Calgary, filed a complaint with Advertising Standards Canada after he took exception to a Rona ad. The spot depicts a female Rona employee dealing with a female customer who laments that her husband never helps around the house. The clerk responds: “That's OK. They [husbands] are all like that.”

In August, the ASC decided the commercial indeed contravened regulations and “disparaged men and/or married men.” Rona was told to remove or alter the ad.

I doubt I’d ever be inclined to complain to a regulatory body about how a group was being depicted in an advertisement. If one is truly offended by such creative, isn’t it more meaningful to vote with one’s wallet – i.e., by patronizing the competitors?

Even so, the question arises: what is the unspoken strategy of having men cast as dimwits? It cannot be random chance. In fact, it’s statistically impossible that in 99% of scripts, the male is the one who is dazed and confused while the woman (or child) is portrayed as an oracle of wisdom.

My hunch: when it comes to getting slagged men tend to take it, well, like a man. Aside from the Rona complainer, men tend to be stoic and silent about such slights. And there’s never been a male equivalent of MediaWatch, a cabal of taxpayer-funded humorous harpies whose mission statement is to rant about how ads depict women and girls.

York University marketing professor Alan Middleton agrees with my thesis. And he adds another noteworthy point: since women in many households control the purse strings, ad agencies figure it’s not a prudent idea to upset the individual who is most likely to be making the purchase. Thus, if the script calls for a dolt, it’s a no-brainer to the man will play the fool.

Indeed, as long as complainers such as Peter Regan remain the exception as opposed to the rule, expect men to be depicted as dumbbells in advertising for decades to come. But then again, what do I know?

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