4 Reasons Commercials Are Sexist (Against Men)
Commercials aren't meant to be complicated. Say a little about what your product can do, slip in a little joke or talking gecko to keep things memorable and get out of there before you piss anyone off. And because they're so brief and don't have time for complexity, commercials often have to rely on shortcuts, especially when depicting characters. Archetypes and stereotypes are common: We know that when we see a fireman in an ad, we're dealing with a tough hero sort; that when we see someone wearing a lab coat, we should trust them implicitly; and that when we see a cartoon rabbit, we're dealing with a serial cereal thief.
A very common stock character who's attracted a bit of attention lately is the "dumb dad." You may already know what I'm talking about, but if you've been skipping television ads for the last several years using the Power of Technology, I'll explain. These ads typically feature a dad or husband figure blundering around the house, seeming baffled by basic human activities. Here's a typical example, where some idiot gets confused by the idea of flavored yogurt:
Here's another one, where some guy comes up with an innovative solution to the problem of socks. You didn't know there was a problem with socks? Well then, feast on this, and return here when you're done picking the truth nuggets from your teeth:
Individually, these ads are pretty harmless, even vaguely funny. It's just a depiction of a single idiot, not a commentary on all men everywhere, right? But in aggregate, when taking all the "dumb dad" ads that air every day into consideration, it becomes harder to ignore. Because make no mistake, this trope is incredibly common, and in its worst forms can get pretty insulting.
Earlier this year, Huggies released a series of ads that essentially stated that their diapers were so reliable, you could put them on a baby and leave them alone with dad for a few hours, and shit wouldn't spray out everywhere. "The Ultimate Test for Diapers: Negligent Dads."
So what's going on here? How did we get to a point where this kind of casual, low-level dad-mocking became the industry standard for certain types of ads? I've come up with four possible reasons below:
Women Are the Target Audience
The women in these commercials are almost always portrayed as competent and wise, ideal stand-ins for the largely female audiences these products are marketed at. Apparently, about 75 percent of all diaper purchases are made by women. It is totally reasonable to target ads toward a specific audience, and if you're confident your target audience will empathize with having doofus men bumbling around in their homes, then why not throw an idiot into your ad?
"Don't you hate it when your husband accidentally gets poop in the dishwasher? Am I right, ladies?"
Well, I'll tell you why not. First, because it limits your commercial's appeal to just your target audience, and can alienate all the idiot men. Maybe men aren't buying your flavored yogurt or your socks right now, but maybe you should be trying to change that? Appealing to the people who don't buy your products? Just as an example, Nintendo made an enormous amount of money by marketing the Wii to people who traditionally had little interest in video games: families, bowling enthusiasts and the old.
"These videoed games are fun, Derek, but I don't see why you would choose this over getting a girlfriend."
There's another, deeper issue here, especially when depicting a dumb dad in an ad for a product geared for housecleaning or raising children. These depictions can reinforce the idea that men actually are useless tits around the home. Real men will act down to the expectation, and protest that they shouldn't be left in charge of babies or mops. And as much as I think the idea of raising a baby using only a mop is funny (I think it's very funny), these lowered expectations for men are probably something we should be moving away from.
Ad Writers Are Lazy Hacks
Thanks to Mad Men, we all assume advertisers are handsome, adulterating geniuses, constantly spinning up brilliant new campaigns for the iconic products of our time. When, in reality, they are sad, sad people, trying to drum up some sort of excitement for another goddamned type of soap.
"We'll get some footage of a 20-year-old's flawless model ass in the shower, with a voice-over claiming we have more ... some sciencey bullshit ... than our competitors. Soapatons? Perfect! We're done. Let's do some fucking cocaine."
Thousands of new ads have to be produced every year, about basically the same products each year, and there's only so many Don Drapers out there. Which means everyone else is simply relying on whatever formulas worked in the past. If a dude having trouble with flavored yogurt worked once in an ad, then yeah, lets have a dude straight-up drinking from an enema bottle. That's hilarious. Why would you even hesitate?
Jokes Need Idiots
If we just ignore the genders from the commercials, these are simply short, 30-second stories about idiots. Which isn't an unreasonable thing to do; ads work a lot better when there's an element of humor in them, and idiots and their antics are an excellent source of humor. During the laff-preparation stage of many of my columns, I've regularly thrown an idiot into the mix, often portraying myself, my co-workers, celebrities and even minor deities as idiots.
I took a lot of flak from Saturnites for calling Saturnus an idiot, but seriously, look at him. Even his knife's embarrassed to be seen near him.
But why then are men always the idiots? If we were to flip the scenario around, and were advertising a product that was primarily bought by men, could we get away with making a lady idiot? Why don't we have an ad for, say, a new type of screwdriver, which features a wife who keeps confusing a screwdriver with a band saw while her husband looks on, a stunned expression on his face as she accidentally saws a fucking car in half? Turnabout's fair play, right?
Or maybe we can't do that, because ...
Men Are the Only People Who Can Be Mocked Any More
I ended up stumbling upon a number of very angry, very man-oriented, slightly foaming-at-the-mouth blogs and message boards while researching this column, where this was far and away the most popular theory explaining the existence of "dumb dad" ads. The way this goes is that due to "treating people with respect," advertisers will only depict men in an unflattering light. If a company ever made an ad depicting a woman as unintelligent, the militant feminists who control the media would go completely mental (femental?) and ruin that company forever.
Which isn't a bad theory -- there are significant differences in how often stupidity is portrayed among men and women in the modern media -- but it misses a bit of the bigger picture. Although there isn't a large number of "dumb wife" commercials, there are still plenty of ads that are otherwise unflattering to women. Like the Axe body spray ads that imply that women will charge directly at your junk as soon as you start smelling like a chemical toilet. Or the beer or pickup truck ads with their subtle mockery of anyone participating in "female" activities like book clubs or shampooing or listening. Also consider anything that GoDaddy.com has ever made. Then, consider the ads that GoDaddy.com didn't make. The ones someone had to talk them out of.
Stepping back even further, to the biggerer picture, we can see that men, even dumb ones, still have a pretty easy time of it, having many advantages in our society. Basically all of them, really:
- Higher salaries
- Less pressure to maintain a certain body image
- More streamlined role in baby-making
- People don't flip out if they have a career and not a family
- People don't flip out if they have a family and not a career
- People don't flip out if they have a family and a career
- Easier presidential candidacies
There's no escaping the fact that these "dumb dad" ads are sexist, and some of the worst, like that Huggies ad, are truly vile. But this isn't a sign of an overarching feminist conspiracy or of the looming collapse of masculinity. There's too much sexism still flying back at women for that claim to be credible. No, it's just lazy, stupid marketers, running with a lazy, stupid formula. If the ads offend you, don't buy the products. Write angry letters. Fill a diaper to the brim with your leavings and mail it to Huggies. Or just bitch on the Internet. Those are all acceptable responses to a stupid ad.
And if you happen to work for a marketing company? Maybe come up with a new, less lazy formula.
And also maybe don't open any mail that feels squishy.
For more from Bucholz, check out 6 Reasons Cross-Dressing Comedies Should Be Retired and The 5 Stages of Online Dating.