Are today's men incompetent, bumbling idiots? Judging by portrayals in some advertising, the answer seems to be yes - much to the dismay of some men.
The portrayals began as a clever reversal of traditional gender roles in campaigns, prompted by the ire of women and feminist organizations over decades of ads using stereotyped imagery of an incompetent, bumbling housewife who needed to be told which coffee or cleanser to buy.
As those images disappeared, the pendulum swung, producing campaigns portraying men in general, and husbands and fathers in particular, as objects of ridicule, pity or even scorn. Among them are ads for Bud Light, Domino's, Hummer, T-Mobile and Verizon.
The "man as a dope" imagery has gathered momentum over the last decade, and critics say that it has spiraled out of control. It is nearly impossible, they say, to watch commercials or read ads without seeing helpless, hapless men.
In the campaigns, which the critics consider misandry (the opposite of misogyny), men act like buffoons, ogling cars and women; are likened to dogs, especially in beer and pizza ads; and bungle every possible household task. Most marketers presenting incompetent, silly male characters say their campaigns provide a harmless comedic insight into the male mentality while also appealing to women. But men who describe themselves as rights activists are increasingly speaking out against the ads as a form of male-bashing, especially when the ads disparage the roles that fathers play in their children's lives.
"You can't routinely denigrate a given segment of the population mercilessly," said Richard Smaglick, a founder of an organization known as the Society for the Prevention of Misandry in the Media, which runs (fathersandhusbands.org), a Web site. "We're trying to wake up the industry to get business leaders to recognize that this isn't the way to build relationships with their customers."
Some critics label the campaigns a reaction to the political correctness that makes it no longer permissible to use stereotypes of women.
Paul Nathanson, who wrote "Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture," with Katherine K. Young, said the issue was larger than just what was presented in advertising.
"Negative imagery in advertising is part of negative imagery in popular culture in general," Dr. Nathanson said. "If you add up the way men are presented in popular culture, then it is a problem because the message is that that's what men are."
Then there are the longer-term effects, Dr. Nathanson said, asking, "How do boys form a healthy identity?" if they are constantly exposed to anti-male stereotypes.
Martyn Straw, chief strategy officer at BBDO Worldwide in New York, part of the Omnicom Group, offered an explanation.
"In advertising and in general communications," Mr. Straw said, "there is the notion that things that are 'negative' are always much funnier than 'positive,' which can get very schmaltzy."
"In order to not cross over the line into denigration," Mr. Straw said, the situation portrayed in an ad needs to be truthful and funny. If those elements are in place, he added, "it's not really bashing, it's just having a funny look at the way men work sometimes and the way they approach things."
Critics have compiled lists of ads they deem offensive. One Web site, Standyourground.com, in cooperation with the Men's Activism News Network, lists 30 brands it asks men to avoid buying because of what they regard as male-bashing advertising; the list includes Budweiser, Hummer, J. C. Penney and Post-it notes.
One of the companies most cited is Verizon Communications, for a commercial for its Verizon DSL service created by McGarry Bowen in New York. The spot shows a computer-clueless father trying to help his Internet-savvy daughter with her homework online. Mom orders Dad to go wash the dog and leave their daughter alone; the girl flashes an exasperated look of contempt at him.
A Verizon spokesman, John Bonomo, said, "It was not our intention certainly to portray fathers as inessential to families." The commercial has run its scheduled course, he added, and is no longer appearing.
In many ways, said Ann Simonton, coordinator of Media Watch in Santa Cruz, Calif., an organization that challenges what it considers to be racism, sexism and violence in the media, such commercials play on stereotypes of both sexes. For instance, speaking of the Verizon spot, Ms. Simonton said, "One might be able to interpret the women as being very nagging."
Courtney Kane, The New York Times. January 28, 2005
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