Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Male-Bashing in Advertising: A Sordid Business

For twenty years now, one of the highlights of North American advertising, especially on television, is what many call its male-bashing. Invariably, when TV ads show men and women together, the ads belittle men as ignorant, incompetent, loutish, or juvenile while heralding women as wise, mature, long-suffering adults. (For examples, see this Top Ten list from and for background see this 2005 NY Times article). Men are always the butt of the jokes while women represent the smart consumers who are bound to follow the advertiser’s advice and buy the product sold by the ad. Critics often remark that were these stereotypes reversed, there would be a feminist uproar and the advertisers would be lynched in the streets. Of course, in the ads of the 1950s and 40s, the stereotypes were indeed exactly reversed, with women depicted as know-nothing children and men as the responsible, all-knowing guardians. Those ads persisted because women had little power then to affect the mass media. Then came the later feminist wave in the 1960s, and women entered the workplace in droves. Over the last couple of decades, North American women have started earning as much as men even in some white collar fields and those women now outnumber men with college or university degrees. Women currently have some sway over the culture industry, although they’ve hardly unseated men from their positions of ultimate political and economic power. Why, then, are the male-bashing ads still perpetrated and tolerated?

Three reasons for their creation come to mind. First, taking into account what I just said, that the current crop of grotesque sexist caricatures precisely reverses an earlier one, the advertisers may be lazy, choosing a formula they know worked in the past, but flipping the variables to accommodate recent social developments. This is surely part of the truth, but it points to a second cause which is the advertiser’s interest in reflecting reality. After all, feminism, competition with machines for traditionally male-dominated jobs, and postmodern cynicism and resistance to patriarchal metanarratives have emasculated and feminized men in wealthy, decadent societies. Advertisers are hardly like scientists who are after knowledge for its own sake, but selling products requires at least a modicum of concern to represent reality--although surely no more than the minimum needed to avoid being branded as a bold-faced liar. There’s much talk recently of men’s identity crisis, so ads may reflect that crisis, as advertisers burrow into the consumer’s preconscious or unconscious and spin narratives that associate over-produced products with the fulfillment of manufactured or uncontrolled urges, respectively.

Still, the fact that the commercials are clearly exaggerations, at best, if not shameless distortions, suggests a third cause which is that advertisers know that male-bashing ads are somehow currently effective at selling the products. Now, assuming the ads work, they mustn’t exclude any large, targeted mass of consumers such as adult men or women. So perhaps surprisingly, men and women must approve of these ads. The reasons why, though, aren’t so hard to discern. Although superficially, men should be appalled by their caricatures throughout the mass media, and some men even speak out against them (such as the radio personality Tom Leykis), the majority likely chalk up their embarrassing cultural image as just another round of lies that women need to hear to accommodate men’s actual vices, including men's higher sex drive. Meanwhile, women are especially susceptible to flattery; indeed, men’s lies to women are so obligatory, due to the fact that the evolutionary (sexual) interests of men and women are at loggerheads, that the stream of lies amounts to a ritual mating dance to pacify women by overriding their defense mechanisms, including their bullshit detector. The boldness of the lies may indicate stoutness of heart, courage on the battlefield, or some other evolutionarily significant virtue.
To sum up, male-bashing and women-glorification work now in advertising, because those business tactics aren’t radical departures from the trusty methods of earlier, misogynistic decades; the ads reflect the postmodern reality in which women are on a comparative economic and cultural upswing while men are lost in limbo, although the overall trend is one of dehumanization; and men are used to lying to please women, while women are readily flattered as long as the lies are sufficiently creative and distracting for women to subconsciously register the subtext that men still dominate.  

The trouble with this analysis, though, is that it doesn’t touch on the advertiser’s depravity. The underlying fact is that advertising is a sordid business, fit for treacherous, parasitic worms. When I punish myself by imagining a day in the life of an advertiser, here’s what I picture. The advertiser’s pit sinks deep into the earth as a volcanic entrance to hell’s inferno. A demon collects his infernal files of esoteric data and other apocalyptic devices to tempt the human masses and ensure their eventual downfall. Slinking through a crack in the outcropping’s wall, the demon narrowly misses the lashing tails and claws of fellow demons scampering to their orgiastic fight to the death. Through flames and clouds of sulfur, the demon catches sight of children being sacrificed to Mammon and chuckles as their blood boils on the rocks. The demon gets to work and takes hold of one captive human after another, flogging them senseless with his cruelly-fashioned whips. Then the demon lashes himself until he collapses and requires a break, his howls of self-loathing adding to the cacophonous cries of the damned.

No, I don’t care much for advertising.


  1. Interesting idea about boldness of lies being related to boldness in other areas as sexual selection, not something I remember coming across before.

    1. Technically, that point about the boldness of lies is a Just So Story, meaning the sort of untestable hypothesis that's common in evolutionary psychology. The hypothesis has some plausibility, but you should note that not everything I say in this blog is meant to be taken at face value. I use satire and hyperbole sometimes to drive home my point. These are rants, after all, albeit philosophical ones.

      Again, thanks for reading and commenting.