Analysis

'Dumb men' the latest punching bag in advertising: Ad Guy

CBC's ad guy has noticed a trend that's turning the tables on sexism in advertising. Now it's men's turn to be treated as well-meaning idiots.

Men depicted as slow-witted or worse in ads, but women often don't come off much better

CBC advertising columnist Bruce Chambers says there's a trend in commercials, such as this ad for LG, toward depicting men as stupid and women as sarcastic. (YouTube)

It's generally accepted that men and women are, on average, of equal intellect. But there's a trend in advertising toward showing men as idiots.

In a 2007 Sony commercial we even have the rear end of a horse standing in for the father — even if text on the screen does say, "Dad isn't a horse's behind. Sony Cyber-shot knows this."

Still, they've quite literally made the man the butt of the joke.

A current ad is part of a long-running series of Febreze commercials that depict unusually smelly people who are blissfully unaware of their odour. Again, men figure prominently.

Or there's a 2011 ad from South Africa in which we see three young men in a car. As the driver backs into a parking spot, he tells his passengers he's the king of backing up.

They challenge him, and for the rest of this 60-second ad, we see the three driving backwards across South Africa.

When they finally arrive in Cape Town, they inadvertently back off the elevated ramp of an unfinished freeway, destroying their car.

Type on the screen says, "Why we insure women." That's followed by the insurance company's name: 1st for Women.

After generations of ads that characterized women as dumb sex objects, men are now a target of ridicule too. One reason for this is that straight, white men are just about the only group advertisers can still get away with making fun of. And if you're appealing to a mostly female audience, positioning men as inferior to women is sometimes an effective hook.

But some recent ads take this a step further. In a 2014 example, we hear the thoughts of a mother as she watches her son standing in a stupor in front of an open fridge door. She wonders if he thinks food might magically appear, and then ponders where he might have gotten his reasoning from.

Later, the question is answered as she watches her husband do exactly the same thing.

According to such ads, men may be stupid, but women can sometimes come across as sarcastic.

In another current ad, we have a man and a woman in another kitchen scene. The man is pleased that he bought a dishwasher detergent that's half the price of their usual variety.

But he soon realizes he's going back to the store when the woman informs him they'll probably need at least twice the amount of detergent to get the same clean.

The ad contrasts the man's eager ineptness with the woman's bossiness.

In some ways, it's good that men are finally taking their turn as objects of ridicule in ads. But two wrongs don't necessarily make a right.

And since men are positioned as lovably bumbling, while women can seem mean-spirited and controlling, maybe the ridicule still isn't quite equal.


Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio. 

About the Author

Bruce Chambers

Ad Guy

Bruce began his career writing radio commercials for stations in Red Deer, Calgary and Toronto. Then in-house at a national department store, and then ad agencies with campaigns for major national and regional clients. For the past couple of decades, he's been a freelance creative director and copywriter for agencies in Calgary and Victoria. He began his weekly Ad Guy columns on CBC Radio in 2003.