Its been many years since dozens of attractive women followed the man smoking St Bruno pipe tobacco like entranced automatons as he self confidently strolled down the street. Nowadays the St Bruno man is consigned to history, his grandson is depicted as ineffectual and weak, regularly outwitted and outplayed by his scarily together girlfriend or wife.
That is the reality of advertising on TV and Radio today and it is beginning to be noticed and commented upon at last...
“Men are now commonly portrayed as either bumbling idiots or as one-dimensional sexual interests of predatory females,” says Jennifer English, consumer planning director at Initiative, a media-buying company. "
The Old El Paso advert, which features a burrito-making man being ridiculed by his girlfriend as she chats on the phone to her friend is one example. According to Jennifer English many of these adverts originate in Britain and don't play well in the Irish market.
“They are probably intended as a backlash against the kind of laddish behaviour which was prevalent in the UK during the 1990s but which we never really experienced here.”
The creative teams behind the Old El Paso ad, and numerous similar executions where the male protagonist either buys the wrong detergent or can’t organise decent car insurance, are tapping into what they perceive as a prevalent mindset among women.
Further perceptive comment on this subject is provided by Julie Anne Bailie, creative director at McCann-Erickson Belfast, who believes that the derogatory treatment of men in advertising is gathering momentum.
“It has been very clear for several years now that the depiction of men in advertising increasingly sees him as ridiculous or incompetent and it has come about as a result of the changing role of men in society.”
She produces road safety adverts for the National Safety Council, and has conducted extensive research into male attitudes.
“Young men in particular are confused about their real role in life. Their view is that women are taking over everything and about the only place they have retained control is behind the wheel of a car.”
As the parent of three sons in their late teens I have noticed that the adverts referred to, do seem to be presenting a pretty bleak perception of their worth in the world today, and this concerns me, since it contributes towards a view that they seem to share with their mates that they are probably not very good at too much, and certainly lack the confidence to dare to succeed, they generally view girls as being generally 'better' than them in many ways . Also the fear of derision for failure is frightening, these ads have not created this situation but they do not help.
Firstly, the role of men has changed in modern advanced societies due to the change in the economy, globalisation has decimated the old traditional manufacturing occupations in the old capitalist world , occupations which were once the preserve of so many man.
Secondly, this change in the modern western economies from secondary and primary economic activity (manufacturing and mining for example) towards tertiary activities such as service provision and retailing has resulted in advanced capitalism drawing on the labour of women more . Most women in Ireland are now either in full or part time employment. This has provided women with a far greater degree of economic power and social status, as well it must be said, with an awful lot of stress.
Thirdly, modern capitalism is driven by an insatiable need to sell us more and more products, so adverts which boost the self esteem of the most likely purchaser (women) and gives her a 'feel good factor' through humour directed at hapless males makes sense. Also there is the eminent good sense of avoiding causing offence to women viewers. Women watching TV and listening to radio are very alert to hints of 'sexism', they have been educated for the past two decades to pick up on any smidgeon of chauvinist attitudes, and are now programmed in a pavlovian learned reaction to react strongly to any vestiges of this 'old thinking' . Better to offend apathetic and passive males than to bring down the fury of a thousand emails from touchy women, who cling on to their 'feminism' as the last vestige of a dimly remembered radical youth.
Many young men feel alienated, they are the denizens of fiercely competitive peer groups where it is considered 'wussy' to express feelings or even appear challenged by anything at all. Many relationships between young Irish men are superficial and drenched in bonds of alcohol and the ubiquitous sentiment 'sher I'm grand'....'how're you?'...'sher grand, never better, how's the craic?" etc etc.
Most young men are of course, genuinely at ease and supremely unaffected by the uncertainties concerning the role of men in modern society,I also suspect that many of Ireland's young men will remain supremely molly-coddled by their Mammy's and their Mammy-like partners in a way which would be considered ludicrously quaint in Britain. Yet there is something amiss with a significant percentage of our young men is'nt there?
Over 500 people take their own lives in Ireland every year, a figure that has increased four-fold since the 1970. Fully 50% of the deaths are under the age of 30 and are overwhelmingly of young males. Young male adults — the suicide numbers are overwhelmingly male by a ratio of 19-1 — have far more complex lives nowadays with far more pressure to succeed than there was in other generations.
The National Safety Council says that the principal causes of death on the roads are excessive or inappropriate speed, drink-driving, not wearing seatbelts, driver fatigue or a combination of these factors. These potentially suicidal failings are most often found among young male drivers.
Perhaps we need to think more about our young men, and care needs to be taken when depicting them in a way which further reinforces their tendency towards irresponsibility, and their susceptibility to emotional confusion or even despair.