Advertisers: Men Are Not Idiots

By Glenn Sacks and Richard Smaglick

The way the advertising industry portrays men has been drawing increasing scrutiny by both the trade press and the mainstream media. Defenders of the status quo–in which men are depicted as irresponsible fathers and lazy, foolish husbands–are starting to feel outnumbered. It’s an understandable feeling.

According to United Press International, J. Walter Thompson, one of America’s top advertising agencies, “has decided to stop portraying men as testosterone-soaked fools.” Bob Jeffery, Chairman of JWT, explains:

“[JWT is developing] smart, positive portrayals of the modern man…Men have faded into a collective ‘boob-dom,’ a sort of ‘Jackass’ meets ‘The Man Show’ meets ‘The Simpsons.’ As a result, the way we approach the men’s market is ripe for reinvention.”

Other outspoken critics of anti-male ads include: Marian Salzman, vice-president of JWT (men have become an “easy target” for ridicule); Mark Tungate, author of Branded Male: Marketing to Men (“Lazy ad agencies love gags…and men are the safest victims”); Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, whose weekly columns appear in 300 newspapers (“On television, men are depicted as boors or buffoons…they’ve had enough”); TV host Bill Maher; CBS News’ anchor Charles Osgood; nationally syndicated radio talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger; syndicated columnist Jacey Eckhart; Chicago Tribune columnist Ross Werland: Law professor/author/blogger king Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit; Dr. Christine B. Whelan, author of Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women; major market talk show hosts Al Rantel, Mike McConnell, Ron Smith, and Joe Elliott; and numerous others.

The evidence is clear–”man as idiot” isn’t going over very well these days.

Defenders of the advertising status quo generally put forth two arguments: males are “privileged” and “it’s men’s turn,” so it’s OK to portray them this way; and men simply don’t care how they’re portrayed. Both of these arguments are highly questionable.

Young males certainly aren’t privileged. The vast majority of learning-disabled students are boys, and boys are four times as likely to receive a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as girls. Girls get better grades than boys and are much more likely than boys to graduate high school and enter college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women earn 60% of all bachelor’s degrees and 60% of all Master’s Degrees.

That adult men are “privileged” over women is also questionable. Yes, men do make up the majority of CEOs, politicians, and powerbrokers. They also make up the majority of the homeless, the imprisoned, the suicide victims, and those who die young.

How fathers are portrayed matters. Fatherlessness is one of the greatest threats our children face. Recently syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. said:

“Twenty-eight percent of American kids…are growing up in fatherless homes, heir to all the struggle and dysfunction that condition portends…who can deny those [are] appalling numbers[?]”

Among the many ills fatherlessness portends are much higher rates of teen drug abuse, crime, pregnancy, and school drop-outs.

While the advertising industry’s negative depiction of fathers certainly isn’t the cause of fatherlessness, it’s part of the problem. In a television culture like ours, the fact that the only fathers one can see on TV are buffoonish (at best) does influence young people’s perceptions of fathers.

For young men, it makes it less likely they’ll aspire to be fathers, see their own value as fathers or, as Pitts explains, want to do the “hard, but crucial work of being dad.” For young women, it means they’ll be more likely to be misled into thinking that their children’s fathers aren’t important, that divorce or separation from them is no big deal, or that they will, as is the increasing trend, simply dispense with dad altogether and have children on their own.

Is it true that men really don’t care how they’re portrayed? Evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

According to Leo Burnett Worldwide’s 2005 ”Man Study,” four out of five men believe media portrayals of men are inaccurate. The study found that men care more about the way they are viewed than was generally believed.

When Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel did a feature on “men as idiots” advertising in 2004, she says she was “astounded” at the amount of mail she received, almost all of it critical of the way men are portrayed in ads. In a Washington Times article in January, advertising industry journalist Todd Wasserman describes getting the exact same reaction to a recent article he wrote on anti-male ads.

This sentiment was reflected in the popularity of the highly-publicized campaigns we’ve launched against advertising which is hostile to males. Several thousand protesters participated in both our 2004 campaign against Verizon’s anti-father ad “Homework” and our 2007 campaign against Arnold Worldwide.

Our campaigns have drawn widespread support from women, who generally do not like to see their sons, husbands, and fathers put down. Leo Burnett executive Rose Cameron explains:

“One of the great markers [society] looks to about the intelligence of a woman is her choice of husband. So if advertisers position men as idiots in the husband scenario, then you’re commenting on her smarts. Women have told us, ‘If you want to get on my good side, you do not show my husband as the idiot.’”

We have three suggestions for the advertising industry:

First, create more ads that are father-positive. Some recent examples include: AT & T’s touching father-daughter ad “Monkey”; First Choice Holidays’ “Slow Motion Hugs”; and Ford’s father-son ad “We Know.”

Second, as we consider whether it’s wise to make men the butt of every joke, we should also consider the joke itself. Many see the ’60s as the “Golden Age of Advertising.” Those who crafted the ads of that era created work of superb quality, seldom if ever resorting to the forms of contempt, shame, and aggressive ridicule of today’s ads.

Third, when an ad does need to poke fun at somebody, stop automatically defaulting to men-as-fools.

Is bashing men a good way to sell products? The ad world has learned, for the most part, to respect womanhood. Given the rising level of media, ad industry, and public disgust with anti-male ads, it’s clear that good, respectful humor is a much healthier approach to advertising.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."—Upton Sinclair