Can a TV commercial express any emotional truth about manhood? Do men have emotional truths that deserve to be expressed? The infantalized man is one strategy. The classic 1995 "Toy Store" spot for Isuzu, out of Goodby Silverstein, shows a middle-class dad stumbling across a gift-wrapped SUV. His blank, beatific reaction masterfully sells the idea of man-as-boy. It also frames the portrait of men in advertising - the nerdy white-collar guy and the stoic blue-collar guy. But any hint of class conflict - the ultimate TV taboo, which only Roseanne and All in the Family really dealt with - is buried underneath the general depiction of male cluelessness. Our genetically-determined ineptitude defines us more than our social standing.
Commercials play off the inherent nobility of blue-collar life, none so cleverly as the Mike's Hard Lemonade campaign, from Cliff Freeman & Partners, in which men shake off grievous workplace injuries to go drinking with their pals. The real story is in the subtext. The ads are framed in blue-collar signifiers, but the marketing is directed to twentysomething yuppies, the future lawyers who would actually handle a workmen's comp lawsuit for a lopped-off foot or a punctured torso. Mike's Hard Lemonade traffics in that amorphous white-collar guilt. We miss that blue-collar Rocky Balboa 101st Airborne sense of honor that shrugging off a piece of rebar through the sternum implies. A six-pack of an oversweetened, teenage starter drink is a cheap dose of credibility. It sure beats the crap I drank at 16 - Genny Cream Ale, Mad Dog 20-20. Underage drinking has come a long way.
But the subtext is a bit twisted. Do blue-collar men take pride in shrugging off workplace injuries, or are they more hardened to life's basic moral unfairness? Give me an unfair parking ticket, and I'll be screaming "fascist" in less than a minute. Men, whether blue or white, still respond to machismo. For example, who, exactly, is the target for the Ford F Series commercial, from JWT/Detroit, which satirizes men who enjoyed the movie You've Got Mail? Is it the urban wannabes, or Ford's hard-core base? The spot makes fun of class distinctions while blurring them with humor. And yet it portrays a sweating farmer who works his fence line like some Great Plains Ken doll. He is an icon of male simplicity. In 30 seconds, simplicity is a virtue. It's just that this kind of simplicity only runs in one psychographic direction, from blue-collar to white.
You can sell yuppies flatbed trucks and Mikita routers, but you can't go the other way and sell blue-collar men Brooks Brothers suits. If they adopt Armani or Polo, it's because they follow the lead of athletes or rappers. Working men don't buy "lifestyle." They buy life. They buy things.
Men's magazines also fascinate me, especially Men's Health, where abdominal muscles are pornography, and Men's Journal, where nerdy white writers get themselves stranded on Everest and chased around by grizzly bears. The ads are as fascinating as the editorial. Consider a small ad for Buck knives. The body copy jokes that the hunting knife is also handy for cutting your teenage kid's speaker wires, which, when I thought about it, conveys a sick, angry mindset. Who combines razor-sharp hunting knives and children? It's a covert acknowledgement that under the fumbling, clueless behavior, men are time bombs. It's not intentional - the ad is too amateurish - but it is truthful. More ugly and truthful than most advertising I see on TV.