Ad world dumbs down American males

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In the spirit of today's television game-show craze, identify the common theme in the following two TV commercials:

* A middle-aged husband eating a bowl of breakfast cereal suddenly hears his wife approaching. Frantically, he shovels fistfuls of cereal into his mouth before she arrives. The scene ends with the wife holding the empty box as the man mumbles something about there not being enough to go around.

* A young man meticulously washes a car, right down to the loving toothbrush treatment on the hubcaps. Suddenly, the vehicle's owner appears in the scene and demands to know what the guy is doing in his driveway.

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If you guessed people getting caught in the act of doing something they shouldn't ... you are the weakest link, goodbye!

If you said themes that poke fun at stereotypical male behavior, your $1 million check is in the mail.

While it may not come as a surprise, more and more commercials are portraying men in ways that some might argue border on the idiotic, ad-watchers say.

In an earlier generation, strong, masculine guys had the car or got the babe in the commercials, notes Glenn Good, an associate professor of educational and counseling psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Male viewers might try to emulate these winning characters by going out and buying the products they were pitching, says the expert in men's issues and gender roles.

Today, however, many commercials "play on men's doubts and insecurities" by portraying male characters as fools, Mr. Good explains. Men don't want to look stupid or exhibit uncontrolled urges like those who stand agape in the presence of a new car, he notes.

The message in these commercials is "their products will fix them" of this affliction, Good explains. They also imply that "you too can have other men drooling over your car," he adds.

Another element in ads of this ilk often involves a calm and competent woman witnessing the male behavior, perhaps with a thinly veiled look of contempt.

In one example, a man sprawls on a couch watching television all day while his wife rushes about cleaning the house. Finally, exasperated, she sucks him into her vacuum cleaner. The ad pitches a credit card that will solve all of life's problems.

As odd as it may sound, these are not really negative portrayals of men, says Timothy Burke, associate professor of history at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, and an authority on popular culture in advertising.

Such images, in fact, "resonate with a lot of men, God help us," he says. "It's an alibi for men for behavior they would like to get away with."

The man-as-idiot theme allows men to say: "Don't blame me, I didn't mean to do this. I'm entitled to do this because I'm not really smart," Mr. Burke explains. Simultaneously, it resonates with women for radically different reasons, he notes: "Women know a lot of stupid men."

In many ways, such commercials play on the stereotypes of both genders, says Charlotte Morgan-Cato, director of the women's studies program at Lehman College of The City University of New York. For instance, she notes, they often feature "a dominant woman in the household who treats her husband as another child."

Professor Good suggests that men consider the impact of such ads. Stereotypes hinder the view of men and women as "complete people," he points out.

Stereotypes, however, are the coin of the realm of the dramatic arts, from feature-length Hollywood movies to 30-second TV spots, notes Luke Sullivan, chief creative officer for the Atlanta-based WestWayne advertising agency.

The comic architecture simply ratchets up the "exaggeration dial," says the award-winning copywriter. Commercials with comedic set-ups and characters acting in wacky situations often are more interesting than those offering a straightforward earnest message, Mr. Sullivan says.

Making fun of male behavior is nothing new, he notes. It's part of human nature. "People like to see the buffoon ... the guy getting dunked at the county fair."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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