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The Rise of ‘Ironic Masculinity’ in Advertising

For nearly half a century, the Marlboro Man stood as the pinnacle of American masculinity: tough, self-sufficient and unapologetically macho. The gritty cowboy was meant to reposition Marlboro — originally launched in 1924 as a cigarette brand for women — as a safer option for men concerned about the harmful effects of smoking.

And it worked: After the Marlboro Man went national in 1955, sales hit $5 billion, a 3,241 percent jump over 1954. By 1972, Marlboro became the number one tobacco brand in the world.

And then it didn’t: Five actors who portrayed the Marlboro Man — Wayne McLaren, David Millar, David McLean, Dick Hammer and Eric Lawson — died of smoking-related diseases. People began realizing the mythical, hyper-masculine idol had been blowing smoke the whole time just as decades of feminist criticism of hegemonic masculinity began to take hold.

And yet, men still want to be manly men and women still want to be withmanly men.

Which is why Kristen Barber and Tristan Bridges — assistant professors of sociology at Southern Illinois University and University of California, Santa Barbara, respectively — coauthored “Marketing Manhood in a ‘Post-Feminist’ Age,” published last month in Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.

Barber and Bridges identified three current advertising campaigns — Kraft’s “Let’s Get Zesty” salad dressings with Anderson Davis; Yoplait’s low-calorie Greek yogurt with Dominic Purcell; and Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man” Body Wash with Isaiah Mustafa — as the latest examples of marketing hyper-manhood in America by mobilizing what they call “satirical masculinity.”

“Satirical masculinity makes old tropes about manhood seem laughable, like we are all in on the joke that these are out-of-date representations of masculinity,” Barber explains. And so, she theorizes, if we can laugh at them, the contrast between men and what have traditionally been considered “feminine” products — body wash, Greek yogurt and salad dressing — begins to dissolve. The campaigns give men permission to consume these products because these guys, the manliest among us, are doing the same. All while having a laugh, because it’s just a joke, feminists!

I asked Barber to help me further understand satirical masculinity in the context of each campaign.

Kraft Zesty Italian Salad Dressing

This 2013 ad featuring a shirtless hunk who cooks, cleans and chops with ease in the Tuscan countryside presents Anderson Davis as the perfect man. Wouldn’t you want your man to cook, clean and chop? But, as Barber explains, “the hyperbolic characterization of this masculinity, as steam makes his shirt cling to his chest, for example, makes it clear this representation is all in jest. There is no real message that women deserve partners who do their half of the domestic work.” Barber says this campaign, which includes a print ad featuring a nearly naked Davis splayed on a picnic blanket, connects women’s perceived sexual desires to their domestic responsibilities. Of course, this logic is problematic: “The notion that this sort of man is extraordinary only serves to reinforce the idea that cooking is women’s work and that they are lucky if men ‘help’ with this labor.”

Yoplait Low-Calorie Greek Yogurt

Dominic Purcell, the square-jawed, stoic (and possibly dangerous) star of Prison Break, was enlisted by General Mills’ Yoplait to be their “Man of Yogurt.” He doesn’t smile in any of the commercials; after all, eating low-calorie yogurt with a tiny spoon doesn’t mean you have to smile or in any way limit your manhood. “At the same time,” Barber says, “the satire embedded in the advertisements provides men a reference point if they are ‘caught’ and questioned for eating fluffy yogurt — it can be funny instead of feminizing.”

In another commercial, Purcell is interrupted while enjoying the texture of Yoplait Greek 100 Whips! “Yeah, that’s right,” he explains to the camera. “The texture’s quite nice. It’s like a little fluffy cloud in my mouth.” Just then, Lambo doors on a silver sports car — the iconic symbol of cool, fast, and straight masculinity — open behind him. “It’s very James Bond and helps to offset the feminizing potential of the yogurt,” Barber explains.

Old Spice Body Wash

Perhaps the most exaggerated display of satirical masculinity is Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man, Man” body wash campaign featuring a ripped Isaiah Mustafa on an array of absurdly hyper-masculine vehicles: a motorcycle in a hot tub, a bubble bath on a white foam horse, a rowboat with an empty seat for her, and so on. And yet, as Barber and Bridges note, Mustafa’s presentation of manhood is complicated. It’s not all macho and could even be called a little queer — an exaggerated presentation of masculinity echoing the clone culture among gay men in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The trademark of these types of advertisements, Barber and Bridges contend, is that they celebrate tropes of masculinity while appearing to simultaneously mock them, thereby offering the appearance of being progressive. It’s a playful, ironic masculinity inviting us to take pleasure in watching manly men consume things in a feminine manner.

Similarly, the ads rely on being able to claim that these are all “just jokes” when defending the content to those who might take offense. “We have all heard people brush off racist or sexist or homophobic jokes by saying: ‘It’s just a joke,’” Barber says.

“And so if you are offended by the presentation of out-dated masculinity steeped in heterosexism and misogyny, then you are the one with the problem; you’re just too PC.”

Man up, bro. And pass me a tiny spoon.