Why advertising with shirtless guys is OK

When is an advert not sexist?" squawked furious commentators this week. "When there's a man in it." As lollipop stick jokes go, it's not the funniest I've ever heard. In fact, it's not even a joke. A spittle-flecked furore has kicked off after a Paco Rabanne fragrance ad, which showed a gym-pumped young Adonis stripping off for a bath, escaped censure by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

It prompted 120 complaints (who from – soap-dodgers?), but such objections were waved away by the industry watchdog. The six-packed stud will continue to steam up glasses nationwide.

Meanwhile, a poster for Tunnock's teacakes that showed a female tennis player raising her skirt to flash a thigh and a sliver of knicker received just a single complaint, but was duly banned. "Double standards!" they cry. "Political correctness gone mad!" they inevitably add. Stop being so pathetic, say I.

Context and tone

For a start, the two ads in question are wildly different in tone. The ASA ruled that the Paco Rabanne ad is light-hearted and humorous, rather than degrading. Indeed it is. Slapstick ensues as the male model is secretly observed by a-flutter females, with the surreal, stylised mood heightened by an updated remix of Bizet's Habanera.

The Tunnock's poster is more old-school, built around a dated single entendre from the Benny Hill era. The industry watchdog decided the image and its inference were "socially irresponsible" and likely to cause offence by "objectifying women". A little hand-wringy, but in the current climate, you can't be too careful.

The cynic in me also suspects there might be commercial considerations at play. After all, the Paco Rabanne ad is glossy, lavish and expensively produced by a Euro fashion giant. The Tunnock's one looks like it was slapped together with a Pritt Stick after a liquid lunch at a biscuit factory. Which it quite possibly was.


So are men, as the complainants claim, really being objectified in advertising? A bit, sure – but it was ever thus.

From Marlboro Man to Denim aftershave's "man who doesn't have to try too hard", copywriters have long exploited the appeal of a gruff voice, a square jaw and a bulging bicep.

In the Eighties, bequiffed dreamboat Nick Kamen whipped off his Levi's in a launderette. In the Nineties, female office workers leered at a shirtless builder on his "Diet Coke break". In the 21st century, you can barely pass a billboard without seeing David Beckham or David Gandy reclining seductively in their tighty-whitey underpants. Modern advertising features more lunch boxes than a school canteen. This objectified table-turning even has an industry term: "hunkvertising".

Is this something to get angry about? No. Men just need to get a grip.

Men are not the #victims

OK, it's not ideal, but after centuries of patriarchal society and institutionalised sexism, the odd ogle to redress the balance is just fine. At least men flashing the flesh tend to be tongue-in-cheek and played for role-reversal laughs, rather than the pernicious media bombardment of body image messages to which women have been subjected for decades.

In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there's a prevailing atmosphere of righteous anger, distrust and shame. This feels like a time of reckoning for gender politics. It's Presidents Club sleaze one day, Formula One grid girls the next – and today, it's a fairly harmless, mostly funny Paco Rabanne ad.

It's understandable why men are currently keen to pounce on a story that paints them as the victims for a change. However, crying "#MenToo" or "#HeToo" is not the answer. This isn't a competition, and if it was, we would lose. That some men seek to frame #MeToo as an unjust witch-hunt against our entire gender speaks volumes about their own insecurities.

Pick your battles

Besides, there are reductive male tropes everywhere you look. Cinema screens are populated by rugged superheroes and muscle-bound spies. TV dramas are darkened by serial killers, wife-beaters and child abusers. Sport is played by blinged-up, slightly thick spoilt brats. Few and far between are positive role models for young boys.

As a hands-on father-of-two, the cultural stereotype that perhaps bothers me most is the useless dad. From Peppa's Daddy Pig to Homer Simpson, from soap operas to supermarket Christmas ads, we're forever falling in muddy puddles, forgetting wedding anniversaries, burning birthday cakes and putting up shelves that collapse the moment a dinky ornament is placed on them.

It's a cliché that's lazy and infuriating: eye-rolling at daft old Dad, then worshipping saintly Mum as she saves the day. It's high time cultural portrayals caught up with the contemporary reality of equal co-parenting.

Listen, instead of shouting

But let's retain a sense of perspective. Is this an injustice to compare with the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, sexual assault or abuses of power? Of course not. Pretending that it does, even just momentarily, will just widen the distance between us. Such a mindset risks whipping up a moral panic.

The whole of society needs to listen to #MeToo, learn the lessons, express solidarity... and move on. Not cry #MenToo at every perceived slight in the other direction.

A backlash counter-movement would undermine and slow the progress painfully being made. It aids the cause of neither men nor women if we're making each other feel under siege. Gender wars help no one. Let's give peace a chance.

Tags: Gay Men

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