Up from The Cape: 9 Feb 2017
I’m a casual student of British TV commercials of the 1950s through to the 1980s. From the 1950s until approximately the early 1960s, women portrayed in TV adverts were subservient creatures without character, mirroring the kind of roles they were given in films and TV in general. Their chief function, aside from cooking, cleaning, and being anxious about the opinions of smug men with I.Q.s that were more or less neck-and-neck with a shoe size, was to be unstable or obsessed with their hair. A woman’s main anxiety during this era was often triggered by what the industry called “The Voice of God”. It was normal for this to manifest whenever a woman was doing the washing-up. A disembodied voice (always male, and usually patronising) would break in and ask the woman if she was “happy” or “satisfied” with the cleanliness of the dishes. Her eyes would raise from the sink and look nervously in the direction of a camera point somewhere up beyond the ceiling. Not all men liked this portrayal of women. David Ogilvy (an industry giant at the time) attacked the attitudes behind it and said bluntly “She’s not a moron…she’s your wife. Don’t patronise her.” Just how much things have changed has become clear to me after being unable to avoid watching some contemporary commercials for reasons I won’t burden anyone with.
Minus 1 + minus 1 =
As a general principle I do my ruthless best to avoid adverts these days whether they’re on TV or online. Advertising has travelled a long way from the brief golden age in which mavericks were in charge. Today’s advertising is, for me at least, largely predictable, one-dimensional, mechanistic, and sterile (though one soaraway exception is the M&S Art of Design TV Advert 2015). This may be a consequence of risk-takers (in the Collett Dickenson Pearce sense) having been “put in their place” when the percentage players returned to power. Because percentage players go for a return with the lowest risk, mavericks aren’t welcome. It’s hard for me to know as an outsider if this was the main driver of the way in which men and women are portrayed today. If it isn’t, I’m guessing it was due to the idiotic notion that the best way to address a past injustice is to perpetrate another injustice, this time in favour of those oppressed previously in order to achieve “balance” (also known as “positive discrimination”). Two minuses may make a plus in mathematics, but not in my experience when you’re dealing with people.
Living the Dream
In days of old, men in adverts used to be presented as ludicrously camp figures of extreme masculinity and intelligence (if you think I’m joking, watch any British late 1960s St Bruno commercial). Today they’re incompetent servants, or the intellectual equivalents of a five-year-old – and sometimes both. To be fair, there’s always been a class of men who fitted into that category, but there aren’t appreciably more of them today than there used to be. It just wasn’t a breed of men held aloft as role models years ago. Advertising was, foremost at least, about the dream – not the reality. It really would take a five-year-old to have the dream of actually wanting to appear to be a village idiot, but now that I think about it how else can anyone explain the worst aspects of reality TV or twitter?
Going up/going down
Not surprisingly after a couple of decades of being props and wallpaper in advertising, women lost their patience with it. Eventually there was a drive towards change that presented them in a more realistic and accomplished manner. This was probably due more to changes in society than changes within the advertising industry itself. The curious and unfathomable thing is that at the same time this was happening, men mutated into the role of a dense counterweight that began a long descent down a regressive evolutionary lift shaft just as women were going up it.
Men in commercials today have become dozy, amiable pack animals forever chewing the cud. Contemporary man in British TV advertising is a bit tubby; a bit thick; a bit useless; completely non-threatening; and looks like he’s been dressed by his mum (see the sort of character ably portrayed by the gifted actor James Corden for this basic feature set). The variant is a more sleek, cheerful, and emasculated grinning assistant/PA to a woman, often bearded or with tasteful designer stubble (the man of course – women haven’t changed that much). He’s never allowed to appear to be either competent or in control – he’s just there to show how smart the woman is and how pleased he is to have her watching over him.
Contemporary women in commercials (and increasingly in films) are portrayed uniformly as flawless, smirking, patient, slightly contemptuous and haughty creatures. They preside effortlessly over useless men who seem to have had a brain-swap with a chair (author’s concession: yes, I know there have always been men like that – I was at school with some of them before they grew into men). When women are employed for voice-overs (not just in commercials), they have a patronising, saccharine, “mummy-will-tell-you-a-lovely-bed-time-story-now” quality. When they aren’t doing that they emote like mad whenever a normal voice would do. It’s a voice women use habitually when they talk to small children. I haven’t been a small child for a very long time, but I don’t want to hear that voice again ever, thanks. It’s a step away from a pat on the head and pocket-money.
Voice in the wilderness
A couple of decades ago Kitty O’Hagan, then deputy chair of the advertising agency GGK, commented on the way in which advertising was starting to portray men as buffoons and idiots. She had a theory this was due to the way in which people working in advertising at the time believed women wanted the men in their lives to be hen-pecked yokels who did as they were told. She said she thought this was wrong, and most normal women didn’t want it that way. The industry had other ideas.