Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The War for Masculinity

Watching football last weekend, the incongruity of back to back commercials caught my attention. First was a Burger King ad. Burger King's pr people have been working very hard over the last couple of years to appeal to men by really hammering the two classic routes to masculinity. One approach is classic frat boy, a combination of titilation and intentional stupidity that shows that you know you have social power and flaunt it by explicitly using it for absolutely nothing. The ads with the masked king, the adolescent junior whopper, the burgers to poor villagers, and the seven incher "blow your mind" ad are just meant to stir up people with their bad taste and give the "we're so cool, we can rattle their cage" wink.

The other is "meat is manly." Their ads always make me think of the old Christopher Titus routine that he used as the basis for his tv series,

My dad's from that era when you lived to 50, your heart exploded and that was that. You know when you cook bacon and you pour the grease into the can? My dad's the can!
You eat meat and have a heart attack and die, that's just what men do.

But then there was the ad for NutriSystem. They bring out Dan Marino and Lawrence Taylor, a golden boy quarterback and one of the best linebackers to ever play the game. Not just men, but MEN. Then there's a string of other athletes and sportcasters, people who are without a doubt in the manly club for men. They show them with the belly and then fit. Here's the other part of masculinity, physical power which is tied into verility.

Diet plan companies who have traditionally targeted women are now focusing on expanding their market to include men. It reminds me of the steel companies after WWI. They had so much extra capacity, having geared up to provide material for weapons and ammunition, that there was a glut of steel on the market once peacetime came. They were selling razor blades to men and figured they could double their market if they could sell to women too. But women seemed to have no need for razor blades, so they would have to damage their self-image to create the demand. Hence the birth of "silky smooth legs" as a cultural necessity for feminine attractiveness.

The difference here is that there is a pre-existing demand for healthier living among American men. But because of the health crisis in this country that results from the typical American lifestyle of nothing but lousy tasting, horribly unhealthy foods coupled with little or no exercise, those with the most social capital are finding themselves pulled in opposite directions. Corporations are in a battle to define modern masculinity and the winner stands to gain a huge reward.

Of course, this assumes that the two sides are mutually exclusive. If men yo-yo between Double Whopper weight gains and NutriSystem weight loss, both sides are happy. Each creates a demand for the other. The real threat would be a completely different way of approaching life that stressed contented, healthy, sustainable living. Damn good thing we're protected from such evil, socialist ideas.