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In TV Ads, the Laugh's on Men. . .Isn't It?

Some spots portray them as dunderheads, but guys don't seem to care.

October 24, 2000|APRIL SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was a hazy Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica, and inside JP's Bar & Grill, Tyler Masse and Erik Horine were happy. They were happy because the Patriots had won, but mostly they were happy because they had moved to Los Angeles just a week before and already had found a great apartment. Soon their phone would be hooked up and they'd be "getting a start in life," Masse as a writer and Horine as a tennis pro.

Neither seemed concerned that on the TV screens just over their heads, hopeful young men like themselves were routinely being portrayed as total rejects.

It's not as if they'd never noticed the commercials during sports events in which men are seen behaving like clods or stumbling over furniture in the presence of women. In one commercial, their heads shrink to the size of a pin, in another, they become transmogrified into frogs whose skills in life are reduced to the well-timed burp.

"We just don't think about it," Masse said. "It's just TV." Horine studied advertising in college. "In today's market, you have to do what sells," he observed. "When we're watching sports, the world stops. For about three hours, maybe we're not so intelligent."

It would seem, under certain circumstances such as the testosterone high of a ballgame, the advertising community wants men to see themselves that way. As Horine and Masse gripped their Bud Lites, eyes on the monitors, the Mets' Edgardo Alfonzo hit a two-run double. It was the fifth inning of the final game of the National League division series, and a crowd of 56,245 in Shea Stadium jumped to its feet and bounced up and down and as if they'd been given pogo sticks at the gate.

Wouldn't you think men would rather identify with sports heroes like Alfonzo than sports fools, as in the current Norelco spot? In it, a couple of guys try out a new electric shaver on a riding mower and at an office desk, then one returns to his seat at the ballpark and goes into a state of helpless delirium when a sexy woman strokes his cheek--until the jealous girlfriend whacks him in the face with a plastic bat.

"Maybe it gets men in touch with their 'inner loser,' " speculated Los Angeles psychotherapist Douglas Brayfield. "It's interesting men don't perceive this picture of themselves as offensive."

There are some very good reasons why they don't. Consider this classic ad for Heineken: Two guys are sitting at a bar. One sees a beautiful woman. "Hey, you over there," he says, giving her the smile. "Stay where you are," warns the woman. The guy and his pal exchange a look. The guy tries again: "You know, you're awfully pretty." Her reply: "You're an idiot." The pal shrugs sympathetically. Then we see the word "Heineken" and hear, "Have a good night."

*

"Advertising tries to reflect the culture," said Linda Kaplan, now president and chief executive of the New York-based Kaplan/Thaler Group, which oversaw that famous Heineken campaign. "It's a mini-hologram of what's going on."

To better understand the culture of men in bars, Kaplan's creative team hired an anthropologist to record how men acted after one, two or three drinks. The ads, based on real overheard conversations, were designed to be sophisticated and amusing and to make men feel comfortable in potentially embarrassing situations--to let them know Heineken understands and that we've all been there.

"Sometimes," said Kaplan, "a brand can break the 'brand barrier' and become part of the terminology and social behavior. Budweiser, for example, has been very successful in finding the things that express that 'beer head' frame of mind."

It's not just that those frogs and lizards are memorable. Watching them gives you the woozy feeling you've already had a couple of drinks.

In the "theater of persuasion," as Kaplan describes her company, which has won many awards for its original duck-quacking campaign for the Aflac insurance company, you must go beyond the message and be entertaining, or people will change the channel.

Often the tactic in beer ads is to zap you right into that two-drink head, where the world is silly, sloppy and surreal. You'll notice men are always seen at the bar in groups, implying that one of the rewards of drinking is bonding with the pack, since these poor slobs conveniently keep striking out with women.

And if you're wondering what makes men so gullible, it's because by the time they're old enough to legally buy their first beer, they've probably been exposed to these kinds of messages for years. One of the covert strategies of the advertising community is that beer commercials are often addressed to underage drinkers, for whom sophomoric behavior is, understandably, the ideal.

But judging from the easygoing reactions to the topic at JP's Bar & Grill, not everyone is worried that male sports fans are being demeaned on national television. In fact, some say it is incorrect even to characterize these ads as "dumb."

"They're genius," said Masse of the Budweiser series. "Everyone remembers them." Others nodded in agreement.

Erin Duobek, an avid football fan who comes to JP's every Sunday afternoon with her husband, said these ads were "not a put-down" but reality.

"If a beautiful girl walks in, men are going to look. Men are simple creatures," she said with a shrug. "It shows their simplicity. What catches their attention? Sports, women, money, food, and you're done."

*

April Smith is the author of "Be the One," a literary thriller about a woman baseball scout, published by Knopf.

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