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Why men in ads are dumb, goofy or completely inept Add to ...

Silly men. You can't take them anywhere.

If they're not messing up your house, running into glass doors or trying in vain to outsmart an air freshener, you'll find them eating the inedible or falling down for no reason whatsoever.

At least, that's what some advertisers would have you believe. More and more marketers are trying to tap into the overwhelming buying power of wives and mothers at the expense of their other halves. Dads are dumb, boyfriends are bumbling and husbands are utterly hopeless as brands strive to relate to women by showing men as especially goofy or incompetent.

"They're applying that same formula every time you see an ad," said Deborah Adams, senior vice-president of Harbinger Communications, a consultancy firm that focuses on marketing to women. She's seen the trend rise over the years. "It's not just advertising, it's in pop culture, depicting men in a very narrow, stereotypical view."

Take a recent Canadian ad for Polysporin. When a man suggests to his family that they go camping, his wife immediately looks off into the distance, imagining what their trip will be like. The result is a montage of her husband's mishaps: first he catches his ear on a fishing hook when he tries to cast a line, then burns his hand twice - on a hot pan and on a burning marshmallow that sticks to his fingers - before stepping on a paddle that swings up and knocks him in the face. The final shot has him walking along a path and simply falling down.

The wife then imagines her first aid kit, complete with the antiseptic product, which she uses to tend to her clumsy mate as he sits next to her, battered, burned and bruised, looking like a sheepish child. That's enough to convince her that despite her disaster-prone husband's antics, they can take the trip.

"Sure, why not?" she says to her delighted family.

Beyond their nod to slapstick humour, ads like this are an attempt to appeal to women by showing how they hold a household together, Ms. Adams said. But it's a misplaced strategy, she believes.

"They're trying to be respectful to them and show them these are women's times, but at the same time they're doing a real disservice by disrespecting men, and putting them in this really stereotypical box," she said. "If we ever did that to women, it would be so politically incorrect."

In an e-mail, a representative for Montreal-based Johnson & Johnson Inc. would not comment on the specifics of the company's ad strategy, but said the Polysporin spot was intended to use humour to show the effectiveness of the product.

There is good reason for marketers to target women, who account for 80 per cent of consumer purchases, Ms. Adams said.

The assumption seems to be that the easiest way to target women as consumers is to target men for their supposed inadequacies. The examples are numerous. A Tim Hortons ad shows a man who wants a sip of his girlfriend's frozen cappuccino but can't understand the mechanics of a glass door. He slams into it like a confused bird. Glade is advertising a motion-sensing spray on its new air freshener. The 30-minute delay function prevents overspraying, but the man can't figure that out and goes into convulsions trying to set off the little plastic device. Luckily, his wife is around to show him how to push a button.

"It's preposterous," said Paul Nathanson, a researcher at McGill University who studies misandry - contempt for men - in popular culture. He has co-written a series of books on the subject with fellow McGill professor Katherine Young, questioning the way those stereotypes are propagated. Prof. Nathanson dismisses the idea that commercials like this are simply targeting a demographic.

"We are creating a society in which thuggish, piggish men are the dominant images," he said. "Can't you talk to women without insulting men?"

When men aren't stupid, they are shown as out-of-control gluttons. In a Pepto-Bismol spot, a woman calls a help line to ask how to treat Rex, who devoured seemingly everything in the house, including dog biscuits, of course. The punchline is that Rex is not her dog; he's her husband.

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Dairy Queen's latest offering has a man being greeted by his daughter, who shows him a picture she drew of the family. He becomes perturbed that the others are holding ice cream treats while he is pictured with a salad, and so draws his own ice cream and tapes it to the picture. His wife scoffs at him, declaring, "You're being a child." The husband then takes his drawing back and eats the paper.

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In ads like this, the woman is inevitably the brains of the family, the voice of reason. But it wasn't long ago that the tables were turned. For years, women in ads were shown poking around their kitchen or doing laundry, Prof. Nathanson said. So couldn't it be argued that consumers simply need to lighten up? That it's simply men's turn to be the butt of pop culture jokes for a while?

"That's based on the premise that two wrongs make a right," he said. "It doesn't work."

Some ads have created a backlash. In 2007, a ruling by Advertising Standards Canada upheld a consumer complaint that an ad for Rona hardware stores "was derogatory to, and also denigrated men, in particular, married men." The ad featured two women commiserating about how useless husbands are around the home. Rona apologized and changed the commercial.

What's more, the ads may not achieve their goal of appealing to female buyers. Harbinger holds monthly panels to talk to female consumers, said Deborah Adams, and the feedback is not good.

"A lot of the women on our panel have said, 'You know, if you want to make inroads with me, if you want to resonate with me, you really shouldn't be showing my husband as an idiot,' " she said.

"That's really an insult to her intelligence."

It's a sign the trend is getting stale, Ms. Adams said. But that doesn't mean those kinds of ads are going away. As long as advertisers have the perception that mocking men will touch a nerve with women, it's likely they'll be more concerned with doing a brisk business than with shaping identity politics.

Silly ads.

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