A funny thing happened to Mark Simpson on the way to the ‘Being a Man’ forum
I almost fell off the platform when I saw this bodybuilding supplements poster busting out all over the London Underground recently - around the same time as all that indignant hullabaloo surrounding The Sun’s infamous now-you-don’t-see-them-any-more-now-you-do-again lady busts.
There they were, depilated man-knockers (and pixelated knackers) nakedly objectified in the rush hour for all to see: men and women, children and adults, wide-eyed tourists and jaded locals. No need to buy a copy of a declining tabloid newspaper, open it and turn to page three to ‘exploit’ this model’s tits and abs. Just look up from your smartphone. Shameless male topless and bottomless-ness plastered all over the walls for everyone to ‘gaze’ at while waiting for the next obscenely overcrowded Elephant & Castle train, perhaps carrying Laura Mulvey.
Even worse, the poster encouraged other young men to objectify themselves (‘reveal yourself’), and spend their hard-earned cash buying supplements that they hope will help to make them more desirable, more saleable, more shaggable — bustier. Men are the new glamour models.
The website for the supplement company includes ‘cover model’ as one of the potential ‘goals’ that their spornosexual customers might be interested in:
‘…lean muscle has become an industry recognised term that is now synonymous with a cover model look. To achieve a cover model body, the key consideration is to increase muscle whilst keeping body fat to an absolute minimum’.
And liberal use of Photoshop.
Funnily enough, I was on my way to appear on a panel at the Southbank Centre talking about ‘Being a Man’ when I was confronted with these man-knockers. On the panel I was responding to a presentation by the artist and TV presenter Grayson Perry. Who is a bit of man knocker himself — in a more ‘critical’ sense.
Perry’s presentation (along the lines of this piece for the New Statesman) was acerbic, entertaining and not without insight, but sometimes seemed at least thirty years out of date. And I know this because I myself am only twenty years out of date.
My main issue with it was not that it problematised and pathologised masculinity and ‘toxic’ testosterone and the Sauronic ‘male gaze’ — which it did in spades — but that it reified, possibly fetishised masculinity as something unchanging, something monolithic. Sometimes the biggest critics of masculinity are its biggest believers — including cross-dressing feminist men.
Of course, I tend to notice far too much what some don’t care to see at all — and I began my comments by warning the audience that I like men. A LOT. But I was surprised how little Mr Perry seemed to understand me when talking about the eager self-objectification young men today go in for and the breakdown of what I call the heterosexual division of labour, of looking and of loving.
I wonder if he uses the tube? Or even his eyes?
The recently-released movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey has been attacked by some feminists for setting back ‘the cause of womanhood’ (because it features female submissiveness and male masterfulness) and for glorifying ‘abuse’ (despite being very consensual). Notwithstanding it is written by a woman, directed by a woman (Sam Taylor-Johnson), green-lighted by a woman — and of course enormously popular with women. Likewise, the rehabilitation of female masochism in the last decade or so seems to have been forgotten and replaced by suspicion of women who like their sex submissive and spanky.
I haven’t seen the movie, I’m still recovering from going to see the last ‘event’ ‘chick flick’, so can’t comment on whether or not the women involved in making it and the millions going to see are suffering from ‘false consciousness’. And obviously I don’t know much about womanhood anyway.
But I have watched the official trailer. Repeatedly. The masterful Mr Grey (Jamie Dornan) is a standard-issue spornosexual who probably has a Bulk Powders Gold Card. In the 2.23 min trailer there are 7 topless shots of his sculpted torso, including a mirror shot which gives you a simultaneous, spitroasting front and rear view of it, vs 1.5 of Ms Steele (Dakota Johnson), sans nipples in her case. Oh, and one side shot of her panties — with Dornan’s pretty face in front of them.
My favourite shot though shows him playing his grand piano shirtless, in a scene that looks a bit Behind the Candelabras - but with Liberace as the toy-boy. I suppose that the grand piano represents Ms Steele submitting to the skillful fingers of Mr Grey. But it looks like a very camp — sorry, I mean masterful — form of masturbation.
Mark Simpson on how Lynx grew up. And kissed a boy.
“Swing it around like you’re in a TV commercial.”
I like this spunky new hair gel ‘Now can be amazing’ ad from Lynx, currently airing in Australia. Especially since it’s the perfect antidote to the ball-shrivelling dreary paranoia of ads like this.
In fact, it’s probably my favourite ad since Philips/Norelco ‘I’d F*ck Me’ where a young man playfully chats himself up in front of the bathroom mirror. Like the Philips ad this one isn’t afraid of its own shadow, and instead of making apologies just embraces and celebrates male beauty and vanity — and the spirit making the most of it while you have it.
More than this, it’s an ad which encourages young men to be anything that they want to be — to be ‘amazing’. In much the same way that young women have been encouraged for some time.
Hence the ‘Kiss the hottest girl — or the hottest boy’ moment. This is not, as has been proclaimed by gay blogs, a ‘gay kiss’ so much as a bi-curious one, since it’s the same guy kissing the girl and then the boy. Which is in keeping with what we might term the James Dean ethic of the ad — don’t go through life with ‘one hand tied behind your back’. Especially if it’s your best hand.
This is particularly impressive coming from Lynx (known as Axe in the US), a brand which is not usually associated with progressive advertising and in fact often associated instead with a hysterical heterosexuality: ‘I only smell nice coz it attracts women and that proves I’m not gay, OK?’. (Though there have been sort-of exceptions, such as this Axe ad starring Ben Affleck back in 2007.)
But then, I told Lynx all about their hysterical heterosexuality and how dated it was in a world in which young men take male vanity and self care for granted — and aspire to be everything - when they contacted me last summer asking for my input into their re-branding. I’d completely forgotten about this consultation when I saw the ad, and just thought it was cool. I don’t know for sure whether my critique made it into the brief for this ad, but it seems quite possible I may have been admiring my own reflection.
Though being honest, I’m not entirely sure he’s really made the most of his hair with that bird’s nest look.…
Disability charity Scope have been airing a cheeky ad this summer designed to encourage people to donate clothes. It’s a funny tribute to the iconic Levis ‘Laundrette’ ad of 1985 and features a very studly 24-year-old model and personal fitness trainer Jack Eyers in the Nick Kamen role. And boy, does he fill it.
Instead of stripping off to wash his clothes, Eyers denudes himself to donate to the cause. As he gets down to his white boxers we suddenly get a close-up on his hi-tech prosthetic leg, which has remained hidden until now. In terms of the way the ad is shot and structured his prosthesis is basically his penis. It becomes another way of ‘stripping down’ and ‘revealing’ the male body. Of signalling both toughness and vulnerability, passivity and activity, loss and possession at the same time.
And Eyers isn’t shy about it. His prosthesis is, as he says in an interesting interview with the Telegraph’s Theo Merz here, something he likes to show off rather than hide because it looks ‘pretty cool’. It also doesn’t necessarily harm his employment prospects in an industry waking up to both the eye-catching potential and, paradoxically, the ‘normalness’ of disability. (You might also want to check out Theo Merz’s expedition to Newcastle in search of the spornosexual here - in which he discovers the man some Telegraph readers would like to pretend doesn’t exist is terrifyingly, ab-tauteningly real.)
Even less shy is US Marine vet turned underwear model Alex Minsky, who has been garnering a lot of well-deserved attention for his saucy shoots — and most particularly for the way, with his body art, sculpted muscles, styled facial and head hair, he has totally aestheticised himself, prosthesis and all. He’s also a model who clearly isn’t afraid to become a form of performance art. Splendidly kinky performance art. (Some naked selfies were leaked earlier this year — which only served to, err, enhance his reputation.)
Perhaps part of the appeal of the buff, sexualised chap with prosthetic limb(s) is not just the ‘inspirational story’, but also the fantasy of total control over the body — even after something as traumatising as amputation. And of course the hi-tech, fascinating prosthesis that seems to bring ‘bionic’ powers blends with the cyborg nature of spornosexuality itself — a bodily merging with technology, in which the body is ‘machine tooled’ into something more exciting by nutritional and medical science, Technogym decline presses and Nair for Men. (Though for most this merging is done by uploading smartphone selfies to Facebook.)
I analysed the ‘Laundrette’ ad in Male Impersonators as a ‘seminal’ moment in the objectification of the male body — its ‘looked-at-ness’. Kamen’s strip in the living rooms of the UK in the mid-1980s (along with several other ads in that campaign, which increasingly sought to substitute the product for the model’s unshowable penis) really did mark a moment at which we woke up to the male body as a fully-fledged object of desire. Everyone in the laundrette, male and female, is having a really good look. And it’s worth mentioning he’s doing his own washing — no ‘little woman’ in his life to do it for him.
Like Top Gun, which was released the following year, ‘Laundrette’ packages this new male narcissism as ‘traditional’ and ‘retro’, when the real 1950s it is notionally located in confined this kind of fare to underground gay mags like AMG — certainly not prime-time TV.
Thirty years on we’re all still having a really good look. So much so that we require much more visual stimulation. Our gaze is more demanding, more penetrating. Back then Kamen’s body was pantingly-described as ‘hunky’, but now his slim, svelte body looks not rather coy in comparison to today’s ripped, pumped, inked and sexed-up spornos, with or without gleaming, well-oiled prosthetic limbs.
Ten unforgettable car ads from the past four decades that transcended both cars and advertising and came to symbolise an age
by Mark Simpson
Fiat Strada – ‘Hand Built by Robots’ (1979)
A factory full of robots assembles cars to the strain of Rossini’s Figaro – with nary a soul to be seen.
Today this legendary ad directed by Hugh Hudson seems like slightly dull documentary, but in 1979 it was thrilling Sci-Fi. The graceful movement of the cars and robots set to classical music seems inspired by the weightless scene in Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968). It was also prophetic – proffering a vision of a world without a working class; a world where fickle people are replaced by much more reliable, much cleverer, much shinier, much more obedient things.
Famously satirised by Not The Nine O’Clock News in a sketch that contrasted the British reality of over-manned car manufacturing in the 1970s: ‘Built By Roberts’.
Renault 25 – ‘One of Your Better Decisions’ (1984)
After dropping Jasper and his violin off at a leafy prep school a couple discuss their plans to take over the world on the drive back to their country pile, while fiddling with plastic buttons on the Renault’s dashboard.
An ad that everyone loved to hate (that woman’s voice; that man’s arrogance) but it summed up the go-getting Thatcherite entrepreneurialism of the early 80s – ‘I’m starting my own business’. It also plays, briefly, with the idea of divorce, which by the 1980s was becoming a major theme in people’s lives.
Despite (Margaret) Thatcherism, it’s a risibly sexist ad. Rather than discuss life-decisions that ‘concern the house, the kids’ – and his car – ‘David’ presents ‘Joanne’ with a fait accompli, which she just gushes over: ‘David, that’s fantastic.’ Essentially she’s the posh version of the woman in this 1974 Ford Cortina ad:
VW Golf Mk2 – ‘Changes’ (1987)
A Princess Di lookalike (Paula Hamilton) storms out of a mews house, shoves her wedding ring through the letterbox, hurls her pearls and fur coat – but stops before dropping her car keys down the drain. She keeps the car – which turns out to be a Golf. ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen’
Directed by David Bailey this is perhaps the definitive 1980s ad, capturing the unabashed materialism and shoulder-padded glamour of the age – but also the ‘changes’ that Alan Price is singing about (the song was written for a friend of his going through a divorce). Allied to that, car advertising is now recognising women’s increasing independence – one of the main reasons for the rising divorce rates – and appealing to them as drivers rather than passengers.
Like many iconic ads it also proved prophetic: it wasn’t until some years later that news of Princess Di’s troubled marriage reached the public.
Peugeot 405 – ‘Take My Breath Away’ (1988)
A car drives through a field of burning and – unaccountably – exploding sugar cane, while a Rolexed hand coolly changes gears, all to the power ballad strains of Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’.
Today this ‘high concept’ ad looks like a guilt-tripping public information film about the evils of global warming, but in the 80s it symbolised perfectly the afterburner ambition of that fabulously psychotic ‘Top Gun’ decade – particularly that of the British advertising industry itself, which was a kind of Soho Hollywood, manufacturing glossy, glamorous 45 second dreams that set Brits aflame with consumer lust.
Renault Clio – ‘Papa? Nicole?’ (1991–8)
A haute bourgeois father and his young, svelte daughter sneak and nip around the South of France in their respective Clios, both conducting ‘secret’, very French, very stylish affairs.
Probably the most popular UK car advertisement ever made, running in various instalments for most of the 90s, saw ‘Nicole’ recognised by more Britons than the then Prime Minister John Major. It caught the growing yen of the British middle classes for a piece of the Dordogne (or Tuscan) dream. The 1990s were the decade when we learned to ‘stop being so English’ (as the IKEA ad had it) – and become much more continental in our aspirations and mores.
The traditional chauvinism of car ads is now receding into the distance: Nicole is a single young woman shown driving rather fast down narrow winding streets – to sow her wild oats.
Audi A4 – ‘Not My Style’ (1994)
A vulgar squash-playing, loudmouth yuppie stereotype test-drives a cleverly photographed car the viewer assumes is a BMW – before he gets out, revealing it’s actually an Audi, and announces: ‘It’s not my style, know what I mean?’.
This ad exploits the early 90s backlash against/guilt over the vulgar excesses of 80s materialism, but cleverly, and somewhat hypocritically, manages to associate the Audi brand with the excitement of BMW – while making it clear that Audi drivers are a much better class of customer than the people who drive BMWs. Even the disdainful Audi dealer looks like he’s dealing art rather than cars.
The final off-screen mobile phone call, ‘Gabby, tell Charles I’m on me way’, has become a timeless classic end-line.
Peugeot – ‘Search For the Hero’ (1995)
A long montage of heroic, occasionally arty thoughts, apparently those of a square-jawed exec driving the Peugeot, all to the uplifting strains of M-People’s ‘Search For the Hero’.
By the mid 1990s the backlash against the previous decade’s selfishness had produced a yen for vaguely ethical, uplifting and ‘progressive’ car advertising – before environmental issues had become the defining middle-class concern. This search for a vaguely ethical hero was answered just a couple of years later with the election of the square-jawed exec Tony Blair. And we know how that turned out.
Honda Accord – ‘The Cog’ (2003)
A Heath-Robinson style concatenation installation made entirely of Honda Accord parts, filmed in two continuous 60 second takes.
Perhaps the most famous and memorable UK car ad of the 21st Century, ‘The Cog’ got around the problem of increasing fragmentation of media and audiences by becoming an ‘how did they do that?’ event – and also by employing ‘virality’. In the UK the 120 second version was first aired during a commercial break in ITV’s coverage of 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix and garnered acres of editorial. In most other markets the cost of such a lengthy TV segment proved prohibitively expensive and instead the ad was viewed online – quickly going viral.
‘The Cog’, which appears to have ‘borrowed’ heavily from the 1987 art film The Way Things Go, captured the growing interest in modern art installations in the UK: the Tate Modern, Bankside had opened just three years before, proving a ‘runaway’ success.
Skoda Fabia – ‘Cake’ (2007)
An army of workers in white hats and overalls assemble a Hansel and Gretel car entirely out of marzipan, sponge and jelly, lubricated with Golden Syrup.
Another kind of TV art installation, but a much tastier one, this ad for Fabia cars was snapped up by the British public, bringing as it did together two of their greatest loves: cars and cake. Targeting couples over 35 in general – and perhaps Jo Brand in particular – it no doubt benefited from the rise and rise of cooking and baking TV shows/food porn in the Noughties.
The ad suggests a kind of ‘artisan’ car, lovingly assembled by swarms of happy, highly-skilled workers – the opposite promise of ‘hand made by robots’, two decades earlier.
Toyota GT86 – ‘The Real Deal’ (2012)
“Can you feel it? Can you feel the thrill of being alive?’ asks a pixel man driving around a driver-assist, virtual world. ‘Neither can I. There is no ‘real’ in this town.” He then discovers a Toyota GT86, escapes unreality at high speed, pursued by helicopters, crashing through the CGI barrier into ‘the real’.
The digital, sterile, possibly sexless future prophesised by ‘Hand built by Robots’ has come true. Much too true for some. This ad for a sports car exploits that Top Gear–ish frustration, but like many iconic ads it wants it both ways. On the one hand the irresistible red-blooded reality of this car will save you from the anaemic Uncanny Valley of modern, online life – on the other, it’s suggesting that it might be almost as exciting and fast as the cars that you drive on your Xbox.
Appropriately enough, the ad was banned by the ASA.