It was announced last month that the little man is finally getting the big screen treatment. The director of the last two Muppet films is making an Action Man action movie.
But it seems that moneysupermarket.com have beaten him to it, producing this blockbuster which has been airing on UK television.
In it a regiment of Action Men in various butch outfits and manly accessories break into some very camp dance moves, to the strains of CeCe Peniston’s gay club hit ‘Finally’. For the big finish, some of them strip down to their moulded plastic briefs while the rest of the guys hoof it.
It’s very Village People, darling.
‘Epic Action Man’ represents a continuity with Moneysupermarket’s previous offerings which have ostentatiously fucked about with conventional masculinity – such as ‘Epic Strut’ in which a man who is apparently a male office worker from the waist up and a big-bootied woman in heels from the waist down (a kind of gender-fuck Centaur – or a binary non-binary) shakes his be-denimed money-maker around town.
Can we fix it?
The sequel, ‘Epic Squads‘, saw ‘Dave’ up the ante and lead a squad of similarly split-dressed apparently male office workers in a flaming dance-off with a group of builders with some really devastating moves.
And then the ante was upped again last year in ads which starred those famous 80s TV icons of boyish excitement He-Man and Skeletor, perhaps the best one being a parody of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey famous end-of-movie dance to ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My life’ from the ultimate 80s chick-flick, ‘Dirty Dancing’. (And yes, Skeletor gives good Grey.)
So, having gayed up He-Man and got him to drop his big sword it was probably inevitable that they would turn Action Man into a club queen.
I’m not sure that Moneysupermarket has any other aim in these ads other than to grab our attention with something a bit shocking and giggly as we inhale our gluten-free ready meal. And it’s easiest and safest nowadays to do that with machismo: the images and iconography are very familiar and because they came from a more ‘innocent’ age, or at least less knowing, much of the work of parodying them has already been done by time. (See also Top Gun.)
Though Action Man like He-Man was of course always more than a little bit camp – at least seen in the right light, or by the wrong eyes. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, butchness is such a very difficult pose to keep up. Even when you’re made of 12 inches of moulded plastic. (I’m not if I’m honest really looking forwards to the Action Man movie: I prefer to hold on to the movies he starred in inside my head when I was a kid.)
Perhaps though the ‘funniest’ thing about Moneysupermarket’s ‘Epic Action Man’ ad and its swishing is that it is actually a case of dolls imitating real life soldiers. Action Man is here after all just catching up with all those YouTube videos of yer actual live squaddies in some desert locale camping it up to Lady Gaga.
Muller Light’s latest ad continues its heavy-handed theme of debasing the objectified men it uses to sell its aerated dairy products – perhaps finally reaching a kind of climax.
The ad deploys the usual buff and topless ‘fat free’ young male as eye-candy, this time handling his ‘pot’ – but he loses control at the signature ‘FAT FREE!!’ shrieks and ends up glazing himself. Hee-hee!
The Narcissus myth about the beautiful, doomed youth who falls for his own reflection continues to be a mainstay of this Millenium’s advertising – albeit re-written with a ‘happy ending’.
For example, this Pure XS Paco Rabanne TV ad set in a kind of Big Brother bathroom, stars a young, athletic and voluptuously beautiful man (Francisco Henriques) undressing/stripping for a bath, using the gold tap as a phallic signifier – while admiring himself in the mirror. All the while observed by young women through peepholes and two-way mirrors – admiring his admiration – and camply swooning to the floor as one at the end of the ad when he squirts the product at his groin.
Stinging nads to one side, the ad is a canny comment on – and exploitation of – the starring role of male vanity and ‘objectification’ in our 21st Century selfie-admiring, cam-show culture.
Thanks to a mediated world where everyone carries around a multiplying mirror in their pocket called a smartphone, Narcissus no longer wastes away unable to possess his reflection. He can reproduce himself on endlessly on social media, become a sporno hero – and find himself reflected in the gaze of others. Male beauty and male tartiness, once stigmatised as ridiculous or perverted, are the shining, Immaced inspiration of our age, the very symbol of ‘sexiness’.
Which makes it all the more unforgivable that I missed the ad when it first aired last year. I was probably fastforwarding to the latest instalment of Love Island or Bromans. But not to worry, some 120 people complained to the Advertising Standards authority about it, getting it into the news this week.
Shockingly, they weren’t complaining about the fact that it ends too soon.
It seems that most were upset about the Pure XS ad ‘objectifying’ the young sporno featured voyeuristically in it, claiming it was sexist and offensive for that reason. Apparently objectification is a bad thing.
Fortunately for the future of spornosexual advertising, the ASA rejected these complaints, and ruled that it was ‘unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence’ – which seems ‘objectively’ true.
However, the basis of the ruling was pure doublespeak. According to the ASA the ad – which like many ads today goes to enormous trouble and glossy expense to serve up the young man as a all-singing, all-dancing SEX OBJECT – even helpfully showing him being perved over by young women – ‘did not objectify the male character’.
But the ASA itself admitted that the commercial:
‘was heavily focused on the physical appearance of the male character. The ad featured multiple shots in which the male character was topless and his expressions when looking in the mirror suggest he was admiring his own physique and attractiveness. We considered that this and the reactions of the women to him placed a strong emphasis on the attractiveness of the male character.’
Well, quite. You could hardly say otherwise. But they then go on to say:
‘However, we noted the scenario depicted in the ad was not realistic and the tone was risque but comedic and farcical. We considered the ad showed the male character’s attractiveness in a light-hearted, humorous way, rather than in a degrading or humiliating manner… we considered, for the above reasons the ad did not objectify the male character.’
It’s certainly true that the scenario depicted in the ad was presented as comedic and farcical – as well as sexualised and objectifying. The ‘light-hearted’ presentation of the ad (and I’m not really sure that sexiness, or multi-million pound fragrance advertising, is ever really ‘light-hearted’) does nothing to change the fact that it glories in presenting the man as a (very willing) sex-object. The humour may make it more palatable to some, including apparently the ASA, but it does not do away with ‘objectification’. There would be no ad without it.
What the ASA seems to be saying is that the male model was not objectified because it’s not bad objectification. Good objectification, according to the circuitous reasoning behind what is anyway a loaded term, can’t be objectification – because objectification is necessarily bad. When in fact, objectification can be… wonderful. Which is part of the reason why so many young men today work so hard to turn themselves into sexy things.
Which raises the issue that got this ruling a lot of attention in some sections of the press this week, and alerting me to the existence of the ad. It seems likely XS was complained about by people who are not really offended by it but pushing an agenda, or as they might put it, concerned about double standards.
A double standard that seems to hold that objectification of men is either impossible or is good if possible, and objectification of women is bad – by definition. A double standard that, on TV at least, seems to now be the dominant morality – in part because TV tends to be watched more by women than men. Even BBC costume dramas these days are all about the gratuitous topless male tottie. Indeed, things have got so bad of late that I am tempted to actually watch one.
The double standard appeared to be underlined by the ASA’s simultaneous ruling – after just one complaint – that an ad featuring an attractive young female tennis player was ‘objectifying’ and therefore upheld the complaint.
The poster ad for Tunnock’s tea cakes (which was placed near a tennis tournament in Scotland) showed an athletic young female tennis player holding a tea cake in place of a tennis ball at the top of her thigh with her skirt raised at the hip. Text underneath stated: ‘Where do you keep yours?’ Then beneath an image of the product the endline: ‘Serve up a treat.’
Explaining why they upheld the complaint the ASA said:
‘We considered the phrase “serve up a treat” would be understood to be a double entendre, implying the woman featured in the ad was the “treat”, and considered this was likely to be viewed as demeaning towards women…’.
‘We considered that although the image was only mildly sexual in nature, when combined with the phrase “serve up a treat” it had the effect of objectifying women by using a woman’s physical features to draw attention to the ad.’
‘In light of those factors, we concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious offence to some consumers and was socially irresponsible.’
The Tunnock’s tea cake ad is, like the product itself, very 1970s. It is not nearly as glossy or expensive or indeed as playful or as knowing or well made as the Paco Rabanne ad. And it isn’t, for my money, very funny. I’m not sure though that any of these points are sufficient reason for calling it ‘socially irresponsible’.
You could perhaps argue that it is ‘more’ objectifying than the Rabanne ad because of its disembodied nature (the shapely thigh has no face) – and because of the history of female objectification.
But the ASA doesn’t argue this. It doesn’t accept, remember, that the Rabanne ad is objectifying at all. Difficult not to conclude that the main difference that the ASA seems to be interested in here is that one objectifying ad features a man, the other a woman. Indeed, if the tennis player had been a man wearing a kilt with the same text and the teacake in the same place I have a hunch the ASA would not have upheld the complaint. Or at least, I certainly hope not.
It upheld the complaint about the Tunnock ad on the grounds that it ‘uses a woman’s physical features to draw attention to an ad’. But that is precisely what the Paco Rabanne ad does with a man’s physical features – and at greater, HD length. Though granted without the cringe making copywriting.
Perhaps the strongest grounds the ASA has in censuring the sticky ad and not the smelly one is that it ‘bore no relevance to the advertised product’. Paco Rabanne, like most fragrances, is associated – or tries very hard to associate itself – with sensuality and sexuality. But this doesn’t seem to be a major part of the ASA’s ruling. And anyway there are all sorts of products pushed in prime time by attractive, mostly naked young men in ads that don’t bear much relevance to the product – or tin mining in 18th Century Cornwall.
Interestingly, some of those 120 complaints about the aftershave ad claimed it was ‘sexist’ because it ‘depicted women as powerless and weak and therefore reinforced stereotypes’.
These complaints were also not upheld. The ASA’s explanation points out that the women are ‘in a position of power over the male character’ because they are voyeuristically watching him, possibly unseen. Again, admitting in effect that the young man is objectified – despite asserting in their first ruling that he is not.
‘We considered because the women were seen to be watching the man, perhaps without his knowledge, it suggested they were in a position of power over the male character. We noted as the ad progressed and the male character was in various stages of undress, it was evident from the reactions of the women depicted they were increasingly being overcome with excitement. We further noted during one of the final scenes, all of the women were seen to have fainted and collapsed at the sight of the man spraying the fragrance towards his groin.’
The ASA ruled that the surreal and farcical nature of the ad meant it was unlikely to reinforce stereotypes of women and concluded it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. Which essentially means: only an idiot would take the fainting seriously.
I would add that the women’s voyeuristic enjoyment of the young man and their very visible arousal over him show that
a) The ad is depicts the women as having very active, almost perverse, sexual appetites, which is about as contrary to stereotypical portrayals as you can get
b) Their ecstatic response to his tarting shows that being ‘objectified’ can be very powerful. Which of course further undermines the ASA’s notion that it’s necessarily ‘bad’.
I’m not sure that I should be bringing any of this up though. All drawing attention to the possibility of a double standard here is likely to achieve is the banning of male objectification as well as the female variety – for the sake of ‘equality’.
And that would be horribly cruel. Narcissus really would wither away then.
Postscript: My chum Simon Mason helpfully pointed out something I’d forgotten – that the Pure XS ad is rather similar to a German ad I wrote about a few years back, which features a young sporno taking a bath, spied on by the camera/us, a voyeurism he seems to approvingly acknowledge towards the end:
As you will know all too well if you’re a regular visitor to this blog, I don’t have a problem with male ‘objectification‘. More please.
But there’s objectification and there’s objectification. Despite not being altogether innocent of sadistic tendencies, I’m not sure I’m also cool with treating hot ‘objects’ that gladden the eye as idiots who deserve a good slapping for making us perve over them.
OK, I might think it sometimes, but I probably wouldn’t say it out loud.
But food giant Muller have no such inhibitions. They’re acting out this sadistic ambivalence loud and proud in front of millions. In their latest TV ad a young, attractive, nearly naked pole vaulter with a smooth, edible body is scoped by the camera in extreme close-up while a young, pretty, also fit – but less naked and less ‘objectified’ – blond woman scoffs the smooth, rather less edible-looking product.
She is so excited by the ‘fat free’ claim for the product that she yells it out loud – ‘FAT FREE!’ – distracting the vaulter, who hits his buff chums in the head – and in the butt – with his BIG POLE.
It’s slightly reminiscent of the recent Bonmarche TV ad campaign, in which random men were ‘accidentally’ beaten up by sassy ‘ladies’ – to communicate ‘female empowerment’ and sell clothes.
Though in the Pole Vaulter ad, apart perhaps from the fact he glances at the yoghurt scoffer and raises a wolfish eyebrow, there doesn’t appear to be much of a pretense at some kind of dubious feminist statement. And of course, the smacked about men are objectified as well.
We could, if we were inclined to give a giant multinational the benefit of the doubt, perhaps treat this as a one-off by Muller (annual turnover 5BN Euros). But this is not the first time Muller have beaten up on (fit) men.
In fact, there’s a whole series of ads from the last few years flogging their (apparently female-targeted) food product, all using the same formula: gawp at men’s bodies to get the viewer’s attention, and then punish the male trollops for being so damn hot and making us drool over them.
HUR-HUR the dishy lifeguard I was drooling over fell on his arse!
LOL! the hot volleyballer I was eating up got hit in the head!
HAR! The tasty swimmer I was drinking in fell off the diving board!
OMG! The delish Greek god lost his big ball!
Now, I don’t think these ads are something to report Muller to the ASA over – though they would be in a flash if it was a bloke eating yoghurt and sexy women were getting get hit in the head. And I’m certainly not ‘offended’ by them – but I am intrigued how Muller and their ad agency clearly think this is such a cool and successful format that they keep repeating it.
Perhaps the fact that Muller is a Bavarian company needs to be factored in here. Bavaria has a strong tradition of ‘physical comedy‘. In other words, men falling over is fucking funny in the land of lederhosen and slapsticked thighs. And at least in this regard, Bavarian humour is globalised humour – it doesn’t need dialogue/dubbing.
But it’s the way that slapstick sexualisation is used here that is key. In most of these ads the (idealised) female consumer appears oblivious to these (even more idealised) males – she only has eyes for Muller Light. But the camera lingers over the ripped, lean, nearly-naked male at least as much as over the product – because the viewer is likely not quite so interested in gazing at fat free yoghurt as they are in feasting on mouthwatering man-flesh.
(Full disclosure: this is probably the only reason I noticed the ad.)
Of course, the close-ups on the woman eating the yoghurt are ‘sexualised’ too, in that orgasmic, Cadburys Flake fellatio advertising cliche. But this is mostly to portray the plastic pot of aerated dairy products as even ‘yummier’ than the ‘hunks’.
That’s, like, totally objectifying. But pretty much a standard trope in mainstream advertising these days, and rather more common on TV than the ‘real’ or traditional form of objectification, i.e. of women. Apart from anything else, it doesn’t provoke protests – and anyway, most TV viewers are female and most TV ads target female viewers.
Where the Muller ads go further is in debasing the male love-object. The hunks need to be punished for being so damn tempting. They obviously ‘love themselves’ – who wouldn’t, with those ‘fat free’ muscular bodies? So they need to be taken down a peg or two. Or just hit in the head.
Remember Just For Men? Or ‘JFM’ as it likes to call itself now. Well, it never went away – and it’s all over social media. Though perhaps it’s just my social media – because those pesky algorithms know how old and grey I am now.
Launched in the late 1980s by Combe Incorporated of White Plains NY (who also market Grecian 2000), Just For Men was a pioneering mainstream male vanity brand. If incredibly cheesy. They became a byword for camp in the sense of failed seriousness. And that quasi religious American style of a life transformed by a slightly shonky product.
Middle-aged men popped up on our TV screens concerned about their grey hair – but also concerned about dyeing it. About being inauthentic and feminine and fussy. What a dilemma!
Just For Men to the rescue! As the name suggested – nay, insisted – it wasn’t at all feminine. And it ‘naturally’ ‘shaded’ away grey hair. So you wouldn’t look Too Gay. Even better, your wife – and let’s be sure to emphasise here that every single man who used JFM had at least one – gave you permission!
‘I REALLY didn’t want my husband to colour his grey hair!’ exclaims the over-excited wife in the ad below from 1993. (Why? Because people might guess he’s an actor?)
Husband: ‘But then I discovered this, the hair colouring called Just for Men!’
And lo, with no fuss or faffing – in just five minutes! – the grey is ‘blended away’ in the privacy of your own family home for a ‘totally natural look’.
Cue hysterically happy heterosexual couple.
As a final heterosexual reassurance, we’re told ‘Eight out of ten women prefer the Just For Men look to the grey look.’
Things have changed in the Just For Men universe in the intervening decades, just as cultural attitudes to male beauty and ageing have changed. They’re now also targeting men in their late 20s and 30s concerned about the appearance of a few grey hairs. That I can’t even see.
Though of course they are still emphasising that JFM isn’t ‘hair dye’ – and isn’t ‘fussy’. Hence manly names like ‘Autostop’, and applicators designed to look like garage tools.
A big ‘growth’ area recently has been beards, of course. Though again, euphemisms are still in fashion: ‘fuller’ is manvertising for ‘dyed’.
But the wife has gone. She, along with the endearing naffness of the original ads, has been replaced by a spotless hipster kitchen – with really cool chemistry lab style coffee filters! ‘The Husband’ is as attractive and cool and singular as his fittings. If Patrick Bateman had a beard – and you just know that he would today, and that it would be the best beard ever – I guess it would be getting a bit grey now.
I also initially read PREP with a lowercase ‘r’. I guess Just For Men are no longer so anxious about appearing like they’re just for men, after all.
On the subject of beard fetishism, the quest for a ‘fuller’ beard seems to be something of a widely-shared obsession. You can even buy supplements like the one below ‘Man Up’ from ‘Beard Daddy’ that promise to make your pride and joy thicker. Buying it may or may not make your beard ‘fuller’ but it will definitely make you look like a bit of a prick: ‘Fear the daddy beard’.
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