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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Bro Tea

I’m a little late to the party, but this sketch tells you everything you need to know about America’s attitude to tea – it’s luke-warm quaint effeminacy, which is never ever brewed in a pot. And also, more particularly, America’s Hummersexual advertising to men.

It’s funny precisely because it’s barely parody.

(h/t David S)

Making Men: Navy Recruiting Ads

“Join the Navy and feel a man!” exhorted the famous Royal Navy recruiting slogan from the early 1980s.

Or at least, the famous RN recruiting slogan according to us Air Cadets when we were trying to score banter points over the Navy Cadets at my school. Even though I thought the slogan probably made up, it still made me wonder if I’d chosen the wrong service to spend Tuesday afternoons parading around with.

Besides, historic naval recruitment posters promised so much….

And then there was this famous US Navy recruiting ad from 1979:

I’m only half joking. The US Navy provided the Village People with a frigate and some decorative seamen for the ‘In the Navy’ video in exchange for the rights to use it for recruiting purposes. Reportedly the admirals changed their mind when they saw the finished product. Nevertheless, the song and promo continued to be a toe-tapping recruiting sergeant for them in the charts.

Come on and join your fellow man
In the navy.

Part of the appeal or the marketing of male military service, in addition to uniforms and camaraderie – and regular scoff and dough – has long been related to the idea of a kind of male finishing school. Or, to use the more traditional terminology: a rite of passage. About selling the prospective recruit a more desirable image of themselves in the future. Their dream version of themselves.

Where can you find pleasure, search the world for treasure
Learn science technology?

Despite currently being smaller than at any point in its history, the Royal Navy has been airing on UK television some extremely well-made and cleverly manipulative – well, they brought a tear to my eye – recruitment ads titled ‘Made in the Royal Navy’. They promise today’s young chaps that the Navy will make men of them. Better men. Fitter men. More popular men. More successful men. Celebrities.

Joining the RN in the 21st Century is still sold as a way to make a young lad feel manly, and become part of a (patriotic) ‘team’. But this is a century of reality TV and social media, so joining the RN has apparently become less about serving, than a kind of full makeover that turns you into a star.

The ads profile an actual serving (photogenic) RN sailor, and his ‘story’ – going back to his gritty, no prospects hometown, X-Factor backstory style, showing how joining the Navy rescued him and helped him realise his true potential – or ‘his dream’ as reality TV would put it. And become the subject of an affecting TV mini-movie. The RN as your very own selfie-stick or Facebook memories timeline. (Contrast with this 1979 RN ad for submariners in which none of the serving seamen are allowed a face and everything is about ‘the team’.)

Though part of the task modern RN recruiting ads have, ironically, is to persuade today’s young men to apply for a job that will severely restrict their access to uploading selfies on social media for months on end.

As ‘Michael’ tells us (with some help from the ad agency copywriters and, I assume, an actor voice over) in the latest ad:

“Helping to turn him [shot of sullen young tearaway in hoodie] into – HIM [proud young rating in uniform on deck, sun glinting off his chin] … This is the new me… introducing the true me.”

“turn him into… HIM”

The ad finishes with the line: “I was born in Blyth, but made in the Royal Navy.”

As with X-Factor, authentic, gritty-but-charming North Eastern accents are popular – and it’s certainly true that a lot of lads from the NE do join the the Forces as a way of escaping some of the highest male unemployment levels in the country – or under-employment in a pub.

If you like adventure, don’t you wait to enter
The recruiting office fast

Though in the case of ‘Ben’s Story’ (below), a similar tale to ‘Michael’ – except that joining the Navy also gave him fashionable face fur (something RN  regulations permit, damn them) – the advertising agency gave a Durham accent to a lad from Carlisle. This caused understandable outrage in Carlisle, which is in the north, but west of the Pennines and endowed with a completely different accent. Apparently the bearded matelot (whose real name is Gareth) gets asked all the time why it isn’t his voice in the ad, he explained to his local paper:

“Basically, we had a short amount of time to film, about three weeks. And I don’t think they like our accent.

“I knew it was going to happen – while I was filming they were away doing the voice-over.

“I know for a fact there were a couple of lads from Carlisle who auditioned for it.

“They changed it from a lad from Chester to a lad from Durham at the last minute.”

You just know the (London based) ad agency decided that the bit between Manchester and Scotland should all be Big Brother Voiceover Land so as not to confuse the punters.

But apart from the wrong accent – and a different name – most of the biographic details seem to have been accurate. And I don’t doubt, by the way, that the RN is a great way for some young chaps to ‘better’ themselves, learn a trade, make some mates, see some sights, get drunk and into some epic scrapes.

(Speaking of which, several RN seamen were arrested for drunken fighting in Jacksonville, Florida recently on a run ashore from the HMS Queen Elizabeth. A local police officer was baffled by the behaviour of our Jolly Jack Tars:

“The sailors seem to beat the mess out of each other and knock their teeth out, but once they pick up their teeth off the ground they hug and then are best friends again.”)

Running away to sea is also a way to escape from the post-code/class lottery of prospects lads are born into. (Though sadly, nowadays they’re unlikely to meet RN legend Lovely Charlie on their Gibraltar run ashore.)

The end-line for ‘Ben’s Story’ is: “Sure, I was born in Carlisle. But I was made in the Royal Navy.” The “sure” here sounds a misstep – or giveaway – on the part of the copywriters: it suggests that being from Carlisle isn’t something to be proud of. This formulation seems to have been dropped for the more recent ‘Michael’s Story’, which just ends with him saying: “I was born in Blyth, but made in the Royal Navy”.

In ‘Gareth’s Story’ (below) it seems the matelot has been allowed to voice the ad himself in his fine Welsh accent – the script is also more naturalistic. Though the same, rather endearingly, can’t quite be said for some of Gareth’s movements in front of the camera: being natural, as Oscar Wilde said, is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

But obviously he really can move when he’s not thinking about the camera or being told by the director to walk slowly so as to stay in shot – seeing as he made the RN rugby team. (Though his opposite squaddie number as he enters Twickers stadium for the Army & Navy rugby match [0:48] made this viewer want to join the Army.)

Another, more recent ad in the series stars ‘Modou’, a black lad who is also given the mini-movie treatment about bettering himself – ‘Born in Blackpool. Made in the Royal Navy’. Though he isn’t given much of a biography or even copy-written lines and an inaccurate accent – instead we hear the voice of a posh, old-fashioned, very charismatic chap, talking about self-improvement:

“It all comes down to this basic question: can I improve me?”

It’s actually surprisingly effective – ‘Modou’s Story’ is perhaps the most emotionally powerful of all the RN ads. It’s also the most homoerotic.

Although all the ads sell the Navy as a kind of floating Crossfit, where you will harden your body and get fighting fit as one of its many attractions, ‘Modou’s story’ emphasises this much more. Handsome, muscular Modou appears shirtless for much of the 1.20 min ad – the camera zooming in for an extreme close-up on his sweat-drenched back muscles rippling as he does pull-ups (0:54), even joining him in the shower.

As the posh chap on the soundtrack tells us:

“There is this urgent feeling that I must improve me. Now you may say I need some help in this process…”

At this very moment the very inspiring RN Physical Training Instructor’s encouraging hand touches Modou’s exhausted naked shoulder in the romantically-lit gym (0:37).

Modou’s story is one of mind and body – but mostly body:

‘Apprentice. Qualifications. Personal bests. Modou got them all.’

The posh bloke speaking in spellbinding fashion is the late Alan Watts, an English philosopher and prominent Buddhist in California in the 1950s-60s. Yes, that’s right: a Buddhist is being used to sell the Royal Navy as a career option – and a free personal trainer. (You can hear Watts’ fascinating and frequently hilarious original lecture ‘Improving Yourself’ used for this ad here: though be warned, there’s not a lot of diet or dead lift technique advice.)

Women have been allowed to serve on board RN ships since 1993 (and submarines since 2013) – much to the distaste of some Navy wives. But male RN personnel still vastly outnumber women by a factor of nearly 10 to 1 and the RN is clearly targeting young male recruits much more than women.

There are though recruiting ads in this series specifically aimed at women – and perhaps at advertising the RN’s modern credentials. ‘Tammi’s Story’ (‘Born in Croydon. Made in the Royal Navy’) doesn’t go for a biographical storyline but instead sells her desk job of Writer (the RN title for HR) as almost an amalgamation of the jobs done in the other ads – “While the crew are looking after the ship, I’m looking after them”. A kind of action-packed maternalism.

Finally, as a reminder of what joining the Navy used to actually entail and perhaps where the ‘Join the Navy and feel a man’ jibe came from, here’s a documentary about the actual as opposed to advertised living conditions on board a 1950s USN destroyer: “70 men and their personal effects and miscellaneous ship’s equipment are accommodated in 800 square feet – 11.5 square foot per man”.

They certainly don’t make men like that any more.

In the navy
Yes, you can sail the seven seas
In the navy
Yes, you can put your mind at ease
In the navy
Come on people, fall an' make a stand
In the navy, in the navy
Can't you see we need a hand

The Queen is Dead – But Now Available on Kindle

Just twenty years after my last paper letter to Steve Zeeland winged its way across the Atlantic when ‘winging’ meant taking a couple of weeks instead of almost instantaneously, our ill-advised – and just ill – collected correspondence from 1995-1998, The Queen is Dead: A Story of Jarheads, Eggheads, Serial Killers & Bad Sex, has achieved e-mortality on Kindle.

Even at the end of the 20th Century letters were of course already a quaintly dated if not actually dead format. Email had seen to that. Now, two decades later, after the two-horsed apocalypse of social MEdia and smartphones, email is no longer immediately gratifying enough and anyway involves far too much commitment. While snail mail seems like an artefact of a vanished civilisation. Which it is.

You can currently download these old fossils for $2.99/£2.99.

Something of a masterpiece…. One of the most congenial, winning, intelligent and original ‘gay’ publications for many years.” 

Independent

“The best gay book of the year.” 

Time Out New York

“Simpson and Zeeland resurrect the lost art of letter writing with this engaging collection of correspondence….Compelling, moving and frequently hilarious. 5/5 Stars

Metro

So appealing… highbrow porn combined with a thoughtful critique of masculinity and the urban gay lifestyle, scattered with witty epigrams that are pure entertainment.”

Guardian

Marvellous, witty, dry… Quite why a pair of cynical armchair philosophers writing about military men’s bottoms and cats should make an enjoyable read is a mystery, but it does.”

Big Issue

“Clear and sharp… the wit of a broken champagne bottle pressed against your neck.”

 Hot Press

“Some books rock our world, so pull up a barcalounger, turn on that good reading light – since it turned up in our postbox The Queen is Dead.  Zeeland and Simpson’s correspondence is maximum juicy.” 

San Francisco Bay Area Reporter

Profound and hilarious… Simpson and Zeeland analyse love, loss, cats, killers, and the joys of military trade through a three-year long, transatlantic correspondence… Simpson playing the detached, amused Voltaire to Zeeland’s Rousseau…. A wealth of insight, wit and warmth” 

Independent on Sunday

I’ve never laughed so much!

Vaginal Davies, The Tablet

Pure XS & Impure Teacakes – The Problem With ‘Objectification’

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

and

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:

Well-Oiled, Precision-Engineered German Spornosexuality

Is That a Hot Glue Gun in Your Pocket?

Shame the beard isn’t as convincing as the stuffed crotch.

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