Not-So-Mad Men: Advertising And Men’s Style

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The next time there is a break in the action in your favorite prime-time, network programming, do not tune out the commercials. Instead, pay close attention to everything that you see on the television screen, watching as if your way of life depended on it. For in a way it does, at least for the old-fashioned men among you, “Red Dawn” — the original one — aficionados who are never so in touch with their feelings as when the starters all line up to turn in their jerseys to Coach Devine in “Rudy.” You are being marginalized, one television commercial at a time.

A simple game will show you what I mean, and just how far down the road we already are. You can play this alone, but it’s better in competition with a viewing companion. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that. You know we didn’t get where we are today by simply beating the spread at Yorktown. The rules of the game are straightforward: based solely on character casting decisions, see how quickly into the commercial you can predict who in the crowd will have the “right” consumer viewpoint. Who will be the self-assured one who knows himself and, that being so, knows this is the product or service for him, so why not you?

Now that I have laid out the rules and encouraged the two-player variety, I suggest that you play this game with someone who doesn’t read these pages. Don’t think of this as an unfair fight. Rather, think of yourself as a covert operative in a proxy war. Your mission is to recapture the hearts and minds of men who don’t even know that they are engaged in a propaganda war, let alone losing it. The halcyon days of Henry Stimson’s time, when “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” are long gone. We’re now squarely in the Herm Edwards era, where “you play to win the game.” And we win by showing others the conditioning of traditional male habits and mannerisms that’s going on all around us.

Now that you appreciate the stakes and are ready to play, here are the sure-fire tips that will secure victory for you:

  • A bearded man makes a better consumer decision than a clean-shaven man. Such a man as this will order the right coffee drink in the right way from a female barista, whose “come hither” look will instantly validate your bet. He’ll then pay with a coquettish wink and some virtual currency, and quickly be on his way. The clean-shaven guy in the button-down and stained khakis will fumble around for loose change, angering those in line behind him, and ultimately burn his tongue and spill his coffee. See how easy this is? But be careful:      
  • A man with an unkempt beard makes poorer consumer choices than a man with a well groomed beard. Unless of course the beard is groomed to look unkempt, a telltale sign of which is its proprietor also has military-short hair. This shabby-chic look, once known on the street as “Amish Bipolar,” is all the rage. His motorcycle posture is perfect – for he will ride a custom-made motorcycle — and he’ll never overpay for cable. This guy goes to the grocery without being told, although when he’s told to get the basics, he knows they don’t include Car and Driver magazine. Bet on this guy six times a week and twice on Sunday. I know what you are thinking. How about truly unkempt beard guy versus clean-shaven guy? The answer is it depends. Go with unkempt guy in a commercial for working hand cream and clean-shaven guy in a commercial for fish sticks.
  • The consumer tastes of a man wearing a knitted hat indoors prevail over those of a man with an uncovered pate. To be clear, this has nothing to do with the weather outside. In fact, the greater the meteorological disconnect, the more this sweaty-headed savant is to be trusted with your billfold. Amazingly, this even holds true in bank commercials, where a decade ago sporting the look at the teller’s window was pretty much probable cause to arrest.  Don’t overthink it, just go with the guy opening his checking account at a South Florida bank branch in a pom-pom hat and thank me later.
  • Mountain bike. This one is so reliable an indicator that it’s almost not fair. Even in the most urban setting imaginable, if a mountain bike is affixed to his car when he drives onto the scene, you absolutely want to know whose shirt he wears. He can even do things wrong, like not open the passenger door for his girlfriend, and it’s not only fine, it’s empowering. Nota bene: mountain bikes good, dirt bikes bad. But see above: Street bikes okay if custom-made (read: expensive and in no way suggestive of a prior biker-gang affiliation). A lot to take in here, I know. As a backup, just remember this: if the driver is wearing performance mountain gear, or carrying what looks like a German combat helmet circa 1943, bet on him.
  • Power Boat/Jet-Ski. Unless it is an actual ad for a power boat or jet-ski, do the opposite of everything the power boater or jet-skier says or does. It’s all a blind alley. A sailor can be trusted, but only if over sixty-five, married to someone close to his age and enjoying his retirement with proper New England restraint.

  • Suit, no tie trumps suit and tie. I would have thought this look died when Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman descended the escalator together in “Rain Man”, but the having-it-all insouciance that the look conveys apparently is irresistible.  Whatever he’s buying, you want it, too. 
  • Listen to the guy in flat-fronted trousers; discount whatever the pleated guy has to say.  I can’t really explain why this, but so what?  Neither can I explain why it’s always true that when you are listening to a song on the radio, you don’t immediately recognize it, you find yourself liking it and then, for a moment, you’re embarrassed, you are listening to Toto.    

I could go on and on. My point is to show that the battle lines have been drawn. While you are free not to join the struggle, if you don’t you mustn’t complain five years from now when you can’t find a Pabst Blue Ribbon anywhere except places where it is served ironically, and literally every man you know acts like Stuart Smalley. Resistance is not futile. Not yet, anyway.