Hunkvertising: The Objectification of Men in Advertising | Adweek
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The Men's Issue

Hunkvertising: The Objectification of Men in Advertising

Some wish they’d just keep their assets covered

Illustration: Jesse Lenz

Call it hunkvertising.

The objectification of men in advertising (as with women) is not new. Consider icons like the Marlboro Man and Old Spice’s sexy pitchman Isaiah Mustafa. And yet, a disproportionate number of buff, often-shirtless studs are lately popping up in ads for everything from salad dressing to air freshener—in other words, consumer products not normally associated with sexual imagery.

As ever, sex sells—even the hirsute sex, apparently.

Many ad experts and social critics see the whole thing as a harmless turning of the tables following decades of bikini-clad babes in beer commercials. Double entendres abound when dissecting the trend, the overriding feeling being that it can’t be taken all that seriously because, after all, we are just talking about guys here. “We’re all in on the gender-reversal joke,” explains Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. “It’s funny to us to think of women being lustful.”

Adds Steve O’Connell, ecd and partner at Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners: “Objectifying men doesn’t really upset anybody. You really can’t offend the white male.” O’Connell’s agency helped pioneer the manvertising trend last year with print ads for Renuzit featuring small product shots alongside a parade of beefcake. (“Now that is gorgeous. And the man is not so bad either,” reads the copy in one ad.) O’Connell says, “It’s tongue-in-cheek and calls itself out. The hot guy clearly had no business being there. Because it’s guys, you get the extra safety net of it not being too offensive.”

Renuzit refreshed the campaign last month with a whole new batch of dudes. The new push from Pereira & O’Dell, themed “Choose Them All,” introduces eight handsome new “Scent Gents” who personify the brand’s aroma palette and promise “a good-looking man in every room.” Each a master of the come-hither stare. The Gents also star in a branded reality show featuring Joan Rivers called Romancing the Joan, presented by the site SheKnows TV.

And, they’re a hit. “Our digital banner CTRs are 25 percent above CPG averages and are driving users to our Facebook page where our likes have increased significantly,” reports Jeanne Howard, home care brand manager at Renuzit’s corporate parent, Dial Corp., a unit of Henkel AG.

But while largely seen as good-natured fun, others argue that this trend bears as much scrutiny as advertisers using women as sex objects. One detractor is marketing and media critic Åsk Dabitch Wäppling, who maintains, “Studly Steve is as bad of a stereotype as Doofus Dad. They’re stereotypes, and that’s by definition not original. When can we return to product-as-hero advertising? When will we stop insulting people?”

On her Adland blog, Wäppling savages the poster boy of the pecsvertising trend, the hunky model Anderson Davis, best known for his shirtless (sometimes pantless) pitch for Kraft Zesty Italian salad dressing. That campaign, created by TBWA’s Being, bowed this past April with an eye-popping spot casting Davis as a chef who adds Kraft Zesty Italian to a hot skillet. As flames shoot progressively higher, he asks the viewer, smolderingly, “How zesty do you want it? A little? A little more? How about a lot more?” Ultimately, his shirt catches fire and is singed right off his body, revealing a chiseled torso in all its glory.

Once again, man candy proved a winning strategy. The clip garnered 2.5 million YouTube views and shot Davis and the brand into the chat-o-sphere, with fans able to share his image on social media via Zestygrams.

“I would be lying to say I knew it would be that successful,” says Patrick O’Neill, ecd at TBWAChiatDay, Los Angeles, who oversaw the campaign. O’Neill strove to create “the ultimate chef” to engage the brand’s female demographic—fans of Sex in the City, Bridesmaids and 50 Shades of Grey who are tired of purely “functional” ads and hungry for spicier fare. “It’s nonthreatening and playful,” O’Neill says of the campaign, leaving “viewers in control” to concoct whatever fantasies they choose. And, he argues, “It was never meant to be taken seriously.”

Just Say No to Nud*ty
But some took it quite seriously, most notably the group One Million Moms, which raised all kinds of heck about a Zesty Italian print ad that ran this spring in national magazines such as People, Cosmopolitan and Glamour and that featured Davis sprawled with a picnic blanket covering his croutons.

“Last week’s issue of People magazine had the most disgusting ad on the inside front cover that we have ever seen Kraft produce,” howled OMM, an offshoot of the conservative group the American Family Association. “Christians will not be able to buy Kraft dressings or any of their products until they clean up their advertising.” OMM was widely ridiculed for its uptight use of asterisks to censor terms like “g*nitals” and even “n*ked”—all of which served to give the campaign fresh legs, with Davis’ Zesty Guy doing a late-summer encore in a fresh flight of ads.

As Wäppling sees it, OMM might have a point, as she, too, finds the ads shallow. And as a mother herself and part of the target audience, she doesn’t feel they speak to her. Moreover, she contends that by objectifying men, Zesty Italian actually does female consumers a disservice by reducing them to voyeurs on par with guys ogling models in ads that sexualize women.

The critic draws an analogy with the controversy over Titstare, an app (that turned out to be a joke) exposing men gawking at women’s cleavage. “We might as well make an app called Ab-Stare, where Bethenny Frankel and the Good Morning America ladies fawn over Anderson Davis’ abs and share those images over social networks,” Wäppling says. “This is, in fact, exactly what these women did when Anderson Davis visited their shows—they posed with their heads next to his abs.”

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