VB’s ‘Real Men’ campaign

It is often said that media reflects and influences the cultural attitudes of the day. To date, there has been much talk about how women are portrayed in the media.

Much analysis of the media has been influenced by the second wave of feminism, or the ‘women’s liberation’ movement, which came about in the 60s and strived for equal opportunities for women.

As a popular culture medium, television has contributed to how we, as a society, view women. But just how much attention has been paid to how men are portrayed through the prism of the media?

Beer commercials provide a good starting point. For the last forty years Victoria Bitter (VB – produced by Carlton and United Breweries – CUB) has pretty much stuck by its Hard Earned Thirst campaign, showing men in various masculine (mostly blue collar) occupations such as lifesaver, builder and farmer. The men in these VB ads had well defined roles in life which few in our society would have disputed. Men knew how to be men.

But in recent times CUB switched tack, claiming that men no longer identified with the traditional blue collar man; not even so called ‘tradies’, who were now more likely to think of themselves as entrepreneurs.

The result of this revelation was the 2009 Regulars campaign, which saw the introduction of a new message: it doesn’t matter what banner you march under (such as ‘manscapers’ – those who apparently spend inordinate amounts of time sculpting their body hair with scissors and razorblades, perfecting their look), you can be whatever sort of man you like.

CUB was trying to sell the idea that VB was no longer just for ‘blokey’ men but for all men (and women, who also marched in this ad). Hooray – men could be whoever or whatever they wanted!

But just last year CUB did a complete 180, launching its Real campaign, the message of which was, in a nutshell: come on, mate, have a good, hard look at yourself and stop all this poncing around with moisturisers and cocktails and start acting like a real man again! The “metrosexual” men in this ad realise the error of their ways (to the wonderful backdrop of Neil Diamond) and, breaking down in tears, return to the arms of their blokier mates. The men are horrified and saddened by what they have become.

The same message is evident in the wildly popular 2010 Old Spice ad, too, where a good looking black man on a horse tells women their men aren’t real men because they use ‘girly’ aftershave. He is far more masculine because he uses Old Spice. Come on, fellas, man up!

Looking more widely at the media, there are many popular television shows, such as The Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond that portray men as useless fools. Admittedly these two shows are from the USA but they nevertheless have a large following here in Australia and have had an impact on our society.

Even men themselves are admitting it. “New men are useless morons”, said James May, from the popular television show Top Gear. He claims that if men do not return to more masculine roles, women will no longer have a use for them except as sperm donors. “That whole culture of being moronic that grew out of TV sitcoms and popular media has produced this culture of laddish blokeishness,” he says.

This negative view of men can be seen to be perpetuated not only by the writers of television ads and sitcoms, but also influential modern day authors, such as Tim Winton.

In his best-selling novel Cloudstreet, which has recently been adapted for television, Winton’s central male characters are massively flawed. The first, Sam Pickles, is a lazy, gambling layabout who cannot even provide for his family. His daughter sees him as a ‘weak, stupid, useless bastard.’ She sees her brothers similarly: ‘lazy and careless like boys were, and they were no use at all.’

The second, Lester Lamb, is a seemingly loving family man; but his wife knows better. Early in her life she concluded that ‘there was something wrong with men. They lacked some basic thing and she didn’t know what it was. She loved Lester but a lot of loving him was making up for him, compensating. He was never quite up to anything. She knew he was a fool.’

Although Cloudstreet is a work of fiction, as with all media, it both reflects and influences cultural norms. It seems that the ‘men are morons’ message is becoming more prevalent and more accepted within our culture.

Author and media commentator Maggie Hamilton, in her 2010 book What’s Happening to Our Boys?, talks about how boys often feel as though they need to apologise for being male. She says that the message from the media to boys is that it’s not brilliant to be a boy and that it would have perhaps been better to be a girl. Hamilton also says that jokes about being idiots, the likes of which are gaining momentum in popular culture, leave boys confused, with no sense of usefulness.

One way that men are fighting this malaise is through the establishment of Men Sheds. These have been established to address ‘vast health problems’ facing men in Australia and focus on physical, mental, social and spiritual activities to restore respect for men. For in relation to men’s health, it is well known that suicide is four times more common than for women, due to factors such as relationship breakdown, separation from children, unemployment, financial stress and social isolation. In an effort to reduce this terrible blight on our nation, LIFE ( calls us all to ‘acknowledge and celebrate men’s strengths and abilities’.

But how do we do this? And where will it all end? The question remains: do we, as a society, see that there is a problem requiring a change in attitude? We must acknowledge that much of the way men are viewed is fed by popular culture and, just as it is unacceptable to portray women in demeaning ways, so too men.

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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