Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Animal Husbandry

By now, it’s as much a part of ad history as the invention of the 30-second spot. In 2001, Fallon revolutionized the Internet space with its BMW Films series, The Hire. It sizzled with cutting-edge directors, cool actors and the cute Clive Owen. But of course, the true star of each mini-film was the gleaming, high-performance BMW vehicle.

Five years later, the agency is back with a new Internet series—now they’re called Webisodes, a lot less highfalutin’ a term than, as they say around Cannes, “feelms.” But even back in 2001, ad people wondered how to make that caliber of mini-movie for a low-interest commodity. And indeed, this time around, the item is about as lackluster and workaday as you can get: Brawny paper towels. The theme? Lack of performance—about how women basically are disappointed in their husbands.

Talk about letting all the air out of the room!

I know the Mars–Venus thing is still going strong, and the buzz about man stuff versus chick stuff is more popular than ever. But I’m tired of your basic husband-as-idiot shtick. It’s a cliché that we’ve seen played out for decades on sitcoms, talk shows and especially ads; and perhaps the only thing more played out than the idea of a doltish husband is the concept of a reality show about watching eight self-conscious (for good reason) slobbo guys guiding their bellies through various humiliating lessons.

What’s more, the trailer running on the Brawny Academy Web site did not disabuse me of that notion: A ragtag bunch of the usual suspects (a few weirdly bearded, therefore creepier than your average King of Queens guys) is put through the familiar-looking paces of a reality show set at some remote place in the woods called “Brawny Academy”(Survivor by way of burning Barcaloungers).

One of the lessons in wifely appreciation has the husbands “walk in their shoes” (high heels) while also cleaning windows—you know, the way we all tend to multitask. By the time the clips from the last episode are shown, the husbands are in tuxedos, escorting their wives to a dance. The dude with the weirdest beard is shown crying and saying, “You made me a better man”—and by then, it could have been a Geico parody.

Then I saw the first of eight Webisodes, which goes live today on www.brawnyacademy-.com. I’ve got to say it’s excellent—beautifully produced, smart, entertaining and compelling. Sure, there are stereotypes, such as The (male) View version of casting diversity, with one Asian American and one black. Plus, white guys from Massachusetts with accents like Survivor’s Boston Rob are wicked overpresented.

But what makes each 9- to 12-minute episode compelling is what makes all good reality programming compelling. The writers and producers manage to get past the stereotypes to the basic, poignant humanity of these guys—no easy feat, especially since the intros are crafted for maximum laughs (and are genuinely funny). For example, there’s Barclay, a contractor who gave his bride a bow and arrow as a wedding gift (for real); Roland, a truck driver who, according to his wife, “communicates through a complex set of grunts and groans”; and personal trainer Matthew, whose girlfriend says he “spits too much, hates her dog, and is lazy around the house.” “Lazy around the house” seems to be a universal problem, as is resistance to change.

The lessons in superior husbandry are led by the new Brawny Man, played by actor John Brennan as a straighter, more Midwestern version, which makes sense with the female target (although last year’s guy was an improvement over the earlier ’70s porn star with the ‘stache).

This ’06 BM is introduced in a humorous (but perhaps too long) 60-second TV spot that focuses on all of his excellent dimensions. In the best Paul Bunyanesque tradition, he’s shown chopping wood until the pile is so large it could heat all of Fargo, N.D. (for several decades). But he’s also soft-voiced and unfailingly kind and understanding.

Meanwhile, in the Webisodes, Brennan never leaves character—a Dr. Phil of the two-ply towel crossed with Survivor’s no-nonsense host Jeff Probst. Indeed, the Internet show seems to have the same production values as Survivor, and riffs off the same paradigm—except that here, everyone improves and no one is voted out of the woods. Some of this comes from the paradigm-busting nature of the production crew, which included two actual husband-and-wife teams: the Feists of Feisty Flix (John Feist, who was a Survivor producer, and his wife, Kate Hall), and from the agency side, the Wixoms (Kris, art director, and Alisa, copywriter).

“I’m the Brawny Man, but my friends just call me Brawny,” our hero says in introducing himself to the players. Sometimes I wondered how he could maintain a straight face—you’d think it would make for a very weird, campy experience for the couch jockies in need of his tutelage. But it doesn’t; the guys seem to be thrilled to hang out with a genuine icon.

The print ads look like training manuals done as wood cuts—very visually clever. Like Axe ads in reverse, they teach men such things as “how to apologize”without getting preachy.

Fallon has taken on an enormous task here—and succeeded, right down to the organic integration of the towel in the show. This is high-performance TV for low-performance guys and the women who stand by their Barcaloungers. In the end, basically, we’re all in the same predicament. Nothing’s going to improve the facial hair situation, but I’m still looking forward to the second episode.