Mano a mano: It’s the year of the guy at Cannes

By Barbara Lippert


This year's Cannes ad festival opened on Sunday, which happened to be Father's Day in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. If attendees missed being honored at home, they at least could savor some male-themed potential award winners, like "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" for Old Spice, "The Most Interesting Man in the World" for Dos Equis and "The Man Who Walked Around the World" for Johnnie Walker.
  Yes, the celebration of the XY portion of the population — whether shirtless, gray-bearded or peripatetic — registered big in advertising this year (both in the imagery and, of course, in the holding-company boardrooms). It also runs counter to the culture at large.
  A cover story in The Atlantic this month, "The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control of Everything," notes that males, who've been the dominant sex since, well, forever, were hit hard by the Great Recession and have yet to retool. The writer, Hanna Rosin, offers an alarming statistic: Three-quarters of the jobs lost since the '90s were by men working in the conventionally macho industries of construction, manufacturing and high finance. The new (albeit, lower paying) economy favors workers with qualities seen as more traditionally female. Women now hold a majority of the nations jobs, as well as the places in undergraduate and graduate schools.
  No wonder Dockers ads suggest that men have literally lost their pants.
  Ben Stiller, who is a speaker at this year's festival (in a conversation with Jeff Goodby), embodies this crisis of masculinity as the self-hating male in the movie Greenberg. "We call each other 'man,' but it's a joke," his character says. "It's like imitating other people."

  In the past decade, something got lost between the cultural extremes of hyper-groomed metrosexuals and Judd Apatow's pudgy, smelly boy-men. So, we seem to hunger for the comfort of the male archetypes of yesteryear. But as Mad Men shows, that reality was bad for women. (That's why the only guys now allowed to be straight, aggressive sex symbols are vampires. And even vampires, with their current cultural cachet, are more complicated than that.)
  Certainly, what makes the Dos Equis man (in ads from Euro RSCG) resonate is the hunger for the primal male model of the mid-20th century-the charming, hard-drinking, womanizing, cultural connoisseur with courtly manners. People think the Most Interesting Man is supposed to be a cross between Hemingway and James Bond. Maybe, but he's almost exactly like Commander Whitehead, who was the president of Schweppes for a while and became the star of Ogilvy & Mather's campaign for the brand by dazzling the ladies with his dashing military past and cultural refinement.

  The Dos Equis campaign's comic writing is top notch: "He lives vicariously … through himself," says one ad. In the latest spot, we see a title card asking this bearded, cultivated lover-man about "manscaping." Tended to, as usual, by two young, model-beautiful women, the Most Interesting Man looks up and responds, "I don't know what this is."
  Take that, metrosexuals! Get out of here with your ironed jeans and dewy chests.
  His tagline, "Stay thirsty, my friends," is a clever take on Ron Burgundy's "Stay classy" from Anchorman. The campaign is bound to do well with non-American judges as well, as the Man is so well cast he's a universal icon.
  Whereas the Most Interesting Man had to be invented, Johnnie Walker's walking man comes right from the brand's logo. And the five-minute spot from BBH with actor Robert Carlyle is simple, brilliant and digs deep into the brand DNA.

  Carlyle, a Scotsman, takes to the dirt roads of the Highlands, and in a long walk-captured in one continuous camera sweep — tells the whiskey's history, beginning with Johnnie himself. It's a dazzling, virtuoso performance. I was amazed by the moment when the actor simply changes hats and morphs from a country grocer to an Edwardian gentleman — history reenacted before our eyes.
  That it was done in one take is also part of the appeal of "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," from Wieden + Kennedy. And like the Dos Equis campaign, it also features knockout comic writing.

  The acknowledgment that your man isn't (and couldn't hope to be) Isaiah Mustafa — the former wide receiver with the perfect, hairless chest — but could smell like him is the same sort of hedge that the Most Interesting Man offers in saying he doesn't always drink beer. Even the affected, sweater-around-the-shoulders bit is made fun of because the sweater drops from nowhere. The boat, the tickets, the diamonds, plus his, "I'm on a horse," all send up the romantic, knight-in-shining-armor scenario that creepy shows like The Bachelorette try to replicate.
  The spot, which became a viral phenomenon, is direct but self-effacing, aggressive but a send-up. It manages to pull off the delicate pretzel act of identifying with — while parodying — contemporary male identity flawlessly. Plus, it sells soap.
  I think it deserves a growling Lion — a gold for self-reflexive irony.