Barbara Lippert's Critique: The Towel Guy

Forty years ago or so, when women truly were desperate housewives, gender lines in advertising were much more defined: Men wore the pants out the door in the morning, and women stayed home and cleaned in high heels all day (or at least until martini time). Still, as they do now, the June Cleaver types secretly pined for some help, and advertisers were only too happy to oblige—the Tidy Bowl man popped up in their toilet tanks, or the man from Glad (bags) arrived by helicopter and pontoon to help pack refrigerator leftovers.

Commercials for Ajax laundry detergent featured an actual knight in shining armor riding a white stallion. And if the armor and the huge muscular mount were somehow not symbolic enough, the man was also given a giant, more-or-less-medieval lance to hold upright as he galloped through the husband-free suburbs. Thus, the Ajax knight was, as the jingle kept repeating, “stronger than dirt!”

As any sort of superficial psychological analysis makes clear, “stronger than dirt” was code for “stronger than your husbands.”

I bring this up only by way of splainin’ this bizarre new Brawny paper towels ad which started appearing in cinemas last week. Yes, despite the coming (and going) of feminism, the new sensitive man, the male sex object, post-feminism, neo-conservatism, the new nasty-girl culture, what have you, it seems that advertisers are still sending in the male cavalry. But in this big, cinematic, very Freudian dream (or nightmare) sequence, the poor husband literally is dirt—he’s reduced to the size of the Tidy Bowl man, lying next to a dog bowl on the kitchen floor, getting pelted with icing, while the Bunyan-esque Brawny Man towers over him and shows him who’s his daddy.

Huh, you say? Well, there is some context. The cinema version cleverly builds on a 30-second spot that runs only on TV, in which the Brawny Man, now several evolutions away from his ’70s mustachioed self (slightly less porn star and more ambisexual house boy) prepares a birthday cake for “Mrs. Parker.” He bakes the cake, wipes the counter clean and offers the homemade cake, along with a beribboned puppy, to the unseen Mrs.

The TV is quite amusing—it’s everyone’s fantasy to have a guy like this around, whatever his orientation. (He’s “so strong, so soft”—which are also the attributes of the paper towels, with “triple action performance.”) It’s all done in a knowing, campy way, including the way he very slowly separates the paper towels. If the previous Brawny guy in the plaid shirt with the ‘stache was off-putting (too Village People), this guy could be your trainer, your life coach or your stylist and closet organizer (if you were Martha Stewart). Regardless, he provides the sort of personal assistance that we could all warm to, if only.

The cinema version raises the bar, so to speak. A couple is shown in bed, watching that same spot, when the wife actually says to her husband, “Why can’t you be more like that Brawny Man?” He’s determined to kick ass, but instead he rolls over, and in his dream he is the proverbial 90-pound weakling.

And I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school here to say that some of the images make your average Calvin Klein-Bruce Weber collaboration seem heterosexual. The dog-food bowl is an often-used symbol of gay submission; as hubby lies next to it, he gets white icing on his face; Brawny guy wipes it off, then sits him up on the counter.

This time, Brawny Man has the scrawny husband do the icing on the cake. But talk about powerlessness and impotence—instead of the flat rubber spatula that BM uses in the TV spot, he hands hubby a big, flaccid sack (of icing) that he has to pump. The spot ends with the wife waking up and going into the bathroom, where the husband, still asleep, is squeezing his tube of toothpaste into the sink.

This is no doubt out-there. Is it aimed at gay men? Doubtful. Do women want to see their husbands emasculated? Hardly. (Do they want them to be more helpful? Sure.) But people will certainly be talking about it (and then told to shush) at the movies.

For those more interested in a traditional experience, I highly recommend the package of little films billed as “Innocent Escapes” on the Web site. (There are also discount coupons there.) The Web Brawny Man is more of a sensitive, let’s-listen-to-Kenny-G-and-have-a-deep-conversation type guy, as he invites you into his cabin, tells you your hair is perfect and reads you the poem he’s written about how beautiful you are. You can also customize your interaction. It’s frankly hilarious, a cross between a flavored coffee commercial and Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts.” And sad but true, he’s so painfully sweet and earnest that he’s also quietly consoling as a secret cyber-boyfriend.

So I guess we have come some way; now we can choose when to activate—and customize—our husband replacements. Bounty has the quicker picker upper—and Brawny has given it a whole new spin.



Fallon, new york

Creative director

Ari Merkin

Art director

Molly Sheahan


Marty Senn

TV, Cinema spots


Betsy Schoenfeld


Happy, Smuggler


Maury Loeb, PS 260

Online ‘Innocent Escapes’

Interactive creative director

Paul Bichler


Kim Haxton


Zarina Mak


Zach Math, Omaha Pictures/Steam Films)


Geoff Hounsell, Lost Planet