Dumb And Dumber

Men are looking bad in plenty of ads these days. “Father Knows Best,” last week’s article in this section, by Glenn Sacks, makes a good argument for that. But we’ve gotten to the point where the “smart” women in the commercials are looking pretty bad themselves.

Take the wife in a recent cell-phone commercial who suffers in silence while her husband, like a toddler with his first toy, marvels at the fact that the phone can take pictures, which can then be IM-ed. At the dinner table, he takes shots of the condiments he wants his son to pass to him. The wife, at her wit’s end and acting more like the mother of a small child, tells her husband, “Give it to me. Just give it to me.” He pouts like a petulant little boy, then hands her the phone. I suppose this interaction is supposed to make the woman seem like a force to be reckoned with. All I can think when I see it is, She married this dolt? Was she desperate?

Another “smart” woman appears in a yogurt ad that opens with a father reading the paper to his family at the breakfast table. (Hey, at least this fella can read!) He quotes from an article about how a particular brand of yogurt helps your digestive tract and announces, “We should get this.” Of course, the wife has already purchased the product—in fact, the family is sitting around the table eating it. Perhaps she’s one of those women for whom “clueless” is a turn-on.

It is understandable how this wise woman/ dumb man dynamic came about.

In the ’50s and ’60s, father was the only one allowed to know best, and wives and mothers were decorative and domestic. One fur ad from the period showed a head-to-toe profile of a woman with a toy wind-up key in her back. The headline read something like, “What to give your living doll.”

Gloria Steinem & Co. changed all that. They brought to light that women were capable of so much more. Females headed families; they could head corporations. Eventually, advertising reflected this. Remember “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never let you forget you’re a man?”

It wasn’t enough, though, to show women as capable equals. To drive the message home that women were just as good as men, they had to be shown as superior—which means there had to be an inferior. Getting over on the kids wouldn’t be much of a coup. No, she had to be smarter than her husband. And everyone agreed that was OK. Men had been “the man” long enough. They were due to be knocked off the pedestal.

And so, over time, they fell. Whether the product was dishwashing liquid or a car, peanut butter or power tools, the kind but bumbling idiot guy was shown the light by his take-charge, CEO-caliber wife.

Decades later, the man still is being bossed and minimized. But do women still need him to be?

We are almost a decade into the new millennium. It’s no longer a “surprise” that women head households, corporations or countries, that women are more than capable. In fact, the woman-on-top scenarios that served women well for many years are starting to make them look worse than the men.

If a person cannot show herself to be competent, effective and gifted without making someone else look useless and foolish, well, how insecure is that? Not to mention, kind of nasty. All TV wives seem to do is roll their eyes, sigh and give their TV hubbies the “That man” head shake. Was he the consolation prize because the handsome, intelligent guy she really wanted to marry got away?

If all these women portrayed in commercials are supposed represent how females really are, then women have extremely bad judgment. How else would you characterize someone who chooses a buffoon as her life mate? We could give the benefit of the doubt and surmise that there were no smart guys at the bar where she used to meet men, and she got the best of the bunch. Or figure that her ego was just too fragile—and she deliberately picked someone less than herself.

Just as Mr. Sacks is offended by how husbands are dramatized on TV, I’m embarrassed by the portrayals of their wives. I don’t like to see marriages break up (even ones that were only meant to last 30 seconds), but I secretly harbor a wish that these aforementioned spots would end with the guy sneaking off with his suitcase to find a woman who can be intelligent and take-charge without being condescending and emasculating.

The new Gap ad with Claire Danes moves us in the right direction. To the Annie Get Your Gun tune “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” Danes dances competitively with her boyfriend in an effort to win his pants. In the end, she gets them—partly from cunning and skill, partly because he lets her. It’s all in good fun, and they end up not as winner and loser, but happily together.

The spot is a little too light and fluffy to suggest the entire male/female dynamic in commercials is changing. But as I said, it’s going in the right direction.

Unlike Mr. Sacks, I think we need more than a less-demeaning portrayal of men. I think we need to raise the “relationship” bar. Perhaps a little marriage counseling is in order as we create the characters who represent our clients’ products. If you’re an ad man, ask yourself if you would want to be the partner of the smug, disdainful shrew you’ve created. If you’re an ad woman, ask yourself whether you would even want to meet, much less marry, Mr. Duh-how-do-you-get-the-stain-out? Then maybe couples in commercials will start to seem better together than apart.

How refreshing it would be for a truly smart, capable female consumer to see her television counterpart getting insights and support from a smart, capable partner she’s proud of. You know, the kind of man that a take-charge woman would actually choose.