What Did The Super Bowl Ads Say About Men?

Should he strive to be a brainy nerd or a ripped underwear model? The ads targeting men at this year’s Super Bowl just left Eric Sentell confused.

Female depictions in advertisements, especially the testosterone-driven Super Bowl ads, have been criticized for quite some time, and rightly so. But what about the depictions of males? How do these images and portrayals make men feel?

I, for one, simply feel confused. Who, or what, am I supposed to strive to be? How should I feel about who I am right now?

The Go Daddy commercial suggests that I ought to be a pure “brain.” If you missed it, Go Daddy personified the “sexy” side of its service, the side everyone can see, with a gorgeous supermodel. The technical side, the server-farm and other back-end operations that enable Go Daddy to house its supermodel-attractive websites, was represented by a stereotypical nerd.

They sat side-by-side. The nerd wore oversized glasses, a plain white shirt, and ill-fitting khakis. He had a large, round, rosy face resting atop a round, frumpy stature. The model seemingly towers over him; she is a head taller, and her shoulders are squarer and broader. After Danica Patrick’s introduction, the camera zooms in as they make out—noisily.

The incongruity makes the commercial undeniably funny. The close-up camera angle and vivid sound adds grossness. I think Go Daddy aimed primarily for memorableness, but they also play on the self-image and fantasies of men who see some of themselves in this “brain.” Who wouldn’t want to make out with a supermodel, especially someone who self-identifies as a nerd?

In stark contrast, the Calvin Klein commercial shows that I ought to be the ideal of the ideal body type. The model wears a snug pair of Calvin Klein briefs. He has approximately .00001% body fat, hidden somewhere between his internal organs. He flexes this way and that, rippling taunt muscles. He exudes power and strength, even launching into a sprint at one point.

“Wear these briefs, and feel like this guy looks,” Calvin Klein tells the men viewing this commercial. “Remember the guy who wore these,” he whispers to the women. No one imagines, of course, that buying and wearing these briefs might transform a man’s body, but the perception of the product resides in these messages, clearly delivered by the ad’s images.

Obviously, this depiction is every bit as unrealistic and self-esteem bashing as any female depiction. To achieve this body, a man would have to make diet and exercise a full-time job with overtime. He’d need no small number of dietary supplements. He’d need a lucky set of genes. Even then, he’d still need to dehydrate himself to make those muscles bulge. And don’t forget the large staff of specialists to pluck, tweeze, and wax; apply oil and makeup; and manage lighting and camera angles.

It has been well-chronicled that advertisements influence our self-image and thus our behavior, and our experiences confirm this research and analysis. We diet and exercise because we believe we ought to look like the models in our magazines or in commercials. We buy the clothes that fabulously attractive people wear.

Yet the real question in this case is not “who should I be?” but rather “who can I be?” No man wants to be the uber-nerd, despite his opportunity to make out with a supermodel. The commercial itself portrays the nerd as undesirable—hence its humor. But no one can attain the ideal of the ideal depicted by Calvin Klein. I’m sure the model himself looks quite different under natural lighting and after normal hydration.

So I’m a little confused. Should I strive to be smart? Should I sculpt my body? Should I emulate another depiction? The guy who bought the Doritos-munching goat seemed to occupy a middle-ground, but he was also a bit of a creeper. The farmer who raised the Budweiser Clydesdale looked like a well-rounded person, except I don’t know anything about him besides his paradoxical devotion to a horse that he willingly sold to the highest bidder. And don’t get me started on the hyper-idealized “farmer” praised in the Dodge Ram commercial.

One could reasonably say, “Well, aim for balance between brains and body.” But that is beside the point. By default, everyone ought to balance intelligence and physical health, education and exercise. The point here is that commercials, especially Super Bowl ads, place both males and females alike in an awkward position from which they cannot escape without a fair amount of critical thinking and self-affirmation. Unless we remember everything required to have .00001% body fat, unless we critique the assumption that a nerd can’t date a supermodel, then we leave ourselves with the vague feeling of being stuck between unattainables.

Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.

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