Advertising industry warned it is in danger of turning men off

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The Independent Online

She berates him for stupidly taking his father's advice about motor insurance. He sits sheepishly, looking crushed. It is only a television advertisement but, as the scene fades, the feeling is that she's smart, tough and together, while he is a dumb wimp.

This, from the AA, is just one of a growing number of advertisements that new research has found are offending male audiences by their attempts to attract women customers.

The recipe is simple – empower women at the expense of men, sprinkle in a little humour and wait – but it is one that could backfire on advertisers, according to Linda Hodgson, a researcher for the marketing consultants Corporate Edge.

During a large-scale research project intended to gauge men's needs, wants and attitudes, Ms Hodgson encountered unexpected hostility from men who were sick of being the butt of the joke.

There is the man outfoxed by his partner in an Archers ad. He falls asleep in the living room convinced he will be in trouble for coming home late. But she creeps in later, grinning, in a role reversal that would have seemed unthinkable even 20 years ago.

There is the girl in the Lambrini sparkling wine poster campaign boasting to her friends about losing stones of useless fat: "You dumped him then?" comes the reply.

There is another drinks advertisement, for Reef, entitled "Catch", which has a group of women hauling in men caught in a large net – but throwing back the skinny specimen with spectacles.

There are the men in the Flash and Mr Muscle ads, who are too stupid, idle or wimpish to do the cleaning properly. And time and time again, there are the men who can't cook or use the washing machine.

"The men we spoke to were sick of being depicted as either a sex god with a six-pack or a stupid Homer Simpson-like slob being made to look foolish by women," said Ms Hodgson. "We found that there was what we called the mellow male out there who wants to have a better balance in their lives.

"There was a feeling of being lost, of having no role models and seeing themselves in advertising as being emasculated to make women feel better."

For decades, there had been a powerful feminist movement but there had not been an equivalent counterbalance for men, Ms Hodgson said.

"I think this is a wake-up call for the advertising industry. It is alienating men at a time when men feel the gap between the sexes is closing. The feeling we got was that it is time to move into a new phase – a mutualisation of society where people are respected for their strengths rather than their sex."

Francesca Newland, news editor of the advertising industry magazine Campaign, believes such advertisements are not only alienating men, but also women.

"Agencies only use this strategy when they are trying to sell a female product – usually drinks or cleaning products or coffee," she said. "The theory is that it doesn't matter if they offend men, because men don't buy these products; women do.

"But a lot of women don't want to be portrayed as someone who wants to walk all over men, as someone who hates men, so they are unlikely to buy those products. I drink sparkling wine, but I wouldn't buy Lambrini because of its advertising campaign. I don't want to be associated with a product that makes women look cruel."

Such sentiments, however, appear to be factored into the calculations that advertising agencies make.

"The sort of woman who would feel that way probably wouldn't buy Lambrini anyway," said David Bell, chief executive of Cheetham Bell JWT, which devised the campaign.

"It is a drink for salt-of-the-earth girls to drink before they go out, maybe while chatting or putting their make-up on. While they do that, they probably crack jokes about their boyfriends. I've never heard of any men being offended by these ads. They're quite clearly just a bit of fun."

That may be the case, but Ms Hodgson's research, in which groups of men aged 25 to 45 discussed a range of issues that affected them, appears to suggest that there is a "drip" effect. One advertisement may not be enough to offend, but cumulatively they give an impression of men being downtrodden.

Even feminists such as the novelist Doris Lessing have noticed. Last month, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the 81-year-old, known for her strident views, said: "I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed.

"Great things have been achieved through feminism. We have many wonderful, clever, powerful women everywhere, but what is happening to men? Why did all this have to be at the cost of men?"

The drip effect has not gone unnoticed in the advertising industry and there are now signs that some of its most cutting-edge practitioners feel that enough is enough.

Trevor Beattie, the chairman of TBWA/London and creator of the Wonderbra and French Connection campaigns, savaged his colleagues in a recent interview.

"It's rapidly becoming an advertising stereotype for men to be depicted as goons," he said. "It's ridiculous – 90 per cent of these ads are written by men and yet they are being presented as gormless idiots because the people making the ads think it's politically correct and cool."

There are signs, however, that the industry might be on the brink of mending its ways. Certainly, the creative element no longer regards this style of advertisement as being particularly erudite or effective.

"Most of the stuff that reflects men in that way has passed its sell-by date – I cannot offer a meaningful defence for it," said Chris O'Shea, chairman of the Creative Director's Forum of the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising.

"Advertising reflects life, so there was the time when men were depicted as breadwinners and women were housewives, then you got powerful women with big shoulder pads, then the caring sharing Nineties and new men. But they all pass.

"I believe advertisers have been reflecting a certain behaviour in women, but I also think it is tired now and the joke is over. I think the only people practising this now are the more lazy of the agencies."

So, good news, perhaps, for those men who feel demeaned by all this. Good news in particular for David, the man who ends up quashed in the AA insurance advertisement.

According to the AA, it had never intended the advert as a put-down for men. Last night, the motoring organisation promised that in its latest ad, as yet unreleased, he comes out looking like less of a wimp.