The Frat House Is Now Closed

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005

This is what TV advertising aimed at men looked like, circa 2003: Two fetching young women, sitting in an outdoor cafe, begin to argue about the merits of Miller Lite beer. The argument quickly escalates into a hair-pulling, clothes-ripping brawl. The women, now half-naked, tumble into a fountain, then somehow wind up rolling around together in wet cement. The naughty male fantasy concludes with one saying to the other, "Let's make out!"

And this is what it looks like, circa 2005: A bunch of young guys, sitting around watching the game, realize they have run out of beer. To make it to the store and back before the action resumes, one of them tears out of the living room, races through a neighbor's house, jumps over a fence and hitches a ride on the back of a galloping police horse. He arrives at the market in time to grab the last six-pack of Miller Lite, just as another young man, on an identical mission, comes barreling into the store.

The difference between busty, battling babes and sprinting slackers tells a larger tale about male-oriented TV advertising these days. Not so long ago, commercials tailored to guys pushed a few predictable buttons -- sex, certainly, but also a kind of aggressive and crude frat-house humor. Bud Light -- to pick another prominent marketer to the football-watching demographic -- ran a series of commercials during Super Bowl 2004 that featured a dog that bit a man's crotch, a monkey that propositioned a woman, and a horse that passed gas in a couple's face.

Now, the rude menagerie is gone and so, for the most part, is the female skin. You won't find the Swedish Bikini Team or Coors Light's winking, rock-and-roll odes to "those twins!" during breaks in the game nowadays.

Instead, TV advertising to guys has gone tame. And often lame.

Now the prevailing theme of commercials airing in the Sunday-afternoon football ghetto is an old advertising staple: men as the butt of the joke. Men acting silly. Men humiliating themselves or being humiliated by others. Men as Homer Simpson-ish losers.

Here, for example, is a spot for the Ford Fusion, a new sedan: A schlubby guy totters down his driveway, hauling an armload of messy trash to the curb. Glancing up, he discovers that he's a moment too late; he has just missed the garbage truck. "This is life," proclaims the ad. "This is life in drive" (cut to beauty shots of the car).

Or take the commercial for Citibank: A guy undertakes a search for a missing credit-card statement that becomes so frantic and self-absorbed that he falls into a trash can and doesn't even notice when the can is picked up and carried off by a garbage hauler (in another Citibank commercial a guy chases his statement into an air vent -- and gets locked inside).

Some guy ads convey an almost hostile attitude toward the people who are presumably the advertiser's would-be customers. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning acts like an aggressive fan for MasterCard, bugging a grocery clerk for his autograph, yelling after a group of restaurant workers ("Great shift today, guys! Nice salad bar!") and chanting "De-caf!" at a waitress in a coffee shop. On one level, it's an amusing role reversal. But on another, it suggests that fans -- the very people MasterCard is advertising to -- can be pretty obnoxious people.

Advertisers and ad creators say their pullback from sex and raunch was made in the aftermath of Janet Jackson's infamous display of nudity during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. The backlash was aimed not just at Jackson and CBS, which telecast the game, but at advertisers like Anheuser-Busch, which aired the rowdy Bud Light crotch-biting/horny monkey/horse-farting series during the game.

"Those ads did push the envelope quite a little bit, and they got wrapped up in the whole [Jackson] controversy," says Marlene Coulis, vice president of brand management at the St. Louis-based beer company. "They got a more negative reaction than they would have otherwise."

So Anheuser-Busch has decided to play it safe, or at least safer. "There's a place for frat-guy humor, but we have to be conscious of the female drinker, too," she says. "They didn't appreciate [that kind of humor] quite as much as that guy cohort does."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company