You've seen him in TV commercials. He's the guy who can't open a pickle jar or take care of his kids, the husband raised by wolves, the balding, portly fellow who leaps for joy now that a pill has solved his impotence. He's the one scalded by hot coffee and hit in the crotch with a bowling ball, though he doesn't seem to mind.
In the powerful dominion of television advertising, this hapless, sloppy, beer-drinking punch line is the modern American man.
And critics say he's getting more than his fair share of abuse.
"If anything like this was happening to blacks or women or Jews, it would be considered a moral crime," says Warren Farrell, a California author and men's rights advocate. "We're being flooded with advertising in which either a male is being hit by a female, or the man is simply the jerk."
Farrell, author of "The Myth of Male Power," is one of a small but growing number of men -- and a few women -- protesting what they consider sexist, stereotypical and even mean-spirited ads. Male-bashing, they claim, is the last politically safe perversion.
"At this point in time, if advertisers served up women the same way that guys are treated, it would be world war," says Steve Feinberg, chief creative officer at the Seiden Group, a New York ad agency. "Advertising has cycled its way through that. Right up through the early 1980s, [the message to women] was 'Spend all day obsessing over whether you have the right toilet bowl cleaner, because that's how you define yourself.' But you can't do that anymore."
Late last year, a 40-year-old New Hampshire engineer and father named Richard Smaglick launched the Society for the Prevention of Misandry in the Media -- misandry being the seldom-heard counterpart to misogyny. Among his first efforts was a boycott of the clients of advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi because of a spot it produced for Wyeth FluMist.
In the ad, we see Mom laid up in bed with the virus, and Dad in charge of the household -- much to the glee of the kids, who march off to school in a snowstorm dressed as if for a luau. Alas, poor Dad can't manage his own children.
Smaglick admits the boycott had little, if any, impact -- Saatchi & Saatchi declined to comment -- and he won't say precisely how big his group is. "I don't want our organization to be assigned its credibility or lack of credibility based on numbers," he says.
But he certainly isn't alone in his objections.
On a Web site for the Men's Activism News Network, readers have compiled a list of companies to boycott for their allegedly male-bashing ads. Ironically, the list includes perhaps the ultimate macho vehicle, the Hummer, which aired a spot showing a woman behind the wheel and a tagline that read: "Threaten men in a whole new way."
Imagine the fallout, a man said in a post, if the roles were reversed, and a man was encouraged to "threaten women in a whole new way."
It's a point well taken, says Matt Campbell, one of the site's administrators. "To get a sense of why there is a group of men finding the state of affairs so outrageous, just switch the gender roles for a minute and see if it would still be funny. Imagine having a laugh track when a woman's genitals are attacked."
Indeed, shots to the male crotch are a common theme. Consider an award-winning Washington Mutual spot in which a man is so relentlessly cheerful after a loan approval that he smiles through having hot coffee accidentally tipped on him and a bowling ball tossed into his groin.
Though the agency declined to comment on the ad, it is clearly intended to be funny -- which raises the question of whether some men might be overreacting.
"I personally like stuff like that because it gives you a break from all the bad news you see," says J.D. Strickland of Orlando, a 33-year-old single dad. "I certainly don't take it seriously -- and I think people who do could use their time toward better causes."
Erik Gordon, a University of Florida marketing professor, says the vast majority of men are likely unaware that there's even an issue. "There's a part of me that hears about these men protesting and says, 'Oh, God, are these the same guys who put greasepaint on their chest and bang drums around a fire?' But there's another part of me that wonders, when ads systematically portray men and dads as incompetents and boobs who can't open a can of coffee, how much are we undermining respect for fathers?"
Ironically, most of the offending ads are created by men.
"They think it's their way to be feminists. They think women want to see men as dogs and pigs, and everybody can have a good laugh," says Barbara Lippert, critic for the trade publication Adweek. "They don't get that whatever makes women look stupid is bad, and whatever makes men look stupid is bad."
And if there hasn't been an outcry until now, some advocates say, it's only because men who complain are labeled wimps. Their masculinity is questioned.
But until large numbers do protest, until companies are hit in the pocketbook, they're not likely to change course.
Donald Bruzzone, whose California research firm specializes in measuring audience reaction to advertising, doesn't foresee a massive outcry anytime soon. His polling after this year's Super Bowl left him astounded by public taste -- or lack thereof.
"We watched to see how many people were outraged over the low level of humor that was used -- and four out of five didn't mind it a bit," Bruzzone says. "You had an ad showing a horse with flatulence that exploded in a young lady's face, and you had an ad with a dog biting some guy in the crotch."
By comparison, ads showing a woman opening a pickle jar after her boyfriend has failed (MasterCard) or a man raised by wolves driving an SUV (Honda) seem not only harmless but highbrow. In fact, the former has been honored for its positive portrayal of women, and the latter -- in which we see the man hunting goldfish and chasing deer -- was named one of the top 50 ads of the year by Adweek. Yet both have been criticized for their portrayal of men.
"I'm somewhat flabbergasted," says Larry Postaer, director of creative services for Rubin Postaer and Associates, which made the Honda ad. "It's obviously tongue-in-cheek. Absolutely no one is taking the portrayal seriously. . . . Meanwhile, virtually every beer commercial is making philanderers out of the whole bunch of us. I object to that."
Ultimately, whether men and boys take the images to heart, whether it affects how they feel about themselves, is debatable. But Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young, authors of "Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture," say advertising merely holds up a mirror.
"We do see a statistical picture that tells us men are in trouble," Young says. "Their suicide rates are higher, their alcoholism rates are higher, they die earlier than women, and boys are dropping out of high school at much higher rates than girls are. The more negative imaging you get, the more it reinforces this. Boys can say, 'If this is the way society is going to look at us, we'll just act that way.' "