Thursday, August 21, 2008

Advertising's Disdain for the White Male: the Hipster Sneer

You've probably seen them, all over Television. No matter what show or channel you're watching, ads will show up that depict the straight white male as a complete doofus, whom the "cool people" condescendingly tolerate. Often the "cool people" are either the straight white guy's wife and children, or office mates. In the case of the latter, a "cool" Black male and white female often look at the man with disdain.

This ad is likely the worst:



Why do advertisers make these commercials? Surely they know it must tick off their customer base, which for many of these products will be straight white men. If their customer base is female, they'll object to being made to look like idiots themselves, for choosing such unsuitable husbands, or having such idiot sons, fathers, or brothers. Advertisers do it because of the Hipster Sneer.

Creative people just can't help it. The straight white guy, particularly engineers, cubicle dwellers, anyone who smacks of nerdiness, in an un-cool, live in the suburbs, drive a boring car kind of way, is the natural social enemy of the hipster. [And his competitor in the struggle for a mate -- surprisingly, Advertising is still a male-dominated activity. It's not women who are making these ads, it's men.] Hipsters, after all, have to sell attitude and elitism. While there are credentials for advertising jobs, they are surprisingly flexible. Top management of creative agencies for Nike, Reebok, or Cadillac often got their start writing copy for print ads, and worked their way up the ladder. While Ad Agencies bear little resemblance to AMC's "Mad Men," they do have a hierarchy based on how "cool" and hip each individual is, and how cool and hip they can make a campaign. The late Jay Chiat, for example, founder of Chiat/Day, got his start writing recruitment ads for Orange County, California Aerospace firms. He had no special training in design, art, consumer behavior, psychology, or anything of that nature. He certainly did have a flair for the dramatic, and a sense of how to impress people.

Many senior Advertising Executives come from similar backgrounds. As such, their stock in trade is the ability to surprise, shock, and sometimes appall their clients and consumers. But always, the Advertiser must be seen as hip, cool, and edgy. Clients hire and fire ad agencies more frequently than NFL teams hire and fire head coaches. There is very little loyalty, and few metrics to measure the success and failure of campaigns while they are ongoing, and adjust accordingly.

The process goes something like this: a Company finds itself with a dull and stodgy image, or fears it's being left behind by competitors in awareness by consumers. Company management looks around for a controversial, and above all, "cool" and hip Ad Agency known for being both shocking and "cool." Personal presentations are key here, since often only concepts and images are available, not finished ads made on spec. An ad execs ability to both build relationships with a client, even a short-term one, and appear "cool" is paramount. The execs often have nothing else. Shockingly, very little is publicly reported on ad campaign effectiveness. At least NFL coaches all have very public won-lost records.

Now the company has a new ad agency. Which will spare no effort to appear hip and happening. The Straight White Guy can be both safely mocked, and is the "enemy" of the hip creative person who often has a fairly chaotic business life, moving from one project to the next with all the uncertainty that creates, in a boom-or-bust cycle. It hasn't escaped the notice of the hip, creative person that the Straight White Guy(tm) often has the stability in his professional life that is lacking in project-oriented advertising. [Or that his stability offers an alternative to the cachet of the hipness of the "creative" ad person, in the relationship market.] Note the ad above, the Straight White Guy(tm) is both "boring" in a parody of the non-fashion oriented bad office dresser, and is presented as incompetent in dealing with any minor change. The implicit message is both: "don't date this guy" and "don't promote this guy." Remarkable since the main purchasers of ink for Dell printers at Staples are likely to be ... Straight White Guys.(tm)

Most of these ads are about the superiority of the hipsters who create them. The Hipster Sneer at the square office dwellers who work on boring day-to-day stuff. It's all about the creator. Not the consumer. The message is, the hipster is far more worthy than "this guy" in the ad, whoever he is. Even if the hipster never appears, his attitude towards the envied and resented "ordinary joe" is always present. This won't change either, until companies start moving more and more ads onto the Internet.

Internet Advertising is different. Not just with Google Ads, or various banners, surveys, and the like. No, what makes Internet Advertising so different is that it is interactive. Internet ad views, and click-throughs, can be measured day to day. Marketing managers can see daily, how well their campaign is doing, in reaching consumers, how much it costs, and what the return is (best result, viewers click "through" on the ad taking them to the site featured on the ad). As companies expect more and more Internet like reporting, and demand results from Television campaigns, room for hipster sneering (at the ordinary joes who work in ordinary offices) simply won't exist. The requirement for true professionalism will drive it out. That day is likely to be coming quite soon.

But until then, we will just have to put up with the Hipster Sneer.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you are right in a lot of ways, but I also think that a large part of it is that you can make fun of White Males because they're Winning at Life.

Whether you like it or not, the positive feedback loop of perception, as a White Guy (I'm a white guy) is in your favor, so the general consensus is, you can be made fun of.

This applies in popular culture all over the place. You can mock Christianity, but you need to tip-toe around Islam.

Women often comment on each other's weights -- "Oh my god, you're getting so skinny, you could use this large piece of cake"

Even though this is, in a way, a subtle slight, can you imagine what the reverse scenario would be like if said to someone's face?

"Oh my god, you're getting so fat, we need to lock you in a room without food for a month!"

The first statement, referring to someone being skinny is okay, because skinny is 'good', despite what the protests of the person who says it might say. Fat is 'not good' so you keep your comments to yourself, unless you need your tires flattened.

PA said...

I noticed that you capitalize "Black" but not "white." Shouldn't that be consistent one way or the other?

Also, sorry for nagging, but I detest "white male" when "white man" works just as well.

Whiskey said...

Laziness I suppose Pa. Good point though.

Anon -- Christianity is hardly a "winner." The Archbishop of Rochester, himself of Pakistani origin, complains that many places in Britain are "no-go" for Christians. Converts to Christianity in Britain and much of Europe face death, with police inaction.

People have to tip-toe around Islam because Muslims have a habit of beheading or killing people who say, draw, write, or film things they don't like. Christians are "safe" to criticize because they won't do much than form a picket line or write a protesting letter. Muslims kill film-makers and have death sentences on cartoonists and writers.

Meanwhile, the authorities to preserve PC and Multiculturalism pretend this never happens and prosecute people (in the EU) who "offend" Islam while promoting "Piss Christ."

Whoever can thug it up enough while maintaining the facade of PC/Multiculturalism, which in turn is a way for various White elites to demonstrate "moral" or "spiritual" superiority (and implied superior status) wins.

CN said...

What anon 8:14 said.


Meanwhile, the authorities to preserve PC and Multiculturalism pretend this never happens and prosecute people (in the EU) who "offend" Islam while promoting "Piss Christ
Go to Germany and deny that the holocaust ever took place. Try to buy a copy of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf in each of the EU member countries.

Gerard said...

"Advertising is still a male-dominated activity. It's not women who are making these ads, it's men."

I think you might be overlooking the extent to which these men -- especially in the creative areas -- are increasingly gay as well as self-consciously hip.

Micha Elyi said...

When I visit Staples and its competitors, most of the customers I see are females. And what do you suppose is the sex of the department head's assistant who orders the office supplies out of the Staples (or Office Depot or...) catalog?

Yes, these ads are intended to pander to buyers who are female.