retro-sexual men: advertising trend

new male icons, role models and heroes

There’s a trend in advertising that’s reflecting the zeitgeist: retro sexual revivalism. Notice the return of bold male characters who personify ideal male attributes and attitudes.  These “retro sexuals” are intriguing, fascinating, magnetic, adventurous, skilled, charming, seductive, smooth, powerful, super-masculine men in total control, even in unrealistic fantastical situations.

They’re modern day “Hathaway” and “Marlboro” men, updated with hyperbole and humor often depicted in command of ambiguous surreal situations (e.g., exotic parties, climbing mountains, in disasters, fighting spies, performing in carnivals, taming wild animals). Notice the similarities of the following male characters in advertising today:

  • “The Most Interesting Man in the World” for Dos Equis = DISCERNMENT
  •  “Mayhem Man” for All State= RANDOM MISCHIEF
  • “The Entrance Man” for Heineken = CHARISMA
  • “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” for Old Spice = PERFECTION
  •  “Tony Sinclair” for Tanquery = SOPHISTICATION
  • “The Negotiator” for Priceline = PERSUASION
  •  “Bold Choice Man” for Jim Beam = BOLD CHOICES

why now? pursuit of substance

A lot has been written on the obsolescence of men in American society. So an obvious explanation for the ad trend of showing “retro-sexual” men imbued with traditional machismo is that it is an antidote to the emasculation taking place in American brought on by unemployment, skills transference and shifts in family income earners? However, research shows that men today – especially Millennial men – are quite comfortable with the gender blurring

  • 78% of all men agree “I don’t let traditional gender roles define how I live my life”
  • 64% of all men agree “I don’t feel constrained by social expectation of what is or is not appropriate for someone of my age or gender.”
  • 57% if all men agree “Nowadays we are free to shape our identities and transform ourselves in whatever way we want.”

Source: The Futures Company/Yankelovich, June 2011

Instead, I think these new “retro sexual” advertising role models exemplify our cultural return to substance. Americans, tired of lauding people who have little or no talent, are returning to traditional “hero worship.”  That is, worshiping heroes of substance. The pendulum swung far in the direction of “everyone will have their15 minutes of fame,” and now is swinging back to focusing on multi-talented people with extraordinary skills. (This trend is probably also behind the popularity of superheroes, from Tron to Captain America).

In fact, these male characters could all be from the same family; It’s fun to imagine if the “The Most Interesting Man in the World” had sons scattered around the globe from trysts with different women? From one wife his progeny would include “The Entrance” guy and “Mayhem”, and from another wife (perhaps a Congolese Princess) he’d be father to “Tony Sinclair” and “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”  (TMYMCSL). It’s easy to imagine “Mayhem” and “The Entrance” have a Cain and Able relationship.  As for the other set of brothers, one can imagine “Tony Sinclair” is the younger brother living in the shadow of his impressive brother, “TMYMCSL.”   The Most Interesting Man in the World could easily have brothers, “The Negotiator” and “Bold Choices.”  And, from his brief marriage to “The Charlie Girl” in the 70’s he fathered two daughters, “Naomi Pryce” and “The Etrade Girl.”

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