Stupid question: is this commercial sexist?
The highlights: The ad plays on masculine stereotypes in an tongue-in-cheek backlash to some imagined feminized world. Beard guy doges lasers and shoots a big gun while running through a jungle, simultaneously mocking romantic comedies. He hops into a jeep driven by his square-jawed friend, all the while extolling the manly virtues of Dr. Pepper Ten, a manly diet beverage so manly that it still has ten calories, even though it’s a diet soda. Beard Guy yells the catchphrase “Catchphrase”, and the commercial ends with the tagline “No Women Allowed.” And then the internet exploded.
First, the easy part: this is an excellent commercial. As you’d expect, it is working among men in the key I-live-away-from-my-parents-but-still-live-off-their-money 18-35 demographic. But better yet, “Jim Treblicock, executive vice president of marketing for the company, said about 40 percent of people who have tried the soda so far are women.”
The ad that is blatantly sexist is motivating sales to women. Maybe women are curious about what a “manly diet soda” tastes like. Or Maybe some women are taking an “I’ll show them” approach. Apparently we’re all willing to accept the reality that sex sells, but we’ll be damned if we allow sexism to sell.
But none of that is the point. In fact, if you have accepted the premise that this campaign may be sexist against women, you’ve already lost. Just stroll over to the Dr. Pepper machine and throw your money at it.
The reason this campaign is brilliant is because it has convinced everyone to accept a definition a new and ridiculous definition of manliness. No, not the car chases, gunfights, and explosions. Everyone accepts that those are cliches and stereotypes.
Soda advertising is often wildly high concept, exceedingly creative, and so iconic that it becomes the archetype of what advertising is. Soda advertising is like this not in spite of the fact that the underlying product is so pedestrian and simple but because of it. How do you differentiate you bubbly sugar water from the ten billion other varieties that have been on the market for the last century? By divorcing the message from the product, and making the ad entirely about identity.
Diet Coke’s current campaign is “Stay Extraordinary”, which shows people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities drinking Diet Coke on the job. The viewer is so bombarded with imagery persuading it that people with extraordinary jobs drink Diet Coke, that the viewer does not have a chance to question whether the people in the ad, or the jobs they are doing, are extraordinary at all.
The same thing is at work here. The viewers, especially female viewers, are so busy deciding whether to be offended by the blatant sexism against women that they ignore the sexism against men implicit in the ad.
Dr. Pepper is connecting manliness to it’s product, not with the gunfights and Hollywood action, but with the tagline at the end. Dr. Pepper is saying that by purchasing the product, you will be manly because you are excluding women. To be manly is to exclude women.
That is the only non-ironic message about manliness in the ad: manliness is about excluding women. Is it true? Most of us seem to be okay with it, because we’ve accept that premise without realizing it in order to take the bait and complain about sexism against women.
And that’s the insidious part of the ad. We so want to fight the easy fight, to chase the cheap heat, that we’ll accept everything else to get there. We accept that to be manly is to exclude women, because if we don’t then the ad is no longer sexist, but stupid and nonsensical, and we’ll lose a great opportunity to be offended.