Positively Manly… It’s Not Complicated

I don’t know about you, but the past few months have been a bit rough in my neck of the woods (bad weather, bombings, city shutdowns and work backlogs just to name a few things). Thankfully summer is fast approaching and with it comes the opportunity for relaxation and the promise happier times. Personally, I’m entering that summer frame of mind, so I’ve decided to put down the critical lens for a bit and spend the month of June writing only about positive things.

Yes, I’m declaring June to be “Positively Manly Month” here on How Manly. That means all my posts in June will focus on what I consider to be the more fun and positive examples of masculinity. I often overlook these positive examples because I’m usually pissed off about this world event or that bit of sexist media. I realize there’s always going to be something aggravating going on in the world and the media, but this month I’m going to put on the rose colored glasses and keep it light.

To kick off Positively Manly Month, please allow me to dig into an ad campaign that you’ve most likely seen at this point, but may not have stopped to consider just how unique it is. Each ad in the campaign stood out to me for its positive depiction of a man doing things we don’t often see men doing in advertising. Before I tell you what I’m talking about, let me provide a bit of background on why this ad (and others like it) even matter…

For the longest time, interacting with kids was something only women did in advertising. When men did interact with kids it was in a number of familiar but very limited roles; typically something fatherly or coach-like. Beyond those two roles, men were and still are generally absent when kids are around or are generally quick to pawn the kids off on the mothers (or any women in the area).

Coaches and fathers are definitely positive roles for men to fill, however their depictions in advertising are not always so positive. Both fathers and coaches are often pictured doing sports related, active things with the kids. Which is great, but very gendered. When sports are the only interactions men get to have with kids it presents a very limited view of parenting and male mentoring. Add to this common depictions of fathers as absent, aloof or merely disciplinarians. Just for the sake of comparison, take this Visa ad from 2001. In the ad we see a man coming home from work to his wife who’s been home with the baby all day:

visa - baby talk

When the man comes home from work (traditional gender role right there) and encounters his wife talking baby-talk, he wordlessly orders theatre tickets (while his wife blabs on in the background… more traditional gender stuff) all the while NEVER interacting with his child. Not once.

Now, depictions of fathers in advertising have improved since 2001, even though ads featuring positive fathering are still few and far between. I’ve even highlighted a few ads in this vein before. But the unicorn not-in-the-room remains ads in which men interact positively with kids who (we assume) are not their own. It’s as if advertisers believe that men can’t care about kids who are not theirs (unless of course they’re coaching them). But there is at least one campaign that breaks this mold. I’m referring to the AT&T “It’s Not Complicated” campaign in which we see a man in a suit sitting down with various groups of kids. In each ad he asks them a question meant to highlight some aspect of AT&T’s network (that it’s fast, or cheap or whatever) and the kids answer in the silly, imaginative way that kids often do, to hilarious effect. I’ve pretty much loved all the ads, but the newest one in the series is probably my favorite because it features what must be the best reaction shot ever caught on film. Check it out:

Clearly that little girl thinks a puppy brother is the “BEST IDEA EVER!” The look on her face is just priceless. But I digress… If you watch more than one ad you’ll see what (besides the humor) really makes these ads so outstanding and worthy of Positively Manly Month recognition (you can find the rest of the ads in the campaign here);

First off, despite playing things very straight in his suit and tie, the guy sits at the kids table (or desks) in each of the ads. This puts him at their level (height difference aside), a sign of respect for the kids we rarely see from men in advertising. He’s not in a fatherly role and he’s not taking a coaching or teaching position. He’s not stern, uninterested, or scared. There’s no disciplining or standard issue sports activity going on. He’s interacting with these kids at their level, taking an interest and respecting what they have to say. He’s also very positive with the children. No matter how wacky the kids get he respects and responds positively to their input. In this case saying; “well when you put it that way it makes sense.” and in other ads saying things like “uh huh” and “I get you.” He consistently affirms each of them which only adds to the magic and the humor of the ads.

Look, in the end I get that this AT&T campaign is just that… a campaign meant to sell a service and so the questions, the kids responses and the man’s reactions are all purposeful and most likely staged. But if you, like me, can look at the ads non-cynically (which is quite the feat for me by the way) you’ll notice positive and uplifting male behaviors that I see every day in the real world, but rarely see in advertising. Making people laugh is one thing, but making people laugh while expanding our concept of positive masculinity is an achievement worthy of some attention, don’t you think?

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