Advertising: Volvo, Pot Noodle and the surprises of masculinity

“The fourth blade shaves you closer still. The fifth blade does your VAT return.”

This Mitchell & Webb sketch still cracks me up. It’s a parody of those adverts for razors that are marketed at men. With each new model, the manufacturers invent superlatives for their advertising, whether to do with extra blades or just how smooth your face will be when you seek the reward of a woman’s touch. Then there’s the bigger story to do with razor advertising of course: men’s razors are tough and named after weapons, while women’s are curvy and pink.

Advertising is great fun. The writer Mark Simpson just turned his attention to a new Pot Noodle ad, celebrating it for its unconventional portrayal of masculinity. I agree with Mark; it’s great to see ads moving in this direction.

But it’s wrong to assume that adverts today carry any version of masculinity you might wish to see. Ads are still miles away from relying on gender stereotypes. The twist in the Pot Noodle ad only works precisely because it confounds the viewer’s expectations of what men should aspire to.

I’m helping to organise a session on male representation in the media at this year’s Being A Man festival at the Southbank Centre. We’ll be looking at films, video games and ads. So as part of my planning I’ve been watching some popular recent ads. Here’s one that I’ve got something to say about.

This award-winning ad for Volvo trucks is surprising, inventive and simple—probably the hallmarks of the best ads. It features action film hero Jean Claude Van Damme straddling two lorries, with one foot on the wing mirror of each. The lorries gradually pull apart, meaning Van Damme does the splits. The lorries are reversing fast throughout this whole manoeuvre (it’s best just to watch it—it’s a great stunt!).

What I find really interesting about this ad is the combination of different gendered things. First, there’s the selection of a male action hero to advertise trucks, which are seen to be masculine vehicles. I guess that’s because: it’s mostly men who drive them, there’s a myth that men are better drivers than women, and in any case these particular trucks are huge, bulky and strong—again, not characteristics associated with femininity in the popular imagination. Sitting atop these trucks, Van Damme is the human embodiment of what the trucks represent: strong, competent and trustworthy.

And then he does the splits. That’s hardly a traditionally masculine move. It’s associated with very flexible female dancers and, of course, feminine men, especially ballet dancers and the like. I’ve no doubt that the ad makers would not have featured Van Damme in a tutu doing the splits elegantly—unless it was a parody. But because he’s otherwise very manly (standing on trucks! muscly! wearing denim!) they can confound the stereotype that the splits is a feminine move in order to surprise the audience. On top of that, he’s doing it by straddling two reversing trucks, which is bloody brave.

Like the Pot Noodle ad, part of the appeal of the Volvo truck ad is that it relies on the surprise of a man doing something most people don’t expect of men. While it’s great that we can portray men doing these things, the fact that they still surprise us show that there’s still some way to go in male representation and how men are expected to behave.

The Volvo ad director is also cocky enough and comfortable that he’s squeezing out enough masculinity from Jean Claude that he even chose Enya for the soundtrack. Ingenius.

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