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August 25, 2004

Six Packs

Dear Vanessa --

Does this ad take you as aback as it does me?

If I read this ad right, it's directed at women, who are presumed to be thinking about gifts they might give to their fellas, who in turn are being conceived of as wanting to possess -- more than just about anything else in the world, apparently -- a six-pack set of abs. Men's Fitness is selling itself as the key to those abs.

Where "the guy" in this equation is concerned, the people behind this ad are assuming (or at least trying to get us to assume) that he really, really wants a fab-looking tummy. This is a guy who's more concerned about the appearance of his naked tummy than he is about getting a new football, or a car, or a remote-control videogame gizmo. Having a six-pack really, really means something to him. Which would seem to mean that he's someone who spends a lot of time dwelling on media images of guy desirability, and looking in the mirror, evaluating his own guy desirability, if not maybe getting turned on a bit by it himself.

How about where "the girl" in the equation is concerned? As far as I can tell, she's presumed to be 1) accepting of this ... well, shall we call it "narcisissm" on her guy's part, and 2) willing to cater to it, and perhaps even 3) likely to find it pretty sexy herself.

Am I 'way off here? Assuming I'm not, I'm a little taken aback. Younger dudes may not realize how startling we geezers find these kinds of advertising pitches. Back in the day, gramps here would have found such an ad a 100% guarantee that the people involved -- both as creators and audience -- were gay. The ad's main image is a sexily-photographed male ab, with classical-statuary overtones -- wink wink and nudge nudge.

It wasn't often that a Real Guy looking at a photograph was asked to imagine himself as the glamorous person in the photograph. Imagining yourself as the glamorous person -- especially the naked and glamorous person -- in an ad or photo layout was thought to be a female thing; think of women flipping through fashion mags, fantasizing about having fun and being found desirable. They're imagining themselves as the gals in the pix.

Or, of course, it was thought to be a gay-male thing. Projecting yourself into a picture for the sake of enjoying the fantasy of yourself as physically desirable smacked of spending too damn much time looking at yourself in the mirror, something gay or Euro men might be allowed to do but that was no part of a real-American-guy's no-nonsense behavior. Red-blooded American Guys might imagine themselves to be the hubby in an ad, sitting on the lawn tractor; they might idolize heroic physical guys, and might make some efforts to keep from getting too flabby or disgusting themselves. But dwelling in any way on the hunky, beautiful, Greek-statue ideal type was always viewed with suspicion. To be honest, the first thing I thought when I saw this ad -- hunky abs; tagline of "Give him what he wants" -- was, "So, what he wants is an hour with a studly male hooker?"

Hey, isn't part of what American men can find comical about Euro men the way they compete with females on what we think of as female terms? I was reminded of this again during our recent visit to the French-Caribbean island of St. Barth's. The French gals, the Wife and I both found, were charming; the French guys, however hunky, looked kind of ludicrous. When we tried to figure out why, the best answer seemed to be that they go so far out of their way to project rakish desirability that they seem to be competing with women on women's own terms. They're always presenting themselves as though to a camera; they're always doing their best to be picturesque.

It's remarkable too that the gal in the above ad-equation is presumed to be willing to cater to male narcissism. Once upon a time, an "understanding" girlfriend might have given her guy a subscription to Playboy; she was catering to male lust. These days, she's apparently expected to cater to her fella's self-entrancement. Note the difference in the relationship to the image: the oldtime guy didn't dreamily look at the photos and desire to be desirable himself. He looked at the Playboy photos and wanted to have sex with the girls in them. Guys didn't used to spend a lot of time imagining themselves to be hunky objects of a camera lens' lust.

I don't find it a surprise that this change (from outward-directed lust to dreamy self-entrancement) has occurred as cameras and videocams have become much more common; as media technology has gone digital; as feminism has undercut traditional notions of manliness; and as the ad and fashion industries have made deliberate assaults on the young-dude market. The media life, and the shared American consciousness, have simply gotten a lot more narcissistic than they used to be.

Young people these days seem to inhabit a hall filled with both mirrors and video screens; the Men's Fitness ad above seems like sufficient proof of this to me, anyway. The ad and fashion industries especially have done their best in the last couple of decades to turn the male body (and the male mind) into the same kind of commercially-disputed terrain that the female body and mind have long been; they have done their best to make men aware of themselves as physically lacking, and to then sell product-solutions to this quandary. Really: this has been quite deliberate, and quite openly discussed as good business policy. In a blog posting here, I noted that part of what it represents is a gay-male industry's attempt to sell gay-male values to straight men. Hats off to these industries for their success, I guess. But, still: what does it mean?

It would seem -- to Gramps here, anyway -- that the new weightless, surrounded-by-toys-and-screens, digital universe that we now inhabit, this new world that can deliver such a plethora of whoosh-y sensations of being set free, is also ... well, somewhat unmanning. Yet what are we being set from from? And is this a liberation that's to be desired?

BTW, I'm just taking note of this, not arguing that it's good or bad. And I'm all too painfully aware that the popular culture passed me by long ago; when you get older, about the only thing you have to contribute to the conversation is some perspective on what's being discussed. I'm agnostic myself about whether this is a good or a bad development -- but I do find it a remarkable development. So please, no squawking or lectures about gay rights or oppressive out-of-date Boomers. Living in Greenwich Village and working in the arty media, I've inhabited a largely-gay universe for longer than most gay men have. I'm just noticing something, scratching my head over it, and wondering how other people react to it, that's all.

But what do you make of this ad?



posted by Michael at August 25, 2004


Interesting analysis, but it sounds a little too complicated.

It seems to me that the ad is just trying to catch a woman's eye with a sexually desirable male, then suggest that if she buys the magazine for the male in her life, that male will get a similar six-pack (which she can presumably enjoy).

It's an interesting twist, though. How long will it be before Playboy starts advertizing diet pills for the readers' girlfriends and wives?

Posted by: Nate on August 25, 2004 2:24 PM

I think it's inspiring.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 25, 2004 4:42 PM

I dunno -- I can feel my self-esteem evaporating.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 25, 2004 4:47 PM

They're hoping most people won't think it through that much. The ad guys probably didn't even think it through that much.

Posted by: Lynn S on August 25, 2004 5:01 PM

My reaction was exactly the same as Michael's -- So he wants a gay male with a six pack?
No surprise so far that I haven't been accused of being too attuned with the cultural zeitgeist of my generation... I don't think that's going to sell many subscriptions, at least.

Posted by: . on August 25, 2004 5:31 PM

The ad seems to me to not be about ďachievingĒ six-packs (letís face it, if we donít have them already, and weíre over nineteen, chances are we ainít gonna get Ďem), but rather a means by which the typical flab-ab guy (99% of us) can signal his good intentions by mere possession of the magazine.

Itís much like the guy who prominently displays a chess set in his living room, but never plays (maybe doesnít even know how to play).

Since the ad is aimed at girlfriends and wives, the ad seems to be saying, ďHoney, I know youíre never going to look like this, but Iím subscribing to the magazine on your behalf anyway, because I know the state of your stomach is something you occasionally think about, and Iím trying to be supportive. But donít seriously try to achieve these six-packs because youíll probably injure your lower back. Just enjoy the dream, flip through the pretty pictures, but briefly, as brief as the time you spend sucking in your gut in front of a mirror.Ē

Posted by: Ralph Robert (Rob) Moore on August 25, 2004 5:55 PM

"Back in the day, gramps here would have found such an ad a 100% guarantee that the people involved - both as creators and audience -- were gay."

Back in the day? Call me gramps 'cause that was my reaction -- today. And I'll bet they still are -- gay.

Posted by: ricpic on August 25, 2004 5:58 PM

Three other demographic groups, besides gays, contributed to the contemporary muscle man look: the first is the trailer park demographic. I recall reading, back in the mid-1970s when I was a 6'-4", 160 pound high school student that a poll showed that women preferred slender men, except for working class women who still liked the traditional muscle man. Thank God for that, I said, although it didn't seem to be doing me any good. Since then, the professional wrestler look has spread upward through society.

The second contributor were blacks, among whom male display has always been more valued, and who tend, when in good shape, to be more ripped than white men.

Finally, athletes are a lot more cut than they used to be -- especially sprinters, who used to be skinny guys like in Chariots of Fire, but ever since Ben Johnson showed in 1987-88 that massive upper body musculature helps for a fast start, have looked like bodybuidlers.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on August 25, 2004 6:17 PM

The photo's fine. The idea is fine. The only thing I see wrong with the ad is the wording. Something more appropriate(and honest)would be: "Give him what you want him to want."

Posted by: susan on August 25, 2004 6:39 PM

I don't know if I agree with this analysis or not.

I do find that I cannot parse the ad at all. It doesn't point a man (or his woman) towards a strong man who can do something with his strength. No Olympic athlete crossing the finish-line, or cavorting atop a set of parallel-bars. Just a man showing off an idealized set of abdominal muscles.

You may be right--this appears to lean towards a narcissistic attitude, among men.

Posted by: steve h on August 25, 2004 8:13 PM

Is is really all that different from other ads selling things like toothpaste because using that particular brand will increase your sex appeal. Car ads with sexy girls in them? It seems the audience may be different but the use of sex to sell a product is as old as the hills.

Posted by: Deb on August 25, 2004 9:10 PM

One last point, core strength is an essential element in every sport and in general health (i.e. avoiding back aches.)

Posted by: David Sucher on August 25, 2004 9:52 PM

Looks to me like the owners of the mag think they might be able to get more sales if they place advertising for women as well as for men.

Given that it's a mag about men's fitness, they have a picture of a fit man on the front. If they were a DIY store, they'd have a picture of a toolbox on the front.

I think the publisher of Men's Fitness would like to think that the modern male wants to possess, more than anything else in the world, a six-pack of abs. And if it was true it would do wonders for sales. But I don't know how much this tells us about the wider culture. Every seller would like their product to be the most in demand, but obviously only one of them can be. Don't mix up advertising, design to sell one product, with what's really going on in culture.

Posted by: Tracy on August 26, 2004 3:24 AM

Fun to get other reactions and reflections, tks. Ads are a hoot, aren't they? Do they tell us more about ourselves, or more about the ad industry? Of course, these days, "us" and "advertising" seem to to be merging in previously unseen ways ... Which strikes me as another consequence (or partner, or corollary, or something) of the digital age. Kids don't seem to speak English any longer; they speak ad-speak. Ad values (impact, breaking into your attention, hookiness, pumped-up/turned-on verbal and visual rhetoric, etc) seem to have overwhelmed traditional content and form in many magazines and movies, etc. We are our own packaging; we're all now the v-j style hosts of our own reality shows ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 26, 2004 10:44 AM

And now, back to my Pilates class to go to work on my core muscles...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 26, 2004 10:44 AM

Dude, women think abs are sexy. At least where I live (LA), a guy with nice abs get a lot more play, or can attract a higher "number", than some flabby dude. Abs signal fitness, which is universally held to be a good thing - men want to be fit, and women want their men to be fit.

I don't think it's a whole lot more complicated than that. But I am fascinated by this post and the discussion (I'm sort of obsessed with ads...I'm the type that never reads the stories in magazines but only looks at ads.)

Posted by: Paul N on August 26, 2004 1:17 PM

Sorry if I'm off-base here, but doesn't one or more of the "men's fitness" magazines audience skew almost entirely gay? Since it might be the audience of this particular magazine, this ad might not be aimed at women at all...

Does anybody know the facts about the circulation demographics of these mags?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 26, 2004 2:51 PM

I don't know Friedrich about "gay" but we readers of "Mens' Fitness" sure are happy.

Posted by: David Sucher on August 26, 2004 3:39 PM

David: Perhaps you should be described as "festive"?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 27, 2004 1:39 PM

No, seriously, Friedrich, I don't think that "Men's Fitness" in particular is gay. I read it every now and then -- 2-3 times a year, though now that I am thinking about it, I might just subscribe as a continuing inspiration-- and I don't think that it has a "gay sensibility" -- whatever that is -- though I could be wrong; I'd say it has a 19-year old's sensibility. "Boy am I cool and I want to make sure you know it."

Posted by: David Sucher on August 28, 2004 10:17 AM

The metrosexual phenomenon comes to mind, nowadays men are taking better care of themselves and giving more importance to looks. Which is just fine with me. About time too, women have been feeling the pressure to be beautiful and hot since forever, now it's you guys' turn.

Posted by: Stef on September 18, 2004 7:46 PM

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