A few weeks ago, razor subscription service Harry’s released A Man Like You, a short film about a boy tasked with explaining manhood to an alien. It’s a lovely piece of work, and the overall reception has been mostly positive. (A relief, I’m sure, to everyone involved, since advertisers don’t exactly have a great track record of political sensitivity.)
But masculinity has a long, troubled history in advertising. It’s almost impossible to look at certain campaigns from the 1950s without feeling your skin crawl (although that makes many of them ripe for parody). How, you wonder, was it possible for an entire generation of Americans to look at these ads and think, “Gee, I do need that new vacuum cleaner”?
While the sensitivity shown in A Man Like You might seem like a distant cry from ads of the 1950s, in truth I suspect they have a lot more in common than we’d like to admit. While the execution and result are entirely different, they both emerged from the same question: What does it mean to be a man?
Most of us are aware of the ongoing conversations around subjects like gender roles and toxic masculinity. With that context, a piece of marketing like Harry’s makes perfect sense—we understand why it’s relevant, how it fits into the conversation, and what it’s trying to do.
The conversation in the 1950s was very different. Masculinity was in something of a crisis. Throughout the war years, the male hero of the movies had shifted toward older, world-weary actors thanks to a shortage of young men. Many of the traits we associate now with the toxic male—emotionally closed off, numbed with alcohol, unpredictably angry or violent—come directly from the tropes of film noir anti-heroes. Were these men meant to be role models? Probably not. But then neither are Tony Soprano or Walter White.
This wasn’t the only cultural shift at home. Men returning from war quickly discovered that women were more than capable of filling the roles they’d vacated. There has always been a certain dark strain of advertising that appeals to people’s insecurities, and the 1950s were no different. In the real world, the necessities of war had allowed, for a moment, a sudden fluidity of gender roles. After the war, the response in advertising was to treat them as rigid and unyielding as ever. The culture soon seemed to follow suit.
Is that an oversimplification? Probably. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that advertising controls and manipulates the culture with unquestioned authority. Not in the 1950s, and certainly not now, when we’re more than happy to let advertisers know when they’ve really, unforgivably screwed up. But advertising is a good barometer of the conversations we’re having, and where the culture is going.
So what does the Harry’s film tell us? Not that we’ve actually solved anything, or that we’ve eliminated toxic gender roles, or that there will be no more gross advertising (there will always be gross advertising). But it does tell us maybe we’re having the right conversations, and that seems like it might be a start.