Travelling around the city the other day, I couldn’t help but notice a billboard in Highgate Hill (it was about 10 metres wide after all). It was an ad for the Queensland Reds rugby union team, and next to a photo of three of their players was the slogan “HOW WE CONFRONT OUR RESPONSIBILITY IS WHAT DEFINES US”.
Surely I’m not the only person who finds that slogan a bit strange. I’m still not sure exactly what it means, but I think what this ad is trying to do is to play on some of our culturally ingrained notions of manhood in it’s talk of “responsibility”. The image of men as providers and defenders – of their families, their communities, their nation. Of hardworking, resilient pillars of strength. Most males probably in some way see this as part of their role as men, and the idea of “confronting our responsibility” resonates with us on some deep level.
Of course, there are things worth questioning in these traits that are supposedly inherent to those of us born with a penis. Like; if the roles of provider and defender are masculine traits, where does that leave women? Are they just the ones who need to be provided for and defended? What are they meant to do when men don’t always provide and are sometimes the ones who they need defending against? And how far does manly “responsibility” extend? Do we have a responsibility to respect women (or men who don’t meet our expectations of masculinity) as equals? Do we have a responsibility to be emotionally available to those close to us? To spend time with our kids? To do an equal share of the housework?
But like all ads, this one is not so much about who we are or what we have; instead it aims for the negative space in our identity – who we wish we were, what we wish we had.
And this ad seeks to exploit the fact that most of us probably don’t feel like we do many heroic deeds or lead a life full of the actions and virtues we associate with being a man.
Now I’ve got nothing against football (though rugby union has never been my preferred code), but it’s pretty ridiculous to think that all this talk of “confronting our responsibility” could be satisfied by watching football. I mean, this ad isn’t even suggesting that we play sport ourselves and satisfy our manly urges that way. No, the “responsibility” it speaks of is that we should pay money to watch other men play football.
I would suggest that our response to this ad should be to ask ourselves this: If our lives are lacking these virtues and activities that we consider to be manly, is that void something that we need to fill? And if so, how can we do it in a way that will ultimately be more real than just watching footy?
A bit further up the road, there is another billboard. This one is for beer brand XXXX. It is an electronic one that cycles through different images, so we get a couple of XXXX ads. One is a picture of four men sitting by the water in deckchairs, the slogan is “Working Late.” The other is a picture of a four wheel drive splashing through a puddle of water. Its caption says “The Daily Commute.”
These ads are selling a different kind of manhood – the opposite in fact. While one ad tries to sell its product by convincing us that it is fulfilling our “responsibility”, these ads are all about dodging responsibility – buy this brand of beer and you can become a free man, no longer shackled by the duties of family and work; free to spend time with your mates and have adventures conquering the wilderness in your 4WD.
Again, we should be wary of these notions of masculinity and whether they actually represent virtues (or traits particular to those born men). But again we should also ask the classic question of advertising – what are the gaps in our lives that this ad is offering to fulfill?
In this case it is that we want the adventure, the freedom and the camaraderie that are so often lacking in our stifled world of concrete cities and 9-5 jobs.
But can XXXX truly offer us this? Or does it merely give us the illusion of these things as we while away the hours sitting on the couch drinking? I think that alcohol and other types of intoxication actually stop us from pursuing truly fulfilling lives of adventure and meaning. Because it gives us the counterfeit happiness of momentary intoxication that can keep us doing things we hate long after we otherwise would have stopped; and because if our sense of escape and happiness comes from a product we buy, that actually will keep us chained to the 9 to 5 (and its much less glamourous daily commute) to pay for the booze that we need to tolerate it.
So again, we should ask ourselves: Are the desires this ad is trying to stoke up things we actually should be trying to live out? And if so, how can we do that in a way that will actually last?
At the end of the day, while both these ads purport to be selling us some masculine virtues, neither of them have any actual interest in our manliness. Both of them exist solely to sell the products they promote. The issue of how we express our gender identity; of how we live lives of meaning, freedom, adventure and responsibility; is up to us to work out. No product is going to do it for us.