Unborn in 1963, the year he nearly defeated Cassius Clay (the Brits love near-winners much more than winners), I remember him for the curious Brut TV commercials he did in the 1970s that helped usher in the world of male product aisles in supermarkets and spornographic advertising we know today.
‘Enery’s ‘omely features and working class man’s man status, along with the ironic play on Brut/brute, guaranteed that there was nothing poofy about men using cologne as more than just an aftershave — ‘splash it on all ovah!’ Which was an important statement for one of the first mass market male colognes to make at a time when such vanites were generally still frowned upon in the rather pongy UK. In the Dick Emery, Are You Being Served? 1970s it was inconceivable that ‘enery could be ‘omo.
But the ‘omosocial reassurance that something isn’t ‘omo can look a lot like ‘omosexuality sometimes.
Here’s one of the happily married Henry having a sweaty workout, shower and towel-flicking sesh with footballer Kevin Keegan. Which is manly man’s man stuff, but with a surprisingly pronounced (intergenerational) homoerotic sub-text. The fact I still vividly remember it from my youth suggests that the sub-text was there all along, and not just something the filthy-minded 21st Century has projected on the past.
It even seems like they’re about to kiss at one point. But then, in the 1970s footballers did this to one another after scoring. Because again, it was inconceivable that they could be ‘omo.
Thirty years on, it’s hardly a surprise that Brut is no longer trailblazing. Brut, which was never exactly a ‘refined’ fragrance, is marketed in the US today as a slightly ironic retrosexual throwback.
Though maybe I’m mistaken. Perhaps the retrosexual at the end of the ad below is really a butch lesbian.
Why, I wonder, are gays – or at least the busybody, button-holing, milk-monitor types – so keen on ads being nice to them and telling the world it’s OK to be homo? Especially when this strategy frequently leaves them with mayo on their faces?
Stonewall’s apoplexy over the pulling of the Heinz ‘gay kiss’ ad earlier this year is a messy case-in-point. Excuse me, but it wasn’t a gay kiss, it was a joke: Heinz’s sandwich spread is so good, it turns mum into an ugly New York deli short-order chef whom dad pecks on the cheek before leaving in the morning. They’re not a gay couple. The fact it wasn’t a very good joke doesn’t make the sulky gay boycott of Heinz for pulling the ad look any less humourless than the literalist Christians and ‘family-values’ freaks who complained about it in the first place.
Likewise, whatever Snickers were saying in that TV ad featuring Mr T barking, “Get some nuts!” while firing candybars at a swishy speed-walker, the much swishier response of gay groups on both sides of the Atlantic who succeeded in getting it banned sent out the entirely unambiguous message that gays don’t have any.
More to the point, who besides Stonewall and pensioners, actually watches TV ads these days? Isn’t that what the fast-forward button was invented for? Gay people, and for that matter most straights, are too busy uploading their ‘home movies’ onto their on-line profile to watch TV in real time.
‘Impressionable’ kids that the gay busybodies want to protect certainly aren’t watching: they don’t see the point of TV that doesn’t turn the world into a lake of fire at the touch of an Xbox controller.
I’ll bet ready money most people only heard about these ads after the gay milk monitors started huffing, “How very dare you!” – and driving even more traffic to YouTube. It was the only place I actually saw either ad.
Gay protests about ‘homophobic’ ads today sometimes seem to exist in a virtual world, defending virtual people from virtual slights where the only thing that’s real is pointlessness. I’m old enough to remember when people did watch ads. It was a time when they were, as everyone used to say repeatedly, “the best thing on telly,” when, instead of diving for the mute button, people would turn the sound up.
And it was a time when ads were doing their damndest to turn everyone gay. It was called the 1980s.
In the 1980s, advertising was gay porn – and the only gay porn generally available. Which is why it was so powerful. Now, thanks to the net, porn is porn – or rather, porn is advertising: I want those pubes/ that body/ that cock/ that orifice/ that surgery/ that lampshade.
The legendary UK Levi’s male striptease ads of the mid-1980s (inspired by the success of the 1983 Calvin Klein underwear poster campaign featuring a giant Tom Hintnaus stripped down to his Y fronts in Times Square) in which humpy young men took their clothes off in our living rooms – and introduced the existence of the worked-out, attention-hungry, proudly passive male body to an equally astonished and enraptured British public – not only brainwashed an entire generation of straight boys into joining the gym and then going to gay discos and starting boybands to show off the results.
It also succeeded in making even straight women gay. After all, in place of cooing about “twinkly eyes,” it taught women to look at the male body with the same critical, impossibly demanding, carnivorous eye that gay men had used for years. (And in fact, so much have all our expectations been inflated that Nick Kamen’s ‘fabulously hunky’ body as it was described back then by the tabs, today probably wouldn’t get past the audition stage – he’d be told to go back to the gym and inject some horse steroids.)
Levi's commercial – Laundrette
Pre-1980s there wasn’t much gay lust in ads or, for that matter, Britain. I remember as a kid spending most of the 1970s watching an Old Spice Aftershave ‘Mark of a Man’ commercial, which featured a surfer riding a vast, spuming wave in very long-shot, to the climactic strains of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The number of times I waited for that ad to come on as a kid, hoping, praying that this time the camera would move in closer.
In the 1980s, my prayers were answered and the lens moved in, big time. Since then, it’s never moved back. It has zoomed ever closer, until now we’re looking at the mitochondria on the walls of men’s small intestines.
Maybe I’m an incurable romantic/masochist, but I sometimes find myself missing the aching, blurry, long-shot tease of 1970s’ Old Spice masculinity. Because it never quite delivers, it never disappoints.
Old Spice after shave man on a surfboard
You might think my take on how 1980s advertising queered up Britain and made it safe for metrosexuality fanciful, but there were lots of people who objected to the Levi’s commercials back then because they saw them as promoting sodomitic immorality. If those nay-gay-sayers had succeeded in having the ads pulled – in the way that gay groups succeed today with ads they deem to be immoral – who knows what kind of pec-less, ab-less world we might be living in?
In the post-advertising, post-gay porn world we’re living in, there’s an American website called Commercial Closet devoted to how ads treat homosexuals, which you can visit if you want to get worked up over ads you haven’t seen – most of them foreign. It has a gay grading system for each ad that, using a complicated very American formula, scores them from 0 to 100. Anything under 49 is deemed ‘Negative’, between 49-69 is ‘Caution’; 69-89 ‘Equal’; and 89-100 ‘Elton John’ (OK, I made that last bit up).
One of the more interesting contributions is a series of ads for the trainers ASICS, which ran in France this year. In them, two male French comedians, Omar & Fred, one black, one white, ‘go gay’, making passes at one another. Sans ASICS, they’re rebuffed indignantly by the other party. Avec, they go gaga for them. There’s nothing especially offensive about the ads. They resort to fewer stereotypes than gay-adored Little Britain and, more importantly, are (mildly) funny and seem to be entirely accurate in what they’re saying about the effect that consumerism in general – and advertising in particular – have had on men.
How does it score according to Commercial Closet’s gay-friendly grading system? ‘40: Negative’.
Old Spice are running an eye-wateringly spornographic wrestling TV ad for their Red Zone Hydrowash in the US. It features two buffed, cut, metro-wrestlers with really great hair and skin grappling on the mat. The ‘bottom’, held in a neck lock, comments, between fighting for air, on the ‘top’s ‘soft skin’ and how it’s ‘supple’. ‘So?’ replies the top, slightly baffled but carrying on choking.
‘It’s… nice’ the lad eventually manages to sputter, before the ref blows the whistle. ‘THERE’S NO SHAME IN SOFT SKIN,’ announces a reassuringly butch coach-like, ironic but perhaps not so ironic, voiceover.
I’m not sure what ‘Hydrowash’ is, but after seeing this ad I don’t know how I’ve lived without it. I suspect those 300 Spartans probably use it too.
I don’t think these guys eat Snickers. This ad is as funny and smart and young as that Superbowl Snickers ad wasn’t. What’s more, it has big (shaved) balls where that Snickers ad just had nelly OMIGOD!! NOWAY!! SOOOGROSS!! THEIR LIPS, LIKE, TOTALLY TOUCHED!!! man-panic.
A clever and effective way to re-brand a company still associated with the smooth operator breeder naffness of the 1970s.
The end-line for this knowlingly, wittily spornographic ad is ‘Keep it clean’.
Thanks to Glenn for bringing this to my rapt attention