Tuesday 25 July 2017

Ad industry's Mad Men days still fail screen test

Jon Hamm in HBO's Mad Men
Jon Hamm in HBO's Mad Men

John McGee

Misogynistic, beer-guzzling, bum-tapping, boob-grabbing, testosterone-charged and patronising men who were possibly capable of all kinds of other douchebaggery.

No, I'm not talking about a Trump rally in Cheyenne, Wyoming but rather the Irish advertising industry in all its glory.

And, of course, I'm referring to the industry in the 1960s and 1970s. None of those shenanigans would be tolerated nowadays, would they?

These are the very sentiments and words that sprung to mind after a couple of hours spent watching a new online archive of Irish TV advertising from the 1960s, 70s and 80s which has just been launched by the Irish Film Institute, with the help of a grant from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

After much painstaking work, the IFI has catalogued, digitised, restored and preserved over 8,000 rolls of 35mm film TV ads that were made in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

The collection offers a fascinating insight into the evolution of Irish advertising industry and, by default, society and consumer culture from the 60s onwards. As we know, consumers are products of their culture and their attitudes and ideas are all shaped by the environment around them, including advertising.

Anyone who has seen the HBO series Mad Men will, perhaps, have had a glimpse into what the advertising industry was like in the 1960s and 1970s. Heavy-smoking, womanising and beery braggadocio was just as much par for the course in the leafy surroundings of Dublin 4 and 2 as it was on Madison Avenue.

While Don Draper had the likes of the Roosevelt Hotel, PJ Clarke's and Sardis, agency folk in Dublin had the Leeson Lounge and O'Brien's.

Not surprisingly, drink had a big role to play in what was a male-dominated advertising industry and the creative output often pandered to an alpha-male stereotype who was master of his domain. The women, meanwhile, were confined to cooking, cleaning and looking pretty.

In many of the ads, particularly from the 60s and early 70s, the alpha male had a docile female companion in tow who became all doe-eyed as he opened his gob to down his manly pint of Phoenix, Bass or Macardles.

Advertisers often told these women that they needed to be slim and trim for their menfolk. And if they didn't know how to achieve this physiological nirvana, help was at hand.

Who knew, for example, that cheese was good for slimming? The makers of Calvita cheese, for example, asked the seemingly pointless question that was obviously on the lips of every woman in Ireland at the time: "What are all the slim girls eating?" Yes, it was Calvita apparently. "Calvita girls know what's good for them," the voice-over artist reassured the non-believers and lovers of cheddar.

But if Calvita wasn't enough to make them slim, there was always Schweppes which would give them "the slimline look". And yes, the ads treated viewers to scenes of men ogling and drooling over their slim and trim wives and girlfriends as they breezed gamely by with their new-found confidence and waistlines.

And if that highly potent fat-busting combination of Schweppes and Calvita didn't work for these subservient slackers, there was a last resort in Slim Limb tights that would give the wearer slim legs and she wouldn't be embarrassed as she danced happily across the floor with her betrothed.

When women weren't being slim and submissive in the local pub, while their menfolk knocked backed the pints, they could be found at home, sometimes looking confused, as they toyed with new-fangled gadgets like Calor Kosangas cookers (the company that later gave us Housewife of the Year) or with their newly acquired Ronson Escort hairdryers.

But they were also brilliant home-makers and consummate cleaners as they went about sprucing up the house before their useless bread-winning husbands rocked home, possibly comatose from the 10 pints of Phoenix they had quaffed earlier. And they made a great cup of PJ Tips or Musgraves tea to go along with the cakes they had baked the day before.

Of course, lots has changed in the advertising industry since then. Phoenix beer and Slim Limbs have gone the way of the dodo and the Ronson Escort never really took off.

And while the marketing of alcohol is now regulated to within an inch of its life, we still have Calvita and Schweppes.

When it comes to how the advertising industry portrays women and the stereotypical roles they have always been shoe-horned into, however, I'd like to think that we have moved on quite a bit over the last 50 years - but unfortunately, we're not quite there yet. As long as lazy stereotypes are given the oxygen to breathe by lazy creative departments and complicit clients, we may as well be back in the 1960s.

In the meantime, if you want a transport yourself back in time for a laugh or a facepalming session, the online archive (www.ifi.ie) is well worth a visit.

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