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  • Pumping Irony: The Construction of Masculinity in a Post-feminist Advertising Campaign
  • Tyson Smith (bio)

In the following paper I argue that in a post-feminist era, advertisers strategically employ irony to target a young male demographic. As a case study, I analyze an extensive print advertising campaign from Jim Beam Bourbon that ran from 1999 to 2003. The campaign provides an updated gender script for young heterosexual males. With an ironic wink, the campaign reinforces traditional notions of masculinity while providing a contemporary image of “ordinary guys.” I contend that this style of ironic humor is likely to be increasingly employed by advertisers targeting a young male demographic in a post-feminist era.

Advertising pervades Western culture, and gender representations are one of advertisers’ favorite means used to sell products (Barthel 1988, 1990; Goffman 1976). Agencies regularly design campaigns that exploit gender identity in an attempt to catch consumers’ attention, entice us with an image, and most importantly, sell us a product. While selling a product is the advertiser’s ultimate goal, the images in an ad can also serve to reinforce gender norms and bolster the pervasive gender culture. One ad campaign that succeeds at all three of these—selling a product, reinforcing gender norms, and shoring up masculine identity—is the recent Jim Beam Real Friends, Real Bourbon advertising campaign.1

Until the 1950s, women were the primary target audience for advertisements of leisure consumption items. Commodity consumption was viewed (and constructed) as more feminine and, therefore, less masculine. Ads targeting men were typically direct and straightforward in their endorsement of the product. Ads were not symbol-laden; products intended for men usually included an image and description of the product’s function, price, and location to be purchased. However, in the second half of the 20th century this trend began to change as the industry increasingly courted younger consumers and males in particular (Osgersby 2001).

The feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s developed a critical analysis of the construction of femininity in both advertising and the media. Feminism effectively challenged the prevailing roles and depictions of women in both arenas. Because of this consciousness-raising, consumers were better equipped to see and understand femininity as a social construction that was not necessarily based on any inherent notion of womanhood. The shift in the prevailing norms of femininity that took place in the 70s and 80s was not, however, accompanied by a widespread critical evaluation of the construction of masculinity. These social critiques came later in the 1990s (Connell 1995; Kimmel 1995). By the late 1990s and up to today, the challenge facing advertisers became how to target men in the era following the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s—an era in which female and male consumers alike have become more suspicious of gender roles as constructs.

Since advertisements are paid-for messages that attempt to transfer symbols onto commodities to increase the likelihood that the commodities will be found appealing and thus purchased, increasingly sophisticated viewers are skeptical. As Fowles states, because of the transparency of advertisers’ motives, advertising itself may be consumed warily (Fowles 1996). In many of today’s ads, there is a subtle wink to the viewer that suggests, “Yes, we know you are sharp and not going to be subject to advertisements like the rest of the public.” Advertisements work best precisely when we do not think they work on us (Kilbourne 1999). There is an ironic nod to the viewer that suggests that, “We advertisers know that you, as a viewer, are not going to simply follow the ad’s instructions and go out and purchase the product.” And as Frank states, “regardless of whatever else the newest ‘generation’ is believed to portend, it is roughly synonymous with that human faculty known as ‘skepticism’; it is always described as hostile to mass culture, as a foreign, alien group not as easily convinced as others have been, as a standing challenge to marketers who believein repetition and continuity” (Frank 1997: 235).

Thus, the primary question in this paper is: How do advertisers sell masculinity to today’s young men, when more and more men are suspicious of...