MARKETING “GENIUSES” OFTEN TAKE THE LOW ROAD WHEN PORTRAYING THOSE SUFFERING FROM HAIR LOSS CONDITIONS.
Although bald heads are a bit more prominent in advertising than they were 30 or so years ago (see “Would You Buy a Cleaner from a Bald Man?”), that doesn’t mean that bald characters in commercials are necessarily treated with respect.
Take, for example, a particular ad for Freestyle Music Park, an amusement park in South Carolina. The spot opens with an attractive female reporter talking to a family (father, mother, teenage son, teenage daughter) outside a new roller coaster attraction. In the brief glimpse we get of the family before they go on the ride, we notice that the son, daughter and mother seem perfectly normal. The father, however, stands out as being a bit on the goofy side. In that stereotypical, TV sitcom way, the father’s gestures and head bobbing indicate that he is one of those unaware men who are hopelessly square but think they are cool.
Of course, the father is wearing what is very obviously a toupee. Within the first five seconds, one knows how the commercial will end: After the ride the reporter will ask the family what they thought. The mother and kids will jump up and down with excitement. The father, on the other hand, will look sick and pass out — but not before the viewer sees that his ridiculous toupee has rearranged itself into a new shape that accentuates his baldness, as well as reaffirming that he is hopelessly square.
Cheap digs at those with hair loss
To suggest that this commercial is offensive to bald men is not being oversensitive. Aside from providing a cheap dig at those with hair loss, there’s no reason that the father has to be bald. The same gag effect could have been achieved by having the character’s own, natural hair sticking straight up at an outrageous angle. (Even better, the entire family could have been affected in this way, rather than making one lone member the easy butt of the joke.) “Humor is not pretty,” as Steve Martin once observed, and much of it is based on cruelty; but the slap at toupee wearers in this ad seems gratuitous.
Then there’s Bud Light’s “Mr. Toupee” ad. It is part of Budweiser’s long-running series of “Real Men of Genius” spots, which poke fun at supposed “unsung heroes” (such as guys who wear way too much cologne or guys who pick their noses while driving). The text for the popular campaign’s attack on “Mr. Toupee” (or “Mr. Stud in a Rug,” as he is also called) is as follows:
More than any neon sign or exploding scoreboard ever could, your chrome dome cover says, “Hey, guys, look at me!” You think it looks natural, but it couldn’t look phonier if it had a chin strap. Made of space-age fibers, it can repel anything — rain, wind, snow and especially young women. So crack open a nice cold Budweiser, Mr. Stud in a Rug. Then crack open another for that thing on your head.
This is accompanied, of course, by shots of self-satisfied men in horrible (and outdated) toupees that clearly indicate they are hopelessly deluded about their physical appeal.
The “Real Men of Genius” ads are satirical, and they hit so many targets that it can’t be said they are focusing solely on bald men. Yet even taking this into consideration, this ad paints a picture of men with hair loss issues as delusional, ridiculous and repellent.
Ads appealing to those with a kindergarten playground mentality
There are plenty of other examples of anti-bald attitudes in commercials. A popular Snickers commercial features a bald man who pastes Snickers candy bars all over his head, rather than admit he is bald. A Federal Express commercial takes another bald man, plants another ludicrous “rug” on him and has him claim he is the exception to the rule that men in his family go bald.
Hamlet cigars opts to make fun of comb-overs rather than toupees in one of its ads. A man with the most patently unbelievable comb-over one can imagine steps into a photo booth and proceeds to try to get his picture taken, ending up with only a shot of the top of his bare head.
The list doesn’t end here. There’s a pest-control commercial that features an inept pick-up artist in a bar, sporting another entirely unnatural-looking toupee; a debt-counseling commercial featuring a rude car dealer who is punished by having his toupee ripped off; a housecleaning commercial featuring a dour, immobile man whose wife has to remove his toupee so that his bare head can be cleaned; and many more.
What’s disturbing about the kind of commercials discussed above isn’t that they present baldness in a bad light. It’s that they are perpetrating the worst kind of stereotypes merely to sell a product. It’s entirely possible to use hair loss in a way that is both amusing and effective while still not engaging in the kind of mindset that most people leave behind on the kindergarten playground. Instead, what we have are advertisers treating baldness in a stereotypical manner that has long been unacceptable in other areas, such as ethnicity or race.
The good news is there are some commercials that are pro-bald, and many that feature bald characters in a nonjudgmental way, treating them as just part of the general population. There’s a nice Uncle Ben’s commercial in which a boy asks his father about being bald, and there are some in which a person willingly shaves his head, often to gain an advantage.
Anti-bald commercials won’t go away overnight, but hopefully, the day will come when the kind of treatment discussed above will be recognized as unacceptable and assigned to the dustheap of failed advertising gambits.