Demisterfying gender-biased ad icons

When you're a distant second in your market segment (or fifth, or ninth) you get to take a lot of chances in your advertising. You've got to get yourself noticed, and if in the process you piss a few people off, so be it.

When you’re a distant second in your market segment (or fifth, or ninth) you get to take a lot of chances in your advertising. You’ve got to get yourself noticed, and if in the process you piss a few people off, so be it.

I got to thinking about that while driving around the US of A a while ago. I kept hearing a radio commercial for something called Frank’s Hot Cayenne Sauce – which of course means that poor Frank is flogging stuff in a category dominated by a single product that most people think is the category, Tabasco Sauce.

Frank bravely got on the radio himself and started insulting gardeners. I forget what the hell it all had to do with hot sauce, but Frank’s strong implication was that anybody who messes around with a trowel is somehow less than a man. One line from Frank’s rant stays with me: ‘I figure, no man should ever touch a flower unless it’s decoratin’ a porterhouse.’ The rest of the copy flowed in a similar vein, as red as Frank’s blood or his sauce or his neck.

It was a fairly funny commercial, crude in a Man Show kind of a way, and I say it was a good spot. I don’t imagine many women liked it, nor many liberal American males (all six of them), but Frank shouldn’t care. Let’s stretch a point and say he alienated 96% of his audience. Doesn’t matter. If half the rest of his listeners say ‘Ol’ Frank sounds good to me, I’m gonna pour his stuff all over my next barbecue,’ then ol’ Frank has probably doubled his market share.

Unfortunately, the opposite situation holds true at the opposite end of the spectrum. Generally, the market leader plays it super-safe, as if protecting a two-goal lead, often with similar lousy results. I’ve just discovered an example here, too. By coincidence (or maybe not), it also involves our modern world’s continuing struggle to define the roles of men and women.

Has anybody noticed that General Motors has gone and fired the beloved Mr. Goodwrench? Yes sir-ee ma’am, he has become an unperson, like the bad guys in the old Soviet Union; there’s no longer any sign that he ever existed. GM now offers Goodwrench Service, no gender attached – and speaking of signs, can you imagine how much money they blew within dealership displays alone??

Why do you think that the giant and conservative General Motors did this? I do not know, but I will take a highly educated guess. They did it because somebody pointed out to them that there are now women walking around automotive bays doing mechanical repairs!! (Good Wench Service?)

Unlike Frank and his little bottles of pepper sauce, General Motors is not going to risk alienating 50% of the world. So they have caved in, tossed away a quarter-century of brand equity, and de-Mistered the celebrated Goodwrench.

Okay, next question. Is the rest of the automotive Macho Gang going to follow suit? What about Mr. Lube, Mr. Muffler, Mr. Transmission, and the lesser-known Mr. Windshield? Are they going to discover gender correctness? Are they going to emasculate themselves as well?

(A digression. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, what’s with all this formality? Why are all these guys Mister? They’re auto mechanics, for corn sake! Don’t they ever let their hair down? When they shoot pool, do they say, your shot, Mister Muffler? What are their given names, anyway? Randy Lube? Spike Goodwrench? Oleg Transmission? This is a point to ponder.)

But the important question, of course, is how to avoid gender alienation, as General Motors has now achieved. I guess Mr. Lube can just become Lube, and Mr. Windshield can just become Windshield, but what about Mr. Transmission? There’s a ‘MISS’ in there, loud and clear, and that’s pretty damned sex specific! Can they just change their name to TRANSION??!!

This is even tougher than I thought, and these people need help. Fortunately for them, my phone number is below, and my consulting rates are competitive.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.