June 6, 2004

R.I.P. Brawny Man: In which I explain to the people at Brawny why not everything is about sex

The ad spots, as described by Seth Stevenson (http://slate.msn.com/id/2097505/) go as such:

It’s a puppet show of household products. Two paper towel rolls sit side-by-side, watching a soap opera. On the first roll is emblazoned the familiar Brawny Man, who indicates in voice-over that he’s indifferent to the sappy soap. Next to him, on a roll with updated packaging, a new, improved Brawny Man is displaying more refined emotions. His voice-over displays his detailed understanding of the soap’s relationships. He cares about love and loss. In short, he’s got a softer side. In a separate spot,he’s even shown meditating on a yoga mat, chanting, “Om” (as the old Brawny Man looks on and scoffs). At the end of each ad, we’re told that Brawny has been “massively improved.”
Last July I read an article in Ad Week magazine (shut up, we get it at work) about how all these women in their 40s have romantic fantasies about the Brawny Man. They imagine him as a firefighter, construction worker, lumberjack or cowboy who is “strong, rugged, reliable and ‘treats me well.'” The notion of lovestruck housewives mooning over a paper towel icon struck me as laughable (I went so far as to jokingly hang a picture of the Brawny Man by my computer ’cause He’s So Dreamy) but it did make me pay attention.

After that I was more aware of the changing Brawny campaigns. Well recently they finally decided to update the Brawny Man himself. No, not update—replace. And you know what folks? I am not happy. OK, so I realize the old Brawny Man looked like a late ’70s TV hunk a la Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck, but more importantly he was sincere! Not sincere in a drippy, “I’m a sensitive guy who’ll take you shoe shopping” way, but just a really genuine sort of guy. I grew up with the old Brawny Man and while they may be marketing to lonely housewives in need of the latest Danielle Steel they completely missed those of us for whom the Brawny Man is practically a father figure, or at least a favorite uncle. We don’t need him to be stylish or sexy; we just want him to be himself!

The Brawny Man, the real Brawny Man, was the kind of guy who would have taken you camping or taught you to ride a bike. He’d know instinctively what to do when you are having “boy troubles” or being bullied at school. He would spout off after-school special advice like a fountain and tell spooky bedtime stories to all your friends who came over for sleepovers. Brawny Man would tell corny jokes and help you with your math homework and then the two of you would build a kite out of newspapers and fly it in a neighborhood park. When I think of the Brawny Man I feel like a kid again and the feeling is comforting.

The new and “improved” Brawny Man wears too much hair gel. He’s too busy watching soaps or shopping at The Gap to take you camping—besides, he wouldn’t want to ruin his manicure. He wears flannel but lives in a condo. He’s plastic and just two doors down from condescending. His mile-wide smile full of carefully whitened teeth seems to say, “Can I help you find something?” rather than, “How was your day?” I’ll give him props for looking ethnically ambiguous (is he Italian, is he Greek, is he Russian, could he be Hispanic?) but he loses points for obviously taking steroids (give those arms back to Mark McGwire!).

Oh, don’t give me that look! No doubt this “improved” Brawny Man is a descent fellow to hang out with, but he’s uptight, and folks, I’m already uptight enough for me and all of my friends, I don’t need another one of me. Sure us obsessive compulsives like things clean (a perfect match for selling paper towels) but the Brawny Man shouldn’t look like he’s afraid to tackle a mess, which New Brawny Man obviously is. He needs to loosen up. This guy doesn’t remember the ’60s and doesn’t care to. In short, he’s just a little too…Ben Affleck.

They’ve periodically updated the Brawny Man’s look since his first appearance in 1974 (http://www.brawnyman.com/Fun/history.html). A few years back they did a modest makeover on Brawny Man where they updated the hairstyle, trimmed the mustache, and changed his shirt from plaid to denim. But apparently that wasn’t enough for some people. And I still argue that the old Brawny Man could have been updated further rather than replaced. OK, lose the mustache if it’s a huge deal. Change his shirt. Even darken his hair a bit.

But why replace him? It’s just cruel. And the ad spots making him look insensitive? I resent those more than anything. Retire the man if you must, but don’t humiliate him; don’t invalidate him. In retiring the old Brawny Man I feel the people at Brawny have stolen one more tiny piece of my connection to childhood. Maybe for the masses a young, hip sex symbol is what they look for in a paper towel, but me, I will always remember the tried and true reliability of an old friend—the father figure, the naturalist, the livin’ in the ’70s fool, the Brawny Man.]

Another interesting take on the Brawny man: http://towleroad.typepad.com/towleroad/2004/03/has_anyone_noti.html

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