Sauce of sexism

by Tom Albrighton 16 October 2012 Copywriting, Copywriting reviews, Tone of voice

I was interested to see this post from creative team Johnny and Angus on the subject of the new HP ad. Their two-pronged criticism is that it’s (a) a bit childish and (b) a bit passé. What do you think?

It’s good to know your audience. And it’s good to focus on the most easily converted prospects. Looking at the groups who might feel ignored, irritated or alienated by this ad, HP have clearly taken that principle to heart.

I don’t eat meat, so I find the bacon sandwich signoff mildly irritating. Now more meme than food, bacon has come to symbolise all that’s heart, but not everyone likes it. And many, of course, don’t eat it for religious reasons; I guess they’re not in HP’s target segment either.

Institutional sexism

More to the point is the casual, instutitional sexism enshrined in the ad. On the surface, it has nothing to say about women. Indeed, it takes place in a universe where women seem not to exist. Perhaps it’s the interior world of the male psyche.

When we take a closer look, however, we can see that many of the habits criticised in the ad are actually ‘feminine’ (note my quote marks), despite being assigned to men: talking during the sport, not being able to fix things, moaning about clutter.

Harmless banter

Clearly, there are plenty of unreconstructed dolts out there who will lap this up – as well as a fair few hipster students and ad execs who will appreciate its sheer craft and irony. Unfortunately for HP, though, only the hipsters are likely to do their own food shopping.

My daughter (aged six) loves HP Sauce. (She’s also a lifelong vegetarian.) If this ad came on the telly, and she asked me what it was all about, I’m not really sure what I’d tell her. I’d have to hope, I suppose, that the childishness of the execution would prevent her from taking on board the implication of the content: that men deserve even more indulgence than they get already.

I guess I could always resort to ‘banter’, which seems to be a useful excuse-all term for all forms of institutional sexism, up to and including physical assault. What are you moaning about? It’s all just a bit of fun!

Iron John

I know this sounds ludicrously po-faced, but it’s the context. I’m writing this the day after a fierce feminist backlash to Mehdi Hasan’s piece about abortion. In a month where (male) institutions like the NHS and BBC have signally failed to protect (female) children’s rights in the face of an overwhelmingly ‘manly’ man like Jimmy Savile. It’s a bad time to be a member of the patriarchy, and an awkward time to be vindicating it, however ironically.

Now, the HP advert very clearly positions itself as ‘just a bit of fun’. But that just puts it at a different point on the same continuum. Adopting, jokingly of course, the mantle of the oppressed, it asserts men’s ‘right’ to hold ‘principles’, to have their territory, to be immune from derision, to eat red meat and, most of all, to have a ‘powerful tool’.

The humour undercuts that message without necessarily repudiating it. Underneath its comedy clothes, it’s the threadbare Iron John/Fight Club argument that things have gone too far, and need to be sorted out: the false-equivalence notion that women’s liberation demands a complementary men’s liberation.


I don’t think it’s too much to ask that brands like HP find another way to sell their stuff without hitching it to clichéd guydeas, however archly invoked, that insult consumers of both sexes. Ideas that just aren’t productive.

My point is not about censorship, but about consideration and responsibility. I’m not saying that people, or brands, should be forbidden to say certain things because they offend me, or because I imagine they might offend someone else. It’s more a question of the choices brands make in promoting a product. No-one’s saying you can’t say this stuff; the question is whether you should.

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