This blog was originally posted on Masculinities 101 and has been re-posted with permission.
Beer commercials aren't typically known for their deep and meaningful messages but a recent Guinness commercial has taken a different approach. In sum, it features a group of fit, happy-looking men in wheelchairs playing basketball. Toward the end of the ad, all but one of them stand up out of their wheelchairs before they all head to the pub to share a pint. This all takes place against the backdrop of sentimental music and inspirational narrative about dedication, loyalty, and friendship, concluding tagline: 'made of more'. A number of online media outlets have written positive appraisals of the ad describing it as ''a touching sensation' (MSN Money) that will 'make your heart melt (HuffPost); 'give you goosebumps' (USA Today Sports); and 'make you tear up' (IndyStar). One outlet in particular, Business Insider, suggests that Guinness stands out from the competition by promoting a brand of masculinity that 'breaks the industry stereotype'. Most beer advertising tends to depict men as irresponsible juveniles with only hot chicks and cold beer on the brain or as meat heads jocks with only hot chicks and cold beer on the brain. Guinness, on the other hand, has crafted a message that suggests that beer drinking sports-men can be sensitive and strong at the same time. This advertising approach works for Guinness in-part because of it having a reputation as a drink of the people and one that hails to make you stronger (see early 'Guinness for Strength' ads).
Image by Airman Magazine via Flickr Creative Commons
But before we get swept away any further let's put things into perspective. The purpose of most advertising is to sell products for businesses whose chief concern is to increase profit. The global alcoholic beverage industry in a multi-billion dollar industry; $2.2. billion of that was spent on media advertising in the United States alone in 2006. Diageo, the parent company of Guinness, shelled-out $547 million on its North American marketing campaign (which includes print, television and radio) in 2012. Drinks companies will go to great lengths for their bottom line. That said, makers of media advertising don't operate in a vacuum. Their content reflects broader social and political themes, even if in a diluted way. For us to be persuaded to invest in a product or service we need to somehow relate to the message behind it. That's the point and it often works. Yes, the Guinness ad is heart-warming. Yes, it's done very well. Yes, it's portraying a view of men not generally seen in beer ads. One that's more diverse and, dare I say, more accurate. Is the ad breaking an industry stereotype about men? Probably not, but it's certainly challenging the status quo to an extent by offering a more respectful representation.
The media is a powerful force. Its influence on social and political trends are undeniable. There are prices and payoffs to this. Take disability, a central theme of the Guinness ad and primary cause for its positive feedback. It's used to illustrate how men (as well as beer) can be 'made of more' (as the ad tagline suggests). I appreciate that Guinness gives a nod to disability but, in my assessment, that's all it does. While the subject of disability is indeed central to the Guinness message, the script itself hasn't been rewritten in a way that really challenges mainstream disability stereotypes. It fails to articulate an alternative picture to what we often see. TV, film and print tend to make disability into an example of tragedy, misfortune or heroism or use it as a prop to illustrate the strength of the human mind over the fragile body. Such references are for the benefit of the non-disabled majority, to make the everyday reality of disability more palatable for them. Why the need to do this? Because the potential for a disabling impairment threatens the very image we have of ourselves as independent, self-determining agents. Even though many people with disabilities live full, rich lives and modern technology allows them to do this quite independently, limited mainstream references, based on institutional beliefs and standards, from earlier times, persist. Of course there is more than one way to view the Guinness ad. The articles cited above suggest this. Still, it's clear who Guinness is appealing to and who it isn't. If instead the ad portrayed a group of actual male wheelchair users, engaging in sport, sharing a pint, strong and capable, and without the mawkish music and voiceover, than we'd be on to something.