Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Maxim Hypothesis

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine mentioned to me that he thought the Dr. Pepper 10 ad campaign, aimed specifically at men, was a stupid idea. I really can't blame him for thinking that, either; the TV ads are dumb, the slogan "It's not for women" is dumber, and the majority of diet cola drinkers are women. So what the hell were they thinking?

Well, Dr. Pepper 10 seems to be doing okay in sales, or at least it was last year, given that the soft drink market has been shrinking since 2005. Company advertising reps have described the slogan as "tongue in cheek," so maybe they've figured out something that I've suspected for a while.

Back when I was in my late teens, I had a subscription to Maxim magazine, also aimed at men. This was when I was living in an apartment with roommates that were lucky to avoid jail. Lots of people would end up at our place, frequently intoxicated, and all sorts of ridiculous shit happened. But I was sober enough to notice something odd: when faced with a Maxim on the coffee table, women just couldn't resist picking it up and thumbing through it. I've noticed this in other cases, too. Sports, cars, tools, lots of the stereotypically male stuff just enraptures a lot of women. If nothing else, they have to check that shit out at least once.


A woman might ask, why not? This is the twenty first century, damnit! There are no male-only zones anymore, right? So women check out things that men like. They could be checking out bird-watching or reading about history or doing something gender neutral, but it seems that an obligation of the new gender non-bias is that a lot of women pay attention to anything that strikes them as masculine. So, presenting the Maxim Hypothesis: Anything meant for men automatically attracts attention from a demographically significant number of women as well, simply by virtue of it being meant for men.

If you take this into account, the Dr. Pepper 10 ads make sense. I can see this playing out in stores across the country: woman goes to grab a beverage from the cooler, looks around for a second, browsing the selection. Woman sees a can of Dr. Pepper 10. Woman remembers those stupid-ass ads, how it's not for women. Whatever. Not that I care or anything, it's just an ad, but... I wonder what this stuff is like? It's only ten calories... This can happen on a level well below the forefront of one's consciousness, like most advertising does.

Woman picks up a can, tries it (it tastes pretty good for diet), and likes it. And the ads have done the trick. It seems to me much more likely that, in an era where feminism and boundary breaking are so in fashion, reverse advertising psychology of this sort would be more likely to work on some women who's self-image integrates women's lib. And for some other women, they just seem interested in knowing what men are into, simply because men are into it, the equivalent of a guy reading Twilight to see if he can get some pointers on picking up chicks. Sad? Oh yeah, but it might occasionally work. What this strategy means is that Dr Pepper can push its wares to both stupid, gullible men directly and stupid, gullible women indirectly with the same campaign. I'd bet that, if the statistics were available, Dr. Pepper 10 consumers would turn out to be a decent mix of male and female.

Certain social conditions have to be met for the Maxim Hypothesis to work, of course, namely that there is an underclass which perceives itself as less powerful flexing new muscles. This group will associate taking on the tastes of formerly-superior classes as a form of symbolic empowerment. It's the same situation that had the merchant class imitating the dress and manners of the nobility in Europe and China as it grew in respectability and strength.

An Extreme Case

The Maxim Hypothesis has gone to some ridiculous lengths in the name of equality, well beyond the soft-drink and magazine level. The workplace issues, with all the talk of glass ceilings and unequal wages are so familiar that they need not be repeated. Recently, more changes are supposed to happen in the military; having entered the service in a support role decades ago, women will soon be integrated into combat arms.

Feminists come in different flavors, and some might be a little peeved by this themselves; some feminist ideology views warfare as a masculine habit that should simply be avoided altogether, and women subscribing to this notion can't have entirely positive feelings about women wanting to be a part of it. But most feminists, not necessarily seeing themselves as trying to establish a pacifist matriarchy, will simply want the avenues opened in every career path, and the military is just another occupation from this perspective. So that logic is obvious. Less clear is what the results of it will be; it is the height of ignorance to think that an occupation so reliant on discipline and internal unit cohesion will be completely unaffected, as if they're just throwing in a new group of soldiers with different organs. The organs matter: the first war we fought with women integrated into the military was the Gulf War, in the nineties, and the number one cause of medical evacuation during that conflict was pregnancy. If you throw young, aggressive people of mixed gender into a situation of constant danger, it turns out that they fuck like rabbits and with about the same rate of condom use. And that's FOB shit; the consequences for the move on the battlefield might be greater still. For all we hype diversity, mixed-gender workplaces aren't always environments of enlightened, respectful egalitarianism when there are young people involved. My personal experiences in retail and food service can be summed up with one word: drama. Overcoming that requires somehow making young people either forget or ignore their hormones. Good luck.

It's one thing for this to happen at a restaurant. On the battlefield, there are a whole different set of risks. It takes little imagination to put yourself in the position of a female POW and expect some different treatment by the enemy. And if one assumes that intimate relationships will be formed between members of the same unit - how could you not expect that? - then you should also be able to put yourself in the position of someone who sees a significant other killed violently in front of them. And this in a military already overwhelmed with cases of PTSD. I have a similar concern about integrating gays into combat arms.

We will eventually figure out that the ideological necessity of de-structuring society until we have a level individualist playing field has some unforeseen costs that, if we had any sense, would bring about a fresh wave of doubt about whether this is the right thing to do. I see other examples in the disruptions to family structure and institutional religion, where our inability to accept social roles based on anything outside of our control causes much more harm than good; our individualist activism can only be justified by making extremely slanted cases in favor of those who want something they couldn't have had before, while ignoring the costs to others and the costs to social continuity, efficient specialization, and rational expectations. Could it possibly be that older generations were right to simply require people to accept some boundaries in life, and that no matter how wealthy the society, some requirements on the individual to bear a burden or two in limited opportunities are beyond negotiation?

Whatever. All these issues make for some great marketing gimmicks, in soft drinks and career choice and politics, so they aren't going anywhere.

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