Warning off the office beast

Warning off the office beast image

Isabel Wolff on a campaign that's raising hackles

Independent - 29th January 1995

What's the difference between an exuberantly over-sexed dog, and an office executive who offends with similarly mis-directed behaviour? Not much, according to a new Dutch television commercial, part of a nationwide campaign in the Netherlands agai nst sexual harassment. It begins with a man standing at a photocopier. A dog trots up, licks his hand, receives a friendly pat on the head, and then starts chasing the man round the copier before frenziedly mounting his immaculately trousered leg. A voic e-over announces: "This is how women feel when sexually harassed at work. But that won't happen at your office because no animals work there. Do they?"

Sensitive Dutchmen are insulted at this animal imagery: the commercial has sparked hot debate in the Dutch media. Otto van der Haast, a director of J Walter Thompson, the ad agency responsible, can't understand the fuss. "We deliberately chose a metaphorical approach," he says. "The point is not that men are represented by a dog, but that the dog gets carried away. It starts out friendly, loses control, and behaves inappropriately. We are not saying that all men are animals."

There are no plans to run the blunt Dutch campaign in the UK. But more subtle British ads are portraying men unflatteringly; and they don't like it.

A recent Prudential series featured a nerdy little man appalling his partner with his increasingly boring plans. "The guy's a complete dork," says Chris Kimber, producer of Radio 4's men's series The Locker Room. "I think that an ad like that does contribute to men's feelings of inadequacy. Men are easy targets in these more politically correct days." Kimber feels that there is a distinct new trend in the portrayal of men on television. "They're either prats or impossibly hunky sex symbols, like in the Levi's ad."

Some have been sufficiently moved to complain. The Advertising Standards Authority confirms that complaints from men are increasing. "About a year ago there was a very hard-hitting poster campaign against domestic violence," said a spokeswoman. "It showed three men, captioned: `Behind all these successful men are the women they put in casualty'. A lot of men didn't like it: they felt that it stigmatised them all."

But a straw poll showed that stoic British male sensibilities were less distressed by the canine harassment ad than delicate Dutch egos. "I don't appreciate being compared to a sex-mad dog. But in general, lots of male nerds on television is a very good thing; it makes the rest of us feel better," said marketing assistant David Simons.

"What a pointless ad; it would make any man who wasn't actually chasing women round the photocopier feel quite smugly well-behaved," snorted retail manager Richard Carey. "Any dog or man who tried that in our office would get a swift kick anyway."

"Men who are actually bothered by this ad must be so sensitive that they would never survive in an office at all," said Marcus, a solicitor. "I don't believe real men could give a stuff about advertising images. Anyone who's a lawyer is used to far worse insults."