It's noble that celebrity power couple Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore are attempting to use their fame and hypnotic hold on the internet for a worthwhile cause such as raising awareness of child sex slavery. Enlisting some of their more popular friends for a series of ads on the subject, attempting to go viral with the campaign, getting creative with the message—all commendable. But watching through one of their "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" spots, something just feels wrong about the entire venture. Not immoral, not insensitive, but rather simply misguided, in a very fundamental way.
In case you haven't seen them yet, the "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" spots are under-a-minute-long shorts based around male celebrity cameos—including pop stars Drake and Justin Timberlake—which feature them doing goofy, irresponsible things (Drake beats up a robot, Justin shaves with a chainsaw) in order jokingly to demonstrate what "Real Men" do (view robots with distrust and prefer a close shave, respectively). This pronouncement, voiced by an unseen narrator, is then immediately followed by another pronouncement: "Real Men don't buy girls."
The star's face is then framed in a photo as a "Real Man," joining a gallery of such other real men as Burt Reynolds, Bruce Willis and another male celebrity (such as Perez Hilton or David Spade) who a female star (such as Jessica Biel or Eva Longoria) then similarly proclaims a "Real Man," ultimately asking the audience, "Are you?" Finally, a placard flashes on screen commanding viewers to "Take a stand against child slavery," linking to Ashton and Demi's website and offering visitors a choice of slogan: "I Am a Real Man" or "I Prefer a Real Man."
Sounds cute enough, maybe. So what's the problem with the videos? Well, a couple of things.
- They're confusing. If you had to read through the above description of these commercials a couple of times before it even makes sense, we certainly can't blame you. There are too many ideas stuffed into these 45-second clips, and they're presented far too disjointedly. It's unexpected enough when these viral-looking things suddenly turn into PSAs (up until the "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" part, the clips seem like anything else you might see on College Humor or Funny or Die), but then the Real Men gallery, and a second celebrity cameo announcing the Real Men status of a third celebrity who's not even connected to the video...and we're lost. The intention must be just to get as many famous people as possible in there as possible, because who knows how many people will watch these things just because they're obsessed with Jessica Biel. Fair enough, but the celeb-surplus leaves the ads extremely incoherent.
- They feel way too cute for such a serious subject. "The concept of the campaign is that Real Men do a lot of silly, even foolish things," wrote Kutcher about the "Real Men" series on the Hope 140 blog. "But one thing they don’t do is buy children for sex. That’s not funny, and Real Men don’t do it." Well, yeah, it's not funny—and a lot of people aren't going to like being sold that message with such casual humor. By the time you get to the "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" turn, if you've been laughing (and you probably won't be—more on that later), you feel weirded out and maybe a little betrayed that you've been taking the ad so lightly. Maybe the point is to jar the viewer to attention, but after being tricked by one of these ads, I can't imagine anyone's going to want to watch the rest of them, or feel inclined to do much further research on the subject—which you would need to do, given the dearth of actual information on the subject contained in the commercials themselves.
- They're reminiscent of some lousy recent TV ad campaigns. Have Ashton and Demi really managed to avoid the unspeakably bad Miller Lite "Man Up!" commercial series from the last half-year or so? If not, it's somewhat unconscionable for them to make the hook of their own campaign such a close echo of the Miller Lite tag line. Not to mention that the central use of famous people doing ridiculous things is framed similarly to what GEICO did with their over-done "Could Switcing to GEICO....?" series (featuring Randy Johnson and Charlie Daniels, among others), and that the Real Men gallery bears a striking resemblance to the "Man Law" panel assembled by Miller Lite back in 2006. If your primary goal with a series is to go viral, you need to do it a little more creatively than by incidentally citing such inauspicious original sources.
- They're not that funny. Since the beginning of time, a whole lot of shit has been forgiven in the name of good comedy, and each of the above grievances could maybe have been looked over if these things were rip-roaring, gut-bustingly hilarious. But for the most part, these things are far stranger and more confounding than they are funny. Watching Drake beat up a robot for no real reason is amusing, sure, but without any kind of context provided and with a punctuating tag line that comes out of nowhere, you never get the payoff that you're expecting from it. Justin Timberlake preparing to shave his face with a chainsaw is definitely wacky, but the image is expected to be setup, delivery and punchline all in one, and it's not nearly strong enough for all that. What we're ultimately left with is a bunch of ads that are confusing, jarring, make you feel bad and remind you of half the nauseating commercials you saw during last night's SportsCenter—and don't even give you any laughs for the privilege.
Of course, you could make the argument that the primary purpose of the series is to get people talking, and people are obviously going to be talking about this—we probably wouldn't even be writing about this campaign at all if it was just a bunch of sad-looking footage with Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" playing in the background. But no matter what the bottom line ends up being for the campaign, "Real Men Don't Buy Girls" leaves us with a sour taste in our mouths. We applaud Ashton and Demi's intentions, but we don't much want to see these ads ever again.