How Did the Rock-Solid Manly Men in Truck Commercials Get So Soft?

What Women Really Think
Dec. 26 2013 12:14 PM

When Did the Rock-Solid Manly Men in Truck Commercials Get So Soft?

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Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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In the 1990s, American masculinity was undergoing a clunky transition. Hulk Hogan donned a tutu to babysit in Mr. Nanny. Robin Williams strapped on the apron to win back his family in Mrs. Doubtfire. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave birth to a baby, for ludicrous reasons, in Junior. But at least the red-blooded American male could still rely on his truck.

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“America is still the land of rugged individualists,” Chevrolet’s voice-over artist announced as Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” howled over a montage of America’s manliest men: stoic military service member, handsome cowboy friend, dude who has attached his torso to a pulley system for the purposes of lifting himself onto a piece of construction equipment, grease-encrusted guy who appears to have poked out his own eye, man heaving a toolbox onto a dusty workspace, dude reclining on his truck’s hood (perhaps because the bed was filled with stuff he had hauled, tiring him?). The commercial also featured two brief nods to the ladies; one of these women was taking off her sweater.

In 2013, Chevrolet’s vision of masculinity no longer looks so individualistic. In ads for the latest iteration of its Silverado truck, Chevy serves up the traditional macho imagery—we see men driving across the plains, shaking hands near a tractor, sawing stuff, hauling stuff, and standing importantly near fire extinguishers. But the ad gives equal weight to the Chevy man’s responsibilities in the home. It lingers on images of a man holding his wife’s hand, consoling his son after a Little League loss, and driving through the wilderness to the edge of a cliff—where he picks up his cowboy-hatted son and sets him down on the truck’s hatchback for some quality time. The pickup truck has officially been domesticated.

The Chevy man’s shifting priorities are punctuated by the brand’s touchy-feely new masculine anthem, country singer Will Hoge’s “Strong.” (“Everybody knows he ain’t just tough—he’s strooooong”). Seger’s “Like a Rock” was a song for a man with no concerns outside himself and his oversized load. It was about how “the best years of your life are in your late teens when you have no special commitments and no career,” Seger has said. “It's your last blast of fun before heading into the cruel world.” The modern Chevy man’s strength is centered in family and community. “It ain’t what he can carry, what he can lift,” Hoge sings. “It’s a dirt-road lesson talking to his kids about how to hold your ground, and how to live strong.”

How did “Like a Rock” get so soft? Perhaps Chevy has wised up to the female portion of its pickup audience. Leo Burnett, the agency behind the new Silverado campaign, estimates that women now buy 15 percent of trucks, and industry polls suggest that they influence up to 85 percent of all vehicle purchasing decisions in the United States. Chevy’s new manhood is, in part, a feminine construction. (In "Strong," Hoge notes that his masculine ideal will happily lend you his truck when you need to move something—swoon). But the ad campaign also reflects a wider social shift in how men view themselves. In 2013, dedicated fatherhood is no longer a sight gag; it’s a cornerstone of masculine identity. More American men than women claim that they want to be parents. Professional men are more likely than women to describe themselves as “family-oriented” and to prioritize a “strong, loving marriage” and children alongside work. Half of working fathers with kids under 18 say they have trouble balancing work and family. Though today’s dads spend three times as much time with their kids than dads in 1965, 46 percent of them would still like to spend more.

Translate those concerns into the masculine fantasy world of the truck ad, and you get an ideal modern man who is equally capable of hauling boulders and babies. Importantly, Chevy doesn’t expect truck-driving women to carry the same weight. This year, Chevrolet released a rare truck commercial for women, featuring a lone rodeo rider who travels with her truck and her horse in search of “a ribbon that goes on her wall, not in her hair.” Boyfriends and babies are nowhere in sight. This woman represents the flip-side of all those studies—she is less likely to want kids, less likely to prize marriage, less likely to trust that she can succeed at work while taking on responsibilities at home. At least when it comes to selling trucks, child-rearing is kind of a dude thing.

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