Domination Marketing – How Advertising Sells with Intimidation

by Graeme Newell


-One of the most powerful and satisfying ways to market to both men and women is to build egos in the man-vs.-woman struggle for domestic dominance.
-For women, this involves portraying the husband as an easily-controlled idiot who would be helpless without her.
-For men, this involves appealing to their desire to outsmart their wives and defy her control.


“The one who loves the least, controls the relationship.”
-Dr. Robert Anthony, self-help author

He is the perfect dream husband for women everywhere.  No, he’s not some prince-charming type who is smart, understanding, and picks up after himself.  He is the dumpy, balding, 40-something idiot who is so dumb he can barely tie his own shoes.  He is a man like Kevin James from the King of Queens, or Ray Romano from Everyone Loves Raymond.  Women don’t love these men because they are great husbands.  They love them because they provide a far more satisfying feeling that women secretly crave – power.

Bumbling dad is also a fixture of the advertising world, and you will see him in ad after ad.  Like the man in this Progressive Insurance ad, Dad is portrayed as nothing more than a child, and thank goodness mom is there to keep him from hurting himself.  But this is just one side of the mighty power struggle that plays out in the ad world every day.  Commercials for dads have their own power stereotype, “the shrewd operator,” and it empowers men to feel dominant over their wives.  This is the other side of the epic battle for domestic supremacy, and Madison Avenue uses these rather nasty emotions to drive some of the most powerful brands in world.

Women in Control
For women, the formula is simple.  If you want to empower a woman on the home front, then show her cowering her husband.  You wouldn’t think you could successfully sell a breakfast cereal with belittlement, but that’s exact what this Cheerios ad accomplishes.  The ad tags out with a line about “good taste,” but General Mills knows that building mom’s ego is a much more powerful motivator.  This Kid Sport ad  shows a powerful woman firmly in control.

This belittling emotional motivator tends to show up most frequently in domestic situations.  In this Chef Boyardee ad dad is on mom’s turf and is soundly put in his place.  In this Electrolux ad, mom quite literally saves dad from his own incompetence with a vacuum cleaner.  Mom is sharp, capable and clearly in control.  Sure, the vacuum is portrayed as the smart choice, but the unspoken message is even more appealing – this is the choice for powerful women who are firmly in control.

The ads don’t have to be mean.  Many of them are downright endearing like this Walmart ad.  Mom skillfully maneuvers her misguided husband/child to the best choice.  In this Lowes ad, mom is nowhere to be seen, but the message still works.  As long as dad is seen as intellectually inferior, the power play hits the mark with watching women.

Dad – the Shrewd Operator
As much as mom tries to brow beat dad, home-centered ads designed to build male egos demonstrate that he will NOT be controlled.  While women take the direct approach when they try to dominate, men pride themselves on their ability to cleverly deceive and outsmart their wives.  Advertisers have honed the “shrewd operator” formula and use it to build male egos.

Here is how it goes: Mom wants dad to do something that he just doesn’t want to do.  He feigns compliance, but then secretly weasels out of it with a clever trick.  In this funny Bud Light ad, dad misses an important family event, but manages to outsmart his wife and comes out smelling like a rose.   Dad is a genius.  The key element is the pride in the deception.  In this Honda ad, dad secretly revels in getting his way, and having the smarts to pull one over on his wife.

These ads often show the woman as a villain, and thus dad’s deception is perfectly justified in the face of such injustice.  In this Nescafe ad, a man cleverly avoids making the biggest mistake of his life.  He is the hero you are pulling for.  The husband in this Priceline ad secretly gets his way and saves the family vacation by outsmarting his controlling wife.

The ad scenarios are often ludicrous, but the humor masks a powerful male identifier – these men will not be controlled.  This beer ad shows a man faking sincere compliance as he climbs up on the roof to start work, but once there, he and his buddies bond in the deception.  This fun Bridgestone ad demonstrates the tire’s stopping power, but the advertiser cleverly conceals the message in the shrewd operator theme.  Mr. Potato Head ingeniously silences his nagging wife by tossing her scolding mouth over a cliff.

Control vs Freedom
And so the battle for control of the home front endlessly goes on – moms feeling powerful when they cower their incompetent husbands, and men feeling smart when they outsmart their controlling wives.  The ads make each side feel just a little bit more powerful.

Some advertisers have even combined these two very powerful motivators into single ads.  This Verizon ad has a liberating message for both men and women.   He will not be controlled by his ex-girlfriend, and she will not tolerate his immature refusal to grow up.  Both men and women get to feel in control. This JC Penney ad shows idiot husbands banished to a literal doghouse for their thoughtless behavior, but one clever husband outsmarts the judging wives and escapes.

Main Points to Remember

-Great marketing should always be based on the customer’s experience of themselves, not just their experience of the product.  Cheerios is just another breakfast cereal.  General Mills broke out of the blah, blah, blah of cereal marketing by infusing its Os with a strong emotional experience, firmly based on women’s daily struggle for recognition.  It turned a breakfast cereal into an emotional catalyst.

-Humor is one of the best ways to bond with customers who are motivated by negative emotions.  Most of these ads were funny, because addressing these disturbing feelings with a straight-on creative approach would have been too threatening.  As Stephen King said, “Anger is…”

-What are the most powerful motivators in your customer’s daily life?  Odds are, most of them will have nothing to do with your product.  But don’t let that stop you.  There is no such thing as a powerful beer or a rebellious coffee, but both Nescafé and Budweiser bonded with their customers using these powerful motivators.  They showed great wisdom by not letting a narcissistic love of their product distract them from their real job – making their customer’s feelings the essence of their marketing.

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