Hegemonic Masculinity in First World War Commercial Advertisements
Written by Molly McGuire (Bachelor of Humanities, Carleton University)
Nominated by Professor Y.A. Bennett
To be a man is to be strong. To be a man is to be brave. Men are powerful. Men thirst for glory. Men share a fraternity founded upon levity in times of strife. If a man exudes masculinity, women will swoon before him. The precise origin of these facets of hegemonic masculinity is unknown, but they have appeared in works of literature and history in some of humanity’s earliest written records. They pervade religious works like the Torah and Upanishads, the philosophical musings of Plato and Aristotle, and hallowed epics by poets such as Virgil and Homer. More recently, these stereotypes have manifested themselves in commercial advertising, as companies seek to entice male consumers with images of idyllic masculinity, thereby creating the illusion that the product itself will enhance their own manliness and consequently result in their purchase of said item. A curious similarity therefore exists between masculinity as it is advertised commercially in the modern period, and as it was depicted in many ancient texts. More specifically, parallels can be drawn between commercial advertisements targeted towards men during the First World War in a newspaper like the Illustrated London News, and Homer’s definitions of masculinity in his account of the Trojan War, The Iliad. Both define masculinity as being related to a man’s bravery, his willingness to pursue glory in defence of his country, his desire for women, and his fraternity with the other troops. In essence, it is as though advertisers during the Great War attempted to market their products to the modern-day Achilles, and the apparent similarities that exist across the centuries are a testimony to the noticeable dearth of evolution in the media’s portrayal of gender.
The number of passages in which Homer comments on bravery and its link to masculinity in The Iliad is overwhelming. While the examples are in ample supply however, they can be succinctly summarized in a riveting pre-battle speech delivered by the Greek hero, Nestor: “Be men, my friends! Discipline fill your hearts, maintain your pride in the eyes of other men! Remember, each of you, sons, wives, wealth, parents – are mother and father dead or alive? No matter, I beg you for their sakes, loved ones far away – now stand and fight, no turning back, no panic.”1 In essence, Homer tells the reader that in order for one to be regarded as a man, one must fight bravely at war, maintain one’s composure, and be strong for one’s loved ones. This same message is delivered in advertisements from the Illustrated London News between September of 1914 and November of 1918 in order to peddle cigarettes, alcohol, shaving cream, cologne, sweets, extracts, petrol, and even watches.
In these ads, there is a split between the ways in which strength is portrayed. Some ads focus on strength in the sense of a man’s character: his bravery, while others focus on strength in the sense of the body: a man’s physical ability. The latter is a tactic most commonly employed by companies that sell products which are consumed, like the meat extract, Bovril. On October 28th, 1916, for instance, Bovril published an ad that shows an illustration of a munitions worker with rippling muscles and the caption, “Bovril gives Strength to Win.”2 Below the image is a brief paragraph detailing the legitimacy of this claim with a testimonial from one worker who used their product and is now every bit as physically strong as the cartoon man; to prove this, the ad is surrounded by pictures of his finely-sculpted body. Furthermore, the advertisement guarantees that Bovril will allow the customer to give the best to their nation.3 In so doing, the company upholds the idea that men are strong and must be so in order to fight for their country.
More common than showing men’s physical strength in wartime advertisements however, is the portrayal of strength in terms of a man’s bravery. More often than not, this is accomplished using images of, and scenarios in which the soldiers are calm, cool, and collected against all odds. For example, in many advertisements for cigarettes, men are either shown lounging in the trenches with a cigarette in hand, or the accompanying text will give anecdotal evidence of men using the tobacco to calm down throughout harrowing experiences like raiding an enemy trench.4 Similarly, in several ads for men’s watches, the images focus on the fact that the men are as steady as their timepieces. In fact, they are often shown behind the sight of a rifle marking their man with a cool demeanor, seemingly unperturbed by the peculiarly somber circumstances at hand.5
Another example of this seemingly incomparable air of calmness during times of war exists in an ad for petrol put out by Shell. Behind a line of artillery, there is a soldier driving an ambulance while another loads a stretcher into the back. Most striking in the scene is the unfazed expression that plays out on both men’s faces. In the image, the two are nonplussed about taking someone to the hospital, even though they are directly behind a firing line, and the patient they are transporting is either too ill, or their injuries too severe for them to walk.6 In other words, in lacking emotion, they are radiating masculinity.
Finally, ads for creature comforts like shaving cream, cologne, and sweets convey this same message, dwelling upon the fact that although soldiers are subjected to unimaginable suffering at the front, they are strong enough to show great resilience. That said, it must be noted that for the sake of the sale, the companies do insist that a rush of sugar from a chocolate or toffee, the satisfaction of a quality shave, or the fresh scent of a new bottle of cologne would nevertheless be an effective tonic for the inescapable monotony of combat.7 In these advertisements, bravery is coolness and men are subliminally taught to stay calm in order to join the ranks and rise therein for, as the stereotype goes, brave men do not emote. Homer deftly expresses as much in The Iliad: “The skin of the coward changes all the time, he can’t sit still, he squats and rocks, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his heart racing, pounding inside the fellow’s ribs, his teeth chattering – he dreads some grisly death. But the skin of the brave soldier never blanches. He’s all control. Tense, but no great fear.”8 In other words, at war, men are well acquainted with injury, illness, inner turmoil, and death, but must exhibit courage nonetheless and conceal their fears, thus creating the illusion that they are undaunted.
Additionally, according to these sources, the reason for which men are fearless is an equally fundamental part of their masculinity. It would seem as though both men in Homer’s era and those from the Great War were expected to have strong allegiances to their countries and take up arms defending them, or else die trying. On the necessity of national loyalties, Homer writes: “Fight like men, my friends, call up your battle fury – make for the hollow ships […] And that comrade who meets his death and destiny, speared or stabbed, let him die! He dies for the fatherland – no dishonour there!” 9 Unsurprisingly, the same love of the fatherland is carried forward in ads marketed towards men fighting in the First World War.
Take, for example, the series of John Walker & Sons Ltd. advertisements for scotch whiskey. Between September of 1915 and December of 1916, the company put out a slew of ads with the byline “Born 1820, still going strong.”10 Each features the character of Johnnie Walker as he meets the Allies’ soldiers and diplomats. Beneath the cartoons, there is always a brief caption that gives the scene more context. Usually, it tells the reader that just like Johnnie Walker’s whiskey, the country and its allies are still going strong. In fact, this is made explicit in two separate instances. The first is a comic that shows Johnnie Walker meeting a Canadian soldier from Toronto. Below the image, there is a quick dialogue wherein Walker asks his comrade if the military still censors his letters home, and the Torontonian responds: “Yes, but we just put ‘like Johnnie Walker,’ then those at home know we’re ‘still going strong.’”11 The second instance is even more overt than the first. In July of 1916, the whiskey company published a picture of two men chatting with Johnnie Walker and, from the caption beneath, the reader can infer that the unknown men represent an optimist and a pessimist respectively. When the latter fears that the war is going poorly, the former tells him that: “Like Johnnie Walker, the British Empire is – ‘still going strong.’”12 In making these sorts of advertisements that show how men from near and far are fighting with the Allies and keeping their counties strong, advertisers instill in the reader a sense of nationalism and remind them of why they must engage in the war. This relates to male stereotypes because it shows them that the reason for which they must be courageous is to defend their homeland. In times of war, being a brave man is not enough; a man must enlist in the army, become a soldier, and defend the nation he loves.
This message is conveyed by ads for an unlikely assortment of products, like cigarette cases decorated with military insignia,13 shaving cream ads with the word “British” emboldened to emphasize its nationality,14 and the aforementioned meat extract, Bovril, which tells men that they must use their product in order to be strong enough to help their country.15 Once more, Homer alludes to these facets of masculinity when he writes: “Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!”16 Therefore, in addition to being strong, men must love their nation and fight tooth and nail to protect it at war.
In addition, it must be noted that glory accompanies defending one’s nation, and thus men are not solely motivated to fight by a strong allegiance to their country, but also a desire for the personal glory which accompanies such an act. In The Iliad, this implicit male motivation is more than apparent as, in the outset, the hero Achilles is faced with a decision: either win the war for his country and die in the process, or to flee and live a long life. Ultimately, his lust for glory and love of country win out; he chooses to die for prestige rather than turn home and live an inglorious life. Achilles’ rationale is summarized in the words he proclaims before winning his long-awaited duel against Trojan warrior, Hector: “[…] now I’ll go and meet that murderer head-on, that Hector who destroyed the dearest life I know. For my own death, I’ll meet it freely – whenever Zeus and the other deathless gods would like to bring it on! […] I’ll lie in peace, once I’ve gone down to death. But now, for the moment, let me seize great glory!”17 Similarly, in the ads from the Illustrated London News which exemplify a man’s need to defend his country, the smiling soldiers’ faces, and their tall, confident forms show that in channelling their bravery into battle, they achieve glory.18 Not only are men brave, but in times of war, they must be soldiers for their nation, and fight for the promise of glory.
Another promise made to those men who go to war is that of romance. More specifically, they are presumed to be heterosexual and to be adored by women upon their return. Homer is no stranger to the concept of soldiers asserting their masculinity through romantic intimacy with women. In the following scene, for example, Greek Menelaus and Trojan Paris prepare to fight for ownership of Menelaus’ wife, Helen; the love triangle which allegedly caused the Trojan War to ensue:
[…] we’ll fight it out for Helen and all her wealth. And the one who proves the better man and wins, he’ll take those treasures fairly, lead the woman home. The rest will seal in blood their binding pacts of friendship. Our people will live in peace on the soil of rich Troy, our enemies sail home to the stallion-land of Argos, the land of Achaea where the women are a wonder.19
This same idea, that men must be attracted to women, fight for them, and be rewarded thereafter with romantic companionship, is carried forward into ads from the Great War, but is most common to cigarette ads.
Kenilworth Cigarettes, for instance, published ads for a year from May of 1916 to April of 1917 which likened their product to women and enticed men to buy their cigarettes with images of men and women together, the latter vying for the former’s attention.20 In other words, the advertisements promote heteronormativity by comparing the qualities of their tobacco to the body of a woman, therein implying that men would want a cigarette as they would a woman, and assuming that all men are attracted to the opposite sex. In addition, there is the added notion that since it is shown to be the women who try and please men by kneeling over them,21 brushing their hair in their nightgowns,22 or dressing up and lounging by the fire,23 women are subservient to men; men are the dominant sex in a relationship. Overall, advertisements like these promulgate the ideas that masculinity is tied to heterosexuality and a dominance over the opposite sex.
One final resemblance between the ads and Homer is their exploration of the comraderies of war, and the belief that men, and soldiers in particular, have a love for their friends and a tendency to laugh and make light of the dark times with them. For example, in The Iliad while their countrymen are dying at the front, Homer describes the hero Achilles and his best friend Patroclus spending time together, and playing music on their ship:
Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships, they found him [Achilles] there, delighting his heart now, plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre – beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm – he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city. Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now, singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes…Across from him Patroclus sat alone, in silence, waiting for Aeacus’ son to finish with his song.24
In a number of commercial advertisements, similarly light scenes of comradery are depicted, with illustrations of the soldiers enjoying jovial friendship during their downtime in the trenches.
Beginning once again with cigarettes for example, advertisers for Craven published an illustration in November of 1915, a year into the war, of a troop lighting his commanding officer’s cigarette. The two appear comfortable with one another as they sport matching uniforms, mustaches, and smiles.25 Nestor, a rival brand, later published a similar illustration of an Egyptian officer and a British officer exchanging notes and matches, once more sharing both in tobacco and in friendship.26 Any given advertisement put out by John Walker & Sons Ltd. for scotch whiskey from the aforementioned ‘still going strong’ campaign is an example of fraternity among the ranks, as soldiers from as far as India and as near as England are shown spending their off duty hours together in pleasant comradery. Looking back once again to the specific ad that features the Torontonian, the company depicts the levity of their friendships even further, as a homemade sign in the background refers to the trenches as, “The Toronto Ritz.” 27 In addition, it is not just the men who have fun, but the advertisers themselves, occasionally painting the war with levity akin to that of the humour of the ranks. For example, seven months after the horrific losses on first day at the Battle of the Somme, Gibb’s Cold Cream Shaving Soap printed an ad with pictures of soldiers laughing and shaving together followed by the caption, “‘Somme’ shave.” 28 By making light of the suffering and horrors of war, advertisers teach men to form strong connections with their fellow man and to show their masculinity by keeping their spirits up in spite of their circumstances, once more returning to the idea that their manliness hinges upon their ability to shake off negative emotion and construct a façade of tranquility.
According to the commercial advertisements printed in the Illustrated London News during the Great War from 1914 to 1918, to be a man is to be brave. To be a man is to be strong. Men do not emote. Men keep their cool. Men become soldiers and chase the promise of glory all the way to the front lines in the name of their fatherland. Men are attracted to women, and are dominant over them. Men can find levity in the darkest of times. Men form strong friendships with other men in the battle trenches. Sometime between the twelfth and eighth centuries B.C., several thousand years before this fight, the Greek poet Homer penned a story about the legendary Trojan War in which he described these same characteristics of virtuous men. They are strong. They fight for their country. They fight for glory. They desire the love of women to whom they are superior, and they make lasting friendships on the battlefield which allow them to lift their spirits in the darkest hours of the conflict. While these two sources – the advertisements and the epic, were created millennia apart, their prevalent characteristics of hegemonic masculinity remain true. One might imagine that thousands of years’ of advancements in fields such as law, science, technology, arts and culture would affect the ways in which the media paints men. Unfortunately, the striking resemblances shared between the depictions of men in the Great War’s commercial advertisements and in Homer’s epic are a testimony to the fact that by the twentieth century, little had changed in the way of society’s perception of masculinity.
In recent years, there have been many campaigns to try and erase these such stereotypes in the hopes of recognizing the individuality of each person, and making them feel proud and secure in their identities. Still, it becomes clear that there is a long way to go when one flips through the pages of a magazine to see pictures of tanned six packs, goes to the movies to watch yet another heteronormative boy-meets-girl romance, or hears the endless political debates on the necessity of gender-neutral washrooms in schools. Thousands of years have passed and the world is only now beginning to emerge from the fog of time-honoured misconception to realize that humans are more complex than can be known. Today, it is becoming clear that men are not born soldiers. Men do not necessarily want to fight. They do not have to pursue glory. Men can be afraid. Men can have feelings. Men suffer. Men cry. Men are human.
To be a man is not to conform to an invented list of masculine characteristics. Instead, to be a man is to be one’s self. At the end of The Iliad, Homer writes: “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses,”29 but he was wrong, for while the character died, the characteristics for which he, and others like him were praised as heroes and held as pinnacles of male virtue lived on. Hector was buried, but the ‘breaker of horses’ persona became immortalized by the media for millennia. As these rigid stereotypes are now finally beginning to dissolve, one can only hope that this newly-invented definition of masculinity, which grants individuals the freedom to pursue their good and achieve happiness in their own way, will last for even longer than its predecessor. One can only hope that the breaker of horses is truly buried forever. With both the Trojan and Great Wars over, fought, and won, the world must now turn its attention to the fight for equality, chase the promise of freedom, and conquer the real enemy: prejudice.
1. Homer, The Iliad, XV.769-774, trans. Robert Fagles (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), 409.
2. “The Body-Building Power of Bovril,” Illustrated London News [London, England] 28 Oct. 1916: 519. All references to the Illustrated London News in this essay are to the copies of the newspaper contained in the Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, http://find.galegroup.com.proxy.library.carleton.ca/iln/start.do?prodId=ILN&userGroupName=ocul_carleton. Hereafter, all references to the newspaper the Illustrated London News are abbreviated to ILN.
“Robinson’s Barley Water,” ILN, 3 July 1915: 28. This same focus on the physical strength of the body is seen in this advertisement for barley water, which shows Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur drinking their product.
Below, it describes the benefits for the growth of a man’s muscles.
“Horlick’s Malted Milk,” ILN, 23 Jan. 1915: 128. This advertisement literally places a man’s physical strength on a pedestal, using an illustration that shows two male bodies with bulging muscles atop ancient pillars from Greece. The advertiser then claims that their malted milk is a means to attaining this perfect physical ideal.
3. “The Body-Building Power of Bovril,” ILN, 28 Oct. 1916: 519.
4. “‘A. S. C.’ M. T.,” ILN, 1 Sept. 1917: 255. The story told in this advertisement is that of two officers driving a two-seater down a German-occupied stretch of road. The narrator says that he knows they are marked by the enemy, but he must keep on driving, and will be calm with the help of cigarettes. His breezy outlook on the tense situation shows the calmness required of men to demonstrate their bravery.
“‘Cavander’s Army Club’ Cigarettes,” ILN, 13 Oct. 1917: 441. This ad tells the story of an officer who hands Cavander’s cigarettes out to his troops to keep them calm after raiding an enemy trench, and after encountering the enemy creeping into their own barracks.
5. “Waltham Watches,” ILN, 27 Mar. 1915: 410. The illustration in this advertisement shows a marksman with his rifle, and in the description, his coolness and need to fire the perfect shot are likened to the smoothness of the Waltham watch.
“Waltham Watches,” ILN, 20 May 1916: 661. Like the previous ad, this one shows an image of a soldier aiming his rifle at enemy lines from behind the safety of his trench’s sandbags. This one focuses on the need of a sniper to have precise timing, and likens this timing to that of his rifle. Moreover, the shooter in the image seems to be in perfect control; he is not affected by the stress of his current situation.
6. “‘Shell’ Motor Spirit,” ILN, 30 Jan. 1915: 159.
7. “Delecta Chocolate,” ILN, 12 Oct. 1918: 439. The ad features a picture of a group of soldiers sharing the chocolate and laughing. Underneath, the company writes that it helps them to go on. This suggests that it takes very little to encourage these soldiers’ bravery for they are true, war-hardened men.
“Delecta Chocolate,” ILN, 14 Sept. 1918: 319. This advertisement simply refers to the soldiers’ fighting as a busy job. It makes their horrifying work at the front seem like something commonplace they ought to be doing. Again, it says that the chocolate will help lift their spirits, but the idea that this is all it would take to erase the scars of war suggests that the advertisers think that men must be able to bear a great deal, what with their strong moral fibre keeping them moving.
“MacKintosh’s Toffee De Luxe,” ILN, 27 Nov. 1916: n.p. This toffee ad tells readers that the sweet is useful for making the night watch seem less dull. In describing a task that entails listening for surprise night attacks from the enemy as monotonous, the company suggests that to men, this sort of heroism is ordinary, expected.
“McClinton’s Shaving Soaps & Cream,” ILN, 19 Jan. 1918: 89.
“McClinton’s Shaving Soap & Cream,” ILN, 23 Mar. 1918: 361. Both McClinton’s ads show male soldiers in the middle of an explosion or avalanche and suggest that they deserve a nice, clean shave in exchange for what they do. While the company acknowledges their bravery, once more it is something assumed of soldiers, rather than proven. The strength and ability to endure these near-death experiences is expected of them because they are men.
“Zenobia,” ILN, 17 Oct. 1914: 560. This cologne is marketed towards those soldiers who are wounded. It enforces the idea that men are strong because it suggests that its scent will help them to heal their war wounds, but is presumed that their own, manly strength will do most of the work.
8. Homer, The Iliad, XIII. 329-335, trans. Fagles, 351.
9. Homer, The Iliad, XV.567-577, trans. Fagles, 403.
10. “John Walker & Sons, Ltd.,” ILN, 18 Sept. 1915: 379. Each of the following advertisements features the cartoon character of Johnnie Walker having a conversation with soldiers from the different Allied countries. In every instance, the soldiers with whom he speaks are upstanding, broad-shouldered and proud. They usually have their weapons on them but are not in the midst of using them, instead they speak affably with Walker.
“John Walker & Sons, Ltd.,” ILN [London, England] 11 Dec. 1915: 773.
“John Walker,” ILN, 9 Oct. 1915: 475.
“John Walker,” ILN, 23 Oct. 1915: 537.
“John Walker,” ILN, 6 Nov. 1915: 603.
“John Walker,” ILN, 20 Nov. 1915: 673.
“John Walker,” ILN, 29 July 1916: 143.
“John Walker,” ILN, 26 Aug. 1916: 253.
11. “John Walker & Sons, Ltd.,” ILN, 11 Dec. 1915: 773.
12. “John Walker & Sons, Ltd.,” ILN, 29 July 1916: 143.
13. “J. C. Vickery,” ILN, 25 Sept. 1915: 411.
14. “Gibbs’s Shaving Soap,” ILN, 6 May 1916: 605.
“Gibbs’s Cold Cream Shaving Soap,” ILN, 1 July 1916: 23. Both of these advertisements embolden the word ‘British’ so as to stress its nationality, and appeal to the targeted man’s sense of pride for his country.
15. “The Body-Building Power of Bovril,” ILN, 28 Oct. 1916: 519.
16. Homer, The Iliad, XII.281, trans. Fagles, 333.
17. Homer, The Iliad, XVIII.135-144, trans. Fagles, 471.
18. See advertisements cited in references 10-15.
19. Homer, The Iliad, III.86-92, trans. Fagles, 131.
20. “Kenilworth No. 20 Cigarettes,” ILN, 6 May 1916: 601. In all of the Kenilworth ads hereafter, half of the advertisement is taken up by an image of a woman and man sharing some form of romantic encounter. In the description beneath the image, the advertiser talks about how the cigarette is as slender as a woman, and its tobacco as fine and straight as her hair. In some cases, the women in the images are even jealous of the attention the man pays to the cigarette, and are envious of how much their men love the product. Furthermore, while the women are always leaning in to the men to catch their attention, the men are seen reclining in boats and sofas, enjoying the fuss their lovers are making over them.
“Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 10 June 1916: 741.
“Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 7 Oct. 1916: 424.
“Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 21 Apr. 1917: 475.
“Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 18 May 1918: 587.
“Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 28 Sept. 1918: 375.
21. “Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 28 Sept. 1918: 375.
22. “Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 21 Apr. 1917: 475.
23. And “Kenilworth Cigarettes,” ILN, 18 May 1918: 587.
24. Homer, The Iliad, IX.222-230, trans. Fagles, 257.
25. “Craven,” ILN, 13 Nov. 1915: 641.
26.”Nestor Gianaclis Cigarettes,” ILN, 1 Dec. 1917: 688.
27. “John Walker & Sons, Ltd.,” ILN, 11 Dec. 1915: 773.
28. “Gibb’s Cold Cream Shaving Soap,” ILN, 10 Feb. 1917: 178.
29. Homer, The Iliad, XXIV.944, trans. Fagles, 614.