Why do manufacturers of vests and briefs also want their target audience to rescue distressed damsels?

An underwear advertisement was recently the subject of much mirth during dinner with friends. A friend recounted the storyline of the ad, in which a minor character is that of a runaway dog called Casper.

The ad begins with a man (played by Sarath Kumar), clad in a white shirt and blue jeans, helping a foreign tourist couple with directions. The camera pans to a puppy that decides to trundle across the busy road when its owner, a young woman, is busy chatting with her friends.

“Casper... stop,” calls out the young woman and follows the dog at a run, unmindful of a speeding truck hurtling toward her. Sarath Kumar tries to shout out a warning but the young woman is only thinking of her puppy.

Now our hero gets into action. Breaking into a run, he simultaneously unbuttons his shirt to the background score of “Poomex, poomex”. The foreign tourists stand in awe as the hero twists his shirt into a lasso and neatly whirls the woman into his arms.

The heroine gasps and looks adoringly into the eyes of her rescuer and then at the insignia on the vest and simpers, “Thank you, Poomex hero.” Then both of them look into the camera and smile.

What happens to Casper? There is no sign, not even a whimper.

This happily-ever-after, dog-forgotten ending was what caused much laughter at the aforementioned dinner, not least because one of the friends actually owns a dog called Casper.

Apart from its entertainment value, the short clip is also interesting because it uses the television trope of knight in shining armour (vest, in this case) rescuing a damsel in distress. In the eighties, I have seen a similar print ad: There’s a man wearing a shirt casually left unbuttoned to reveal a pair of briefs. He’s just rescued a woman from some ruffian-type guy. I've forgotten the brand and would be grateful to anyone who can remind me of it in the comments.

What could be the subtext of this concoction of underwear, masculinity and rescuing? That men who show off their vests and briefs do a good job of saving women? There must be some special connection between displaying inner wear and playing the saviour. Perhaps, it harks back to a primeval instinct of a silverback baring his chest to show aggression?

As the role of a rescuer or saviour also implies being in a position of power, then power dynamics is what is central to the advertisement. Now I begin to understand why superheroes wear their underwear on the outside.

But consider a recent ad for innerwear for women (Apologies, I don’t have a web link). There’s a young lady supposedly wearing ‘brand x’ bra, which makes her very self-conscious. As she goes up an escalator, she’s wondering “Why is he looking at me?”. Then there’s another woman who is supposedly wearing the right brand of bra and is super-confident and cool when people look at her.

The semiotics of underwear advertising seems quite different for men and women. The visual signs in these ads show men as initiators of action while the women are shown as conscious of how they are looked at. The two ads that I discuss fall neatly into the theory on gender roles in advertisements put forward by art critic John Berger in 'Ways of Seeing' (1972): Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.

So what do you think of the ads, reader? They are very amusing but, to me, it’s disconcerting that advertisers for vests and briefs also consider it important to sell masculinity in its traditional avatar of being the forceful caretaker of females.

Let’s hope that, next time, the minimally-clothed male will save the puppy too.