You’re going to like being slaughtered on the Western Front, I guarantee it.

by awindram

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The latest Men’s Wearhouse* advertisement just flashed across my TV screen, and maybe it’s because I’m British, but I found it to be a real “what the fuck” moment.

Like all Men’s Wearhouse ads it features the company’s CEO George Zimmer, but instead of previous efforts where Zimmer just waxes lyrical about how “you’re going to like the way you look, I guarantee it,” this time they’ve decided to freshen up the brand. 

This new ad. features a narrative where some preppy little modern-day git walks into a place that clearly isn’t a Men’s Wearhouse and like a moronic shit ignores the obvious – which is that this place is clearly not a Men’s Wearhouse – and ignoring what’s clearly in front of him in the way only the truly stupid can asks if it is a Men’s Wearhouse. Instead of staring him down, beating him senseless and then telling him to fuck off, which in the circumstance would be perfectly justified, the people he asks actually tell him that he can find the store over the hill. Having told him this, they then decide now is just a great time to act as brand evangelists and so tell preppy git all about the great clothes he can expect at Men’s Wearhouse and that  the store even offers an on-site tailoring service. How charmingly helpful of them! So off goes preppy git to Men’s Wearhouse where he meets Zimmer who looks directly into the camera and – in his best Harvey Fierstein sound-a-like voice – tells us, “there’s a place men belong – that place is Men’s Wearhouse.”  

And what was the scenario that the ad agency came up with to place this narrative?

A trench in the First World War.  

That right. A TRENCH IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR! Not only that, but a trench that is being heavily shelled by artillery.

Oh, and we mustn’t forget, my favourite moment of the ad when one soldier goes to great pains (literally) to tell us about the benefits of on-site tailoring as he is being stretchered away wounded. “Yeah, I’m bleeding to death from shrapnel wounds, but before I bite it, I better tell preppy git here about the tailoring options at Men’s Wearhouse. They do a snip here, a snip there.” I’m actually only partially making this up, that final sentence is actually in the script – I do hope those aren’t the poor sod’s final words.   

How is this not brand suicide? If this played in the UK, the only thing Zimmer would be able to “guarantee” would be a sack-full of complaints and tabloid outrage.

But even leaving aside whether it’s in poor taste or not, solely as an advertisement I just don’t get it.

It’s not funny. I mean, I know comedy is subjective, but no, this really isn’t funny. I’ve had funnier bowel movements than this ad. And is an advertisement of this sort the place to attempt to make light of war? Getting genuine laughs out of war isn’t easy and, gee – as if it needed to be said – a Men’s Wearhouse ad is no M.A.S.H. As for comic depictions of the First World War, well it’s pointing out the obvious, but it’s a very fine line between the brilliance of Blackadder and the abomination that is Up The Front – it’s asking a lot of an ad for a suit hire company to try and navigate that line.

I think they want us to relate to preppy git. But how insulting is that? It’s a pretty big F.U. to your customer base by comparing them to a guy so dumb that he mistakes a trench on the Western Front for a Men’s Wearhouse.

Or then again, maybe he’s got a point. Maybe all Men’s Wearhouse stores really are that bad. Maybe they do indeed look like war zones. Perhaps on entering a Men’s Wearhouse you find yourself being bombed by German shells and that the store is littered with the corpses of comrades while those poor  members of staff still alive are to be found shivering with rats in the mud and shake in shit-inducing fear at the thought of going over the top. Zimmer had told them all they’d be back home in time for Christmas, but three years later they’re there, still stuck in Men’s Wearhouse and suffering from trench foot. Having once visited a Mens Wearhouse in Queens, I’m not entirely dismissing this thought.

I assume, however, they’re not trying to draw an analogy with the death of 10 million troops during the First World War with Joey from Trenton picking out a tux for his High School prom because that really would be fucking crass.

While I’m unwavering in my belief that this particular ad is confusing, garbled and utterly fails to be on brand equity, I also wonder if some of the issues that I have with it are less of an issue for a US audience.

Of course, I’m not saying that Americans are less aware of the horrors of this conflict. But I do wonder if the First World War has less symbolic resonance in the US than it does in the UK or in Canada or in Australia or countless other countries. It’d be entirely understandable, if true. For the US it was a relatively short war and while they suffered significant casualties, not on the scale of other countries. The deaths suffered by the UK amounted to 2.19% of the country’s entire population. That’s a phenomenal statistic, though Germany and the Ottoman Empire suffered even greater losses. The US, by contrast, lost 0.13 of its population. This is in no way meant to belittle US involvement in the war (heck, US entry was the decisive factor in the war ending when it did rather than it carrying on for longer), but merely to hypothesise that the collective scarring for that generation of Americans and the perception that future generations have of the war are likely to be very different from nations that experienced the decimation (in the literal sense of the word) of its young, male population.

From a UK perspective, the war ripped apart the old Victorian social order and its cultural memory permeated high and popular culture in the UK throughout the early and mid-twentieth century – the poetry of Owen, Brooke, Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg; the art of John Nash, Francis Wyndham and Henry Tonks; the phenomenal success of  R.C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. It’s a war that is taught to all school kids, with history teachers throughout the country using it as an excuse to show their class the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker have built successful literary careers writing about the war.

Unlike the Second World War, which is often reduced down to a battle against Fascism, a battle against right and wrong, the First World War is seen as a pointless, needless bloody slaughter of a whole generation for no discernible reason; to quote Blackadder, ” the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.” Of course, the truth is a little more sophisticated than that, but that this was the unnecessary war, the war that first comes to mind when we wear poppies for remembrance day, is pretty much a given in the UK (and, of course, in other countries).

Seeing this ad, along with some conversations that I’ve had with Americans, make me wonder whether the First World War holds a similar place in the public consciousness of the US as it does in the UK. At the very least, to me the First World War seems to be part of the cultural discourse in the UK in a way that doesn’t seem to be replicated as far I’ve experienced in the US. In the US is the First World War “fair game” for ad campaigns such as this one touting tuxedo hire now that there’s only three veterans still with us? Do Americans find that ad as off-putting as I do? Would it make a difference if it were a trench in the Civil War? I’m genuinely curious as to what others think.

Sorry, I’m prone to occasional bouts of ranting. This wasn’t a post I intended to write, it just sort of happened. Here’s Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch who died last year and was the last surving veteran of the war to actually fight in the hell that was the trenches. The tribute might help eradicate the memory of that Men’s Wearhouse ad. 

“We came across a lad from A company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he said: ‘Shoot me’. He was beyond human help and, before we could draw a revolver, he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother.’ I remember that lad in particular. It’s an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind.”
Harry Patch (1898-2009) The Last Tommy


*Note for UK readers: Men’s Wearhouse obvious UK equivalent would be Moss Bros. Both being a place to hire tuxedos for weddings, etc.