Screw you, JC Penneys

JC Penneys has released and heavily promoted a viral ad in which a man buys a woman a vacuum cleaner for the holidays, and she puts him (literally) in the dog house. There he meets other men who have been put there for various crimes. One man told his wife that her mother looked hot in a bathing suit (and, despite claims he was “just being nice”, he goes on for some time about how “smokin'” she was). Another told his wife it was easier to stay home with the kids than work a job. Another gave his wife a gift of ram chips for her computer. Another one gave his wife a moustache waxer for the holidays. The star of the ad (not our original hubby) was a complete asshole who gave his wife a bit of exercise equipment so she could combine it with dieting and lose her belly fat: there’s no indication she requested such an item (in which case it would be a fine gift), or that she wanted to lose weight – it seems to be one of those gifts designed to do more for the giver than the receiver. It turns out the key to getting out of the dog house is to buy your wife some diamond jewelry.

Wired assures us the ad is mocking men, not women. I think it’s too problematic to be simplified that much.

My instant knee-jerk reaction to the first portion of the commercial was: here we are in a horrific recession, facing unbelievable and somewhat unpredictable job losses, and JC Penney’s thinks female heads of household – those members traditionally trained in making economies and budgeting income (hence the term home economics) – are too vapid, selfish, vain or stupid to appreciate gifts that double as useful instead of just ornamental. Any other year, I’d just be annoyed to see women once again being stereotyped as scary fire-breathing dragons who roast their menfolk for making harmless mistakes instead of appreciating the good intentions behind them. But given the fact our current economy is the next thing to the Great Depression, I can only make sense of the commercial by assuming the wife or girlfriend is mind-bogglingly stupid, selfish or both.

As the commercial progresses, the representation of the wives or female partners doesn’t improve. Butthe representation of the men gets positively weird: truly selfish acts committed by the men – lusting after your mother in law to your wife’s face and giving a woman a gift designed to improve her appearance for your benefit – are equated with the perfectly reasonable acts of giving a practical gift instead of an ornamental one. And so is the very typically human act of telling someone they have it easier than you do when you’ve never tried to do their occupation. These are three very different “crimes” in my mind. Giving a practical gift is no crime at all. Giving your wife a gift that suggests her appearance isn’t up to your standards (and neither of the men who do that are half as attractive as any woman in the commercial) is so offensive that I would take it as a strong indicator the giver is too inherently selfish to be rehabilitated into a decent partner. And as wrong as it is to attempt to silence someone by telling them they have it easy when you really don’t know, it’s a mistake most people have made, and many of us succeed in learning not to do it again, so there’s hope for that guy’s rehabilitation. But the commercial lumps them all together as crimes that will be forgiven if the man buys his wife something pretty.

No wonder some men think any misdeed can be atoned for with a bunch of roses.

It would be interesting to get a count of how many jewelry-buying husbands and boyfriends wind up in the dog house for wasting money this year.


  1. Charles RB says

    “It would be interesting to get a count of how many jewelry-buying husbands and boyfriends wind up in the dog house for wasting money this year.”

    That’s what _I_ was wondering about that ad…

  2. DNi says

    Hold on. “Thanks for the memories”? That’s adorable. A computer upgrade with a sweet card is a thoughtless gift? Really?

  3. says

    Yep, pretty sure hubs would be in the dog house for buying (aka financing, since we’re BROKE) a diamond anything.

    Couple more fun bits they threw in there: The bit about the Ram for the pc. I would kill for that gift! But silly me, girls don’t like computers that work quickly or play video games! I just shop and talk to my silly friends and who needs speed for that! *hair flip* A few sticks of ram with “thanks for the memories” would go over REAL well with me. :)

    Also gotta love that folding laundry (housework?! HORRORS, THEY’VE BEEN CASTRATED!) is their purgatory. *sigh*

    Gotta love their other commercial where you see a guy washing a frilly little dog in the sink, gently drying her. When his wife/girlfriend gets home he puts the dog down, complete with little pink bow on her head, and girlfriend is pleasantly surprised and asks why he wasn’t watching the game with the guys. He replies that “it’s just a game” with a smug gring, and she awws. The commercial narrator pops in that “you’re not that guy, for NORMAL guys, there’s Helzberg diamonds!”. Yeah, vomit! Offensive to all involved, I think.

    And another one coming on tonight from Sony, advertising the PS3. Girlfriend comes home to find boyfriend hooking up the new PS3 and asks what it is. He replies “It’s our new home movie/media downloading…thing.”. THANKFULLY she’s not a complete dumbass (aside from dating/marrying loser) and points out that it’s a PS3. Sheesh. We silly womenz, whut is dis thing with shiny lites and buttinz?!?! Man makes it do flashy things for meeee!!

    The holidays seemed to have spawned a whole new level of horrific ads. *sigh*

  4. says

    I also loved the RAM upgrade. Adding RAM is my absolute favorite trick to speed up a computer that’s slowed with age – it can make it run like brand new again. You almost need to write a short story to construct a context where this would be anything but a wonderfully thoughtful gift – like getting a whole new computer at a fraction of the expense, and no tedious week of slowly moving things from one machine to the other.

  5. scarlett says

    For my last birthday, my boyfriend made a sign that says Tara for my room after I mentioned a while ago that I planned on naming my first house/apartment after the plantation in GWtW. It seriously was the most awesome gift I’ve ever gotten which INCLUDES the diamond engagement ring from my ex (yeah, good reason he’s an ex) ‘cos even though it wans’t that expensive, not many people who have thought of something so personal. If, however, he’d gotten me diamonds when I know how strapped for cash he is, I would have been thoroughly unimpressed.

  6. A. says

    ….are equated with the perfectly reasonable acts of giving a practical gift instead of an ornamental one.

    The commercial is digusting, but how is a vacuum cleaner a practical gift? ‘Cos it’s a woman’s job to clean up the mess? If every family member contributes equally to housework, how is a device, useful to each of them, a gift solely for a woman? Not that jewelry is any better. Still, if I got a vacuum cleaner or smth like that as a gift I’d suspect that my boyfriend/husband expects me to clean after him.

  7. Charles RB says

    “The commercial narrator pops in that “you’re not that guy, for NORMAL guys, there’s Helzberg diamonds!”.”

    Well, I’ve got no problem with mocking small ratty dogs, but that line coming in right after “it’s just a game”?

    Cos all us guys LOVE sports and always want to watch any & all games while drinking beer because we’re guys. SPORTS! RARRRRRR!

    (The Brawndo and Powerthirst ads are meant to be parodies, ad-land…)

  8. Robin says

    There are so many things wrong with that ad, most of which have been touched on already. I really hate the assertions put out around Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day that the only way to show how much you love a woman is by gifting her with shiny rocks.

    As many of you have said, I’d much prefer to receive something useful and/or more suited to my personal tastes. (I mean, not to keep harping on it, but that RAM thing is great.) One of my favorite gifts last year was a really good quality knife from a friend who shares my love of cooking and can justify the expense because he makes a lot more money in academic tech support than I do at a nonprofit library. I use the thing almost every day, whereas real diamonds would undoubtedly sit in my small jewelry box for fear that I would lose them if worn too often.

    And, yes, the cliche of men being punished by doing “women’s work” is beyond old. One of my straight male friends is more fussy about his laundry than half the women I know, and several of them clean their apartments more often than I do. (Partly because I have a roommate and they don’t, but I’m also naturally a bit untidy. It’s a flaw.)

  9. says

    Still, if I got a vacuum cleaner or smth like that as a gift I’d suspect that my boyfriend/husband expects me to clean after him.

    I think that’s the interpretation the commercial is going for. But consider this: if we assume that, by choice or by mindless adherence to tradition, the woman is the sole vacuum user in this relationship, the vacuum might make her work easier. In which case, during a period where no one feels they can regard much of their income as “disposable”, it could actually be a fairly thoughtful gift. Like getting a dishwasher for someone who does all the dishwashing.

    The commercial may indeed be assuming men still don’t do chores – which is, then, a whole new layer of troubling crap from it – but I had a different unconscious assumption: that he does certain chores, and she does others, and vacuuming happens to be one of hers. I know some households that operate that way (as opposed to everyone taking turns at every chore).

  10. says

    Mmmmm…. dishwasher. I’d throw a party if we got a dishwasher. I miss my dishwasher.

    I read about this ad in my local newspaper, and its take was all about how it was demeaning to the menz. And I can see where that’s coming from, but it’s ignoring the way women are portrayed, as you say, as being shallow, manipulative, and unnecessarily mean.

    I think my two “fav” parts are how the men need to do chores as punishment (gosh, like a young child sent to their room and told not to come out till it’s clean) and the howling at the idea of quiche and lattes for dinner – real men eat… um… something else.

    I know there are women who are quite pleased with jewelery – I used to work with one – but I hate the idea that all women everywhere are pleased with jewelery, so every man should go that route to pleasing his wife/girlfriend.

  11. says

    You know what else really bugs me? Men are trained from birth that nice gifts for women include flowers, scented bath products, and jewelry, and all women like these things.

    I’m allergic to most flowers, my skin’s too sensitive for 99% of scented bath stuff, and I rarely wear jewelry (though at least I *can*).

    And do you know, every time someone who doesn’t know me well – a co-worker or acquaintance, for example – decides to get me a gift, one of the above are usually what I get? Do you know how hard it is to say, “Oh, thank you!” when realizing, “Oh, fuck, if I can’t make them go away quickly so I can get to my inhaler, I’m going to have one fucking headache from hell in two hours?” I should have an Academy Award for that.

    Now, quick, without thinking: if you want to get a male co-worker a little token for a holiday or to show appreciation, what’s a gift all men like?

    *tumbleweed rolls by*

    Oh, that’s right! There IS no one gift all men want! We’re expected to actually get to know the man in question and find out what he likes!

    But there’s a handy shortcut if you’re gifting a woman, because who has time to try to get to know such a useless creature? Just get her something smelly or sparkly.

  12. gategrrl says

    Seriously, though, I think for guys the all-purpose gifts seem to be a computer, a wide-screen plasma television and/or Blu-ray player and a copy of the new Dark Knight batman movie. Cuz, all men are into that stuff and sekritly wish/want to be Batman with all that fancy gear (although without the tights).

  13. sbg says

    Now, quick, without thinking: if you want to get a male co-worker a little token for a holiday or to show appreciation, what’s a gift all men like?

    According to my TV, an electric razor. When in doubt, give that fully-bearded man a new razor.

  14. gategrrl says

    LOL–what do you give a man for a present?

    My husband’s grandmother would give her son (my father in law) a bottle of Old Spice *every* Christmas, every year, without fail. He had a closet full of the stuff.

    I understand socks and a tie were also de rigeour for many years for men. A shaver, too. These days, a stack of blank CDs or a card for iTunes.

    I know that in many other poorer countries, a woman’s wealth is entirely in her jewelry; it’s her property, and she wears it all the time. It’s also custom in Korea to give infants a gold baby ring to start their jewelry collection. It’s only here, where the custom doesn’t quite make sense anymore (a woman is more apt to have a savings account if she has one at all than keep her wealth in her gold) that it’s risen to something of a luxury instead of a necessity.

  15. DNi says

    Cuz, all men are into that stuff and sekritly wish/want to be Batman with all that fancy gear (although without the tights).

    This is actually true. Anyway, the gifts you get for men are: Electric Shaving Razors, Cologne, or just about anything with a bikini-clad girl in it.

    Or Dark Knight. And Fight Club.

  16. says

    Well, now, yes – I guess those are default gifts for male relatives, and if I had a few more, I might be more aware of it.

    However, most of the gifts you guys have listed here are not co-worker gifts, are they? Surely no boss would buy an electric shaver as a way of saying happy holidays to his team? (Or would they? Apparently Californians think buying a woman you hardly know bath products is socially acceptable – the reserved Appalachian in me is slightly appalled.)

  17. MaggieCat says

    nice gifts for women include flowers, scented bath products, and jewelry, and all women like these things.

    In which case, scratch’n’sniff stickers fit the bill.

    Frankly, I’d prefer the stickers. It’s not by choice that I spend a fortune on the fragrance free/dye free detergent and have to hold my breath while in that aisle of the store, I apparently wear ‘a lot’ of jewelry by the standards around here but it’s just the same dozen pieces over and over, and most flowers and plants are poisonous to members of my family who are likely to eat them.

    My great aunt and uncle weren’t big on kids and really didn’t get them so I only saw them a few times a year until I hit my teen years. So for the first 16 or so years of my life, every Christmas and my birthday meant a modest gift certificate to the same bookstore because they’d paid enough attention to notice that. I loved that place; I bought my first copies of Shakespeare there with those gifts. Yes, the 15 year old girl was happier with books than something sparkly. And to this day I can’t go past that mall (the building is stunning and now houses a bank) without thinking of both of them.

    Yet the media would have us believe that those were less special gifts than the jewelry that my grandmother (who I used to see a couple times a month) keeps giving me that’s either gone or sitting in a closet somewhere. It makes no sense.

    My husband’s grandmother would give her son (my father in law) a bottle of Old Spice *every* Christmas, every year, without fail. He had a closet full of the stuff.

    Okay, this made me crack up because it’s a loooong running tradition (starting back in the years where it’s more ‘buy a present and slap the toddler’s name on it so they learn the concept of exchanging gifts rather than just receiving them’) for me to give my grampa Old Spice for Christmas. Then one year as a teen when I’d struck out and done my shopping with friends rather than parents I skipped it thinking it was just habit, only to hear a couple of months later he’d had to buy it himself. Who knew?

  18. gategrrl says

    Bath products … they’re neutral. Unless you know the person is allergic, sure. It doesn’t mean “you’re smelly” or “you need to take better care of yourself”.

    Personally, though, I wouldn’t give bath products. From a boss? Bonuses.

  19. says

    That’s not what I meant about bath products, though. There’s a hint of intimacy about a gift that gets rubbed onto the body of the receiver. Where I grew up, there would have been at least *some* speculation by third parties that the giver and receiver of such a gift were doin’ it. L.A. is just a different culture, because Puritanical mores never had a foothold here, like they did in a lot of other US regions.

  20. Nihilunder says

    A stern wife “orders” her meek husband into a dog house for humiliation purposes…Anyone else think this is kinky as all get up? I mean, this “ad” isn’t really entertaining or funny in any way, and from my view just seems rather creepy.

    I won’t play armchair psychologist here, but Freud would have a few things to say about the writers involved.

  21. says

    I was pretty happy my workplace set up a “giving tree” (not the word I would have used) for us to write up what we thought our Secret Santa should get us since they spread Secret Santa across four departments. (I don’t even KNOW who the heck my giftee is.) Otherwise, I’d end up with bathstuff. Which, like ever other time I’ve been given bathstuff by strangers, I’d give away.

    I see exactly what you’re saying, Jennifer.

  22. Firebird says

    Never having been the recipient of flowers or jewelry (or much else in the way of gifts not from family members, just because of the way life works out sometimes), I wanted to point out a different spin on the whole problem. I almost never wear jewelry of any kind, although I do like flowers and will occasionally buy them myself to brighten things up. In any case, I have noticed my own reaction, especially when I was the receptionist for 4 years and had to sign for other women’s flower deliveries.

    I found myself wanting to be the one singled out in public by a flower/gift basket/whathaveyou delivery even though I was not in any such relationship, not because I was wanting a relationship, not because I wanted the flowers or cookies or whatever, but because such traditional and public gifts (jewelry too because it’s to look at) are in a way status symbols. Something in my head said “I’m not valuable because I don’t have anyone to spend money on me, and everyone knows it because they can see that no one spends money on me.”

    It’s not the truth of course, and my reaction is my own problem to sort out from my emotions to my values. But if you approach the question of gifts from a sense of male assigns value to female by giving a certain type of expensive gift then these inevitable ads about such gifts take on a whole other level of creep factor.

    And I do think that this assumption is widespread, not just limited to me, so I think there’s at least a small amount of that attitude fueling the commercial.

    On the other hand, I thought it was interesting that there was a background of constant instruction about what the men could do to make the women happy – and it was stuff like “talk about your feelings” and “help with the chores around the house”. Still stereotypical, but mildly more appropriate. Like, if you won’t take the time to take note of what the woman tells you she wants, then you can buy your way around it with the jewelry that worked for this other guy.

  23. Izzy says

    Re: bath products, I got body lotion from the female boss at my college job. (Also really crappy nail polish and lipstick). That was in New England, but that was also a pretty damn liberal college, so.

    The boyfriend got me two card games and a book of writing tips this year; I’m happy.

  24. Patrick says

    I bought my mother a DVD set of documentaries on the history of the first-century Christian church. It cost me $13, and made her much happier than any shiny things would.

  25. sbg says

    I gave my mom a hug and a visit*, which she seemed to enjoy immensely. She would always love jewelry, because to her that is a luxury item she enjoys but rarely purchases … but ultimately? Her favorite gifts are intangible things.

    And she returned the favor by visiting me on my birthday, despite a fear of driving in MN in the winter. Warm fuzzies all around!

    As for this viral vid – ugh. I think Jenn covered most of the problem areas.

  26. says

    A lot of my friends think my husband is just plain out of it. He doesn’t buy me flowers very often (like…um…ever), the only ring I’m ever likely to receive from him is on my left ring finger. But he never fails to surprise come gift-giving occasions.

    The latest? An under-sink water heater for the bathroom in the back of the house. My reaction? Surprise, of course, but also a big smile. I’ve wanted that instant-hot water for years. No more running water down the drain awaiting a tepid drip. It was thoughtful, useful and a pleasant surprise since it SURELY wasn’t something I’d expect to receive as a gift.

    Did he install it? No. I did.

  27. says

    Another Jen, that’s lovely! It’s interesting that your friends don’t get it, because I always thought the point of gift giving is to get the receiver something they want. But I wonder if some people think the point of gift giving is to get the receiver something that will impress the outside world.

  28. says

    OH…MY…HEAVENS! Jen!? Are we parallel Jens? EYE always thought the point of gift giving was to get the receiver something they would enjoy/want, too! It’s amazing the kind of…er…”stuff” we get from family during gift-giving occasions. Too often it’s clearly gift-giving by obligation rather than from the heart. I like to give gifts WHEN I see them (rather than an OCCASION). Why wait? As for impressing, not so much. 😉

  29. says

    Spooky parallel! 😀

    I really hope the difference between us and the other people we’re talking about is philosophical. Otherwise, the only explanation I can come up with is that they’re so locked into stereotypes that they just cannot comprehend that you actually want what you claim to want when it’s not (in their minds) sufficiently feminine. And that would just be sad.

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