Listening to Khakis

What America’s most popular pants tell us about the way guys think.

1.

In the fall of 1987, Levi Strauss & Co. began running a series of national television commercials to promote Dockers, its new brand of men’s khakis. All the spots-and there were twenty-eight-had the same basic structure. A handheld camera would follow a group of men as they sat around a living room or office or bar. The men were in their late thirties, but it was hard to tell, because the camera caught faces only fleetingly. It was trained instead on the men from the waist down-on the seats of their pants, on the pleats of their khakis, on their hands going in and out of their pockets. As the camera jumped in quick cuts from Docker to Docker, the men chatted in loose, overlapping non sequiturs-guy-talk fragments that, when they are rendered on the page, achieve a certain Dadaist poetry. Here is the entire transcript of “Poolman,” one of the first-and, perhaps, best-ads in the series:

“She was a redhead about five foot six inches tall.”

“And all of a sudden this thing starts spinning, and it’s going round and round.”

“Is that Nelson?”

“And that makes me safe, because with my wife, I’ll never be that way.”

“It’s like your career, and you’re frustrated. I mean that-that’s-what you want.”

“Of course, that’s just my opinion.”

“So money’s no object.”

“Yeah, money’s no object.”

“What are we going to do with our lives, now?”

“Well . . .”

“Best of all . . .”

[Voice-over] “Levi’s one-hundred-per-cent-cotton Dockers. If you’re not wearing Dockers, you’re just wearing pants.”

“And I’m still paying the loans off.”

“You’ve got all the money in the world.”

“I’d like to at least be your poolman.”

By the time the campaign was over, at the beginning of the nineties, Dockers had grown into a six-hundred-million-dollar business-a brand that if it had spun off from Levi’s would have been (and would still be) the fourth-largest clothing brand in the world. Today, seventy per cent of American men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five own a pair of Dockers, and khakis are expected to be as popular as blue jeans by the beginning of the next century. It is no exaggeration to call the original Dockers ads one of the most successful fashion-advertising campaigns in history.

This is a remarkable fact for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Dockers campaign was aimed at men, and no one had ever thought you could hit a home run like that by trying to sell fashion to the American male. Not long ago, two psychologists at York University, in Toronto-Irwin Silverman and Marion Eals-conducted an experiment in which they had men and women sit in an office for two minutes, without any reading material or distraction, while they ostensibly waited to take part in some kind of academic study. Then they were taken from the office and given the real reason for the experiment: to find out how many of the objects in the office they could remember. This was not a test of memory so much as it was a test of awareness-of the kind and quality of unconscious attention that people pay to the particulars of their environment. If you think about it, it was really a test of fashion sense, because, at its root, this is what fashion sense really is-the ability to register and appreciate and remember the details of the way those around you look and dress, and then reinterpret those details and memories yourself.

When the results of the experiment were tabulated, it was found that the women were able to recall the name and the placement of seventy per cent more objects than the men, which makes perfect sense. Women’s fashion, after all, consists of an endless number of subtle combinations and variations-of skirt, dress, pants, blouse, T-shirt, hose, pumps, flats, heels, necklace, bracelet, cleavage, collar, curl, and on and on-all driven by the fact that when a woman walks down the street she knows that other women, consciously or otherwise, will notice the name and the placement of what she is wearing. Fashion works for women because women can appreciate its complexity. But when it comes to men what’s the point? How on earth do you sell fashion to someone who has no appreciation for detail whatsoever?

The Dockers campaign, however, proved that you could sell fashion to men. But that was only the first of its remarkable implications. The second-which remains as weird and mysterious and relevant to the fashion business today as it was ten years ago-was that you could do this by training a camera on a man’s butt and having him talk in yuppie gibberish.

2.

I watched “Poolman” with three members of the new team handling the Dockers account at Foote, Cone & Belding (F.C.B.), Levi’s ad agency. We were in a conference room at Levi’s Plaza, in downtown San Francisco, a redbrick building decorated (appropriately enough) in khaki like earth tones, with the team members-Chris Shipman, Iwan Thomis, and Tanyia Kandohla-forming an impromptu critical panel. Shipman, who had thick black glasses and spoke in an almost inaudible laid-back drawl, put a videocassette of the first campaign into a VCR-stopping, starting, and rewinding-as the group analyzed what made the spots so special.

“Remember, this is from 1987,” he said, pointing to the screen, as the camera began its jerky dance. “Although this style of film making looks everyday now, that kind of handheld stuff was very fresh when these were made.”

“They taped real conversations,” Kandohla chimed in. “Then the footage was cut together afterward. They were thrown areas to talk about. It was very natural, not at all scripted. People were encouraged to go off on tangents.”

After “Poolman,” we watched several of the other spots in the original group-”Scorekeeper” and “Dad’s Chair,” “Flag Football,” and “The Meaning of Life”-and I asked about the headlessness of the commercials, because if you watch too many in a row all those anonymous body parts begin to get annoying. But Thomis maintained that the headlessness was crucial, because it was the absence of faces that gave the dialogue its freedom. “They didn’t show anyone’s head because if they did the message would have too much weight,” he said. “It would be too pretentious. You know, people talking about their hopes and dreams. It seems more genuine, as opposed to something stylized.”

The most striking aspect of the spots is how different they are from typical fashion advertising. If you look at men’s fashion magazines, for example, at the advertisements for the suits of Ralph Lauren or Valentino or Hugo Boss, they almost always consist of a beautiful man, with something interesting done to his hair, wearing a gorgeous outfit. At the most, the man may be gesturing discreetly, or smiling in the demure way that a man like that might smile after, say, telling the supermodel at the next table no thanks he has to catch an early-morning flight to Milan. But that’s all. The beautiful face and the clothes tell the whole story. The Dockers ads, though, are almost exactly the opposite. There’s no face. The camera is jumping around so much that it’s tough to concentrate on the clothes. And instead of stark simplicity, the fashion image is overlaid with a constant, confusing patter. It’s almost as if the Dockers ads weren’t primarily concerned with clothes at all-and in fact that’s exactly what Levi’s intended. What the company had discovered, in its research, was that baby-boomer men felt that the chief thing missing from their lives was male friendship. Caught between the demands of the families that many of them had started in the eighties and career considerations that had grown more onerous, they felt they had lost touch with other men. The purpose of the ads-the chatter, the lounging around, the quick cuts-was simply to conjure up a place where men could put on one-hundred-per-cent-cotton khakis and reconnect with one another. In the original advertising brief, that imaginary place was dubbed Dockers World.

This may seem like an awfully roundabout way to sell a man a pair of pants. But that was the genius of the campaign. One of the truisms of advertising is that it’s always easier to sell at the extremes than in the middle, which is why the advertisements for Valentino and Hugo Boss are so simple. The man in the market for a thousand-dollar suit doesn’t need to be convinced of the value of nice clothes. The man in the middle, though-the man in the market for a forty-dollar pair of khakis-does. In fact, he probably isn’t comfortable buying clothes at all. To sell him a pair of pants you have to take him somewhere he is comfortable, and that was the point of Dockers World. Even the apparent gibberish of lines like ” ‘She was a redhead about five foot six inches tall.’ / ‘And all of a sudden this thing starts spinning, and it’s going round and round.’ / ‘Is that Nelson?’ ” have, if you listen closely enough, a certain quintessentially guy-friendly feel. It’s the narrative equivalent of the sports-highlight reel-the sequence of five- second film clips of the best plays from the day’s basketball or football or baseball games, which millions of American men watch every night on television. This nifty couplet from “Scorekeeper,” for instance-” ‘Who remembers their actual first girlfriend?’/ ‘I would have done better, but I was bald then, too’ “-is not nonsense but a twenty- minute conversation edited down to two lines. A man schooled in the highlight reel no more needs the other nineteen minutes and fifty- eight seconds of that exchange than he needs to see the intervening catch and throw to make sense of a sinking liner to left and a close play at the plate.

“Men connected to the underpinnings of what was being said,” Robert Hanson, the vice-president of marketing for Dockers, told me. “These guys were really being honest and genuine and real with each other, and talking about their lives. It may not have been the truth, but it was the fantasy of what a lot of customers wanted, which was not just to be work-focussed but to have the opportunity to express how you feel about your family and friends and lives. The content was very important. The thing that built this brand was that we absolutely nailed the emotional underpinnings of what motivates baby boomers.”

Hanson is a tall, striking man in his early thirties. He’s what Jeff Bridges would look like if he had gone to finishing school. Hanson said that when he goes out on research trips to the focus groups that Dockers holds around the country he often deliberately stays in the background, because if the men in the group see him “they won’t necessarily respond as positively or as openly.” When he said this, he was wearing a pair of stone-white Dockers, a deep-blue shirt, a navy blazer, and a brilliant-orange patterned tie, and these worked so well together that it was obvious what he meant. When someone like Hanson dresses up that fabulously in Dockers, he makes it clear just how many variations and combinations are possible with a pair of khakis-but that, of course, defeats the purpose of the carefully crafted Dockers World message, which is to appeal to the man who wants nothing to do with fashion’s variations and combinations. It’s no coincidence that every man in every one of the group settings profiled in each commercial is wearing-albeit in different shades-exactly the same kind of pants. Most fashion advertising sells distinctiveness. (Can you imagine, say, an Ann Taylor commercial where a bunch of thirtyish girlfriends are lounging around chatting, all decked out in matching sweater sets?) Dockers was selling conformity.

“We would never do anything with our pants that would frighten anyone away,” Gareth Morris, a senior designer for the brand, told me. “We’d never do too many belt loops, or an unusual base cloth. Our customers like one-hundred-per-cent-cotton fabrics. We would never do a synthetic. That’s definitely in the market, but it’s not where we need to be. Styling-wise, we would never do a wide, wide leg. We would never do a peg-legged style. Our customers seem to have a definite idea of what they want. They don’t like tricky openings or zips or a lot of pocket flaps and details on the back. We’ve done button-through flaps, to push it a little bit. But we usually do a welt pocket-that’s a pocket with a button-through. It’s funny. We have focus groups in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, and whenever we show them a pocket with a flap-it’s a simple thing-they hate it. They won’t buy the pants. They complain, ‘How do I get my wallet?’ So we compromise and do a welt. That’s as far as they’ll go. And there’s another thing. They go, ‘My butt’s big enough. I don’t want flaps hanging off of it, too.’ They like inseam pockets. They like to know where they put their hands.” He gestured to the pair of experimental prototype Dockers he was wearing, which had pockets that ran almost parallel to the waistband of the pants. “This is a stretch for us,” he said. “If you start putting more stuff on than we have on our product, you’re asking for trouble.”

The apotheosis of the notion of khakis as nonfashion-guy fashion came several years after the original Dockers campaign, when Haggar Clothing Co. hired the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners ad agency, in San Francisco, to challenge Dockers’ khaki dominance. In retrospect, it was an inspired choice, since Goodby, Silverstein is Guy Central. It does Porsche (“Kills Bugs Fast”) and Isuzu and the recent “Got Milk?” campaign and a big chunk of the Nike business, and it operates out of a gutted turn-of-the-century building downtown, refurbished in what is best described as neo-Erector set. The campaign that it came up with featured voice-overs by Roseanne’s television husband, John Goodman. In the best of the ads, entitled “I Am,” a thirtyish man wakes up, his hair all mussed, pulls on a pair of white khakis, and half sleepwalks outside to get the paper. “I am not what I wear. I’m not a pair of pants, or a shirt,” Goodman intones. The man walks by his wife, handing her the front sections of the paper. “I’m not in touch with my inner child. I don’t read poetry, and I’m not politically correct.” He heads away from the kitchen, down a hallway, and his kid grabs the comics from him. “I’m just a guy, and I don’t have time to think about what I wear, because I’ve got a lot of important guy things to do.” All he has left now is the sports section and, gripping it purposefully, he heads for the bathroom. “One-hundred-per-cent-cotton wrinkle-free khaki pants that don’t require a lot of thought. Haggar. Stuff you can wear.”

“We softened it,” Richard Silverstein told me as we chatted in his office, perched on chairs in the midst of-among other things–a lacrosse stick, a bike stand, a gym bag full of yesterday’s clothing, three toy Porsches, and a giant model of a Second World War Spitfire hanging from the ceiling. “We didn’t say ‘Haggar Apparel’ or ‘Haggar Clothing.’ We said, ‘Hey, listen, guys, don’t worry. It’s just stuff. Don’t worry about it.’ The concept was ‘Make it approachable.’ ” The difference between this and the Dockers ad is humor. F.C.B. assiduously documented men’s inner lives. Goodby, Silverstein made fun of them. But it’s essentially the same message. It’s instructive, in this light, to think about the Casual Friday phenomenon of the past decade, the loosening of corporate dress codes that was spawned by the rise of khakis. Casual Fridays are commonly thought to be about men rejecting the uniform of the suit. But surely that’s backward. Men started wearing khakis to work because Dockers and Haggar made it sound as if khakis were going to be even easier than a suit. The khaki-makers realized that men didn’t want to get rid of uniforms; they just wanted a better uniform.

The irony, of course, is that this idea of nonfashion-of khakis as the choice that diminishes, rather than enhances, the demands of fashion-turned out to be a white lie. Once you buy even the plainest pair of khakis, you invariably also buy a sports jacket and a belt and a whole series of shirts to go with it-maybe a polo knit for the weekends, something in plaid for casual, and a button-down for a dressier look-and before long your closet is thick with just the kinds of details and options that you thought you were avoiding. You may not add these details as brilliantly or as consciously as, say, Hanson does, but you end up doing it nonetheless. In the past seven years, sales of men’s clothing in the United States have risen an astonishing twenty- one per cent, in large part because of this very fact-that khakis, even as they have simplified the bottom half of the male wardrobe, have forced a steady revision of the top. At the same time, even khakis themselves-within the narrow constraints of khakidom-have quietly expanded their range. When Dockers were launched, in the fall of 1986, there were just three basic styles: the double-pleated Docker in khaki, olive, navy, and black; the Steamer, in cotton canvas; and the more casual flat-fronted Docker. Now there are twenty-four. Dockers and Haggar and everyone else has been playing a game of bait and switch: lure men in with the promise of a uniform and then slip them, bit by bit, fashion. Put them in an empty room and then, ever so slowly, so as not to scare them, fill the room with objects.

3.

There is a puzzle in psychology known as the canned-laughter problem, which has a deeper and more complex set of implications about men and women and fashion and why the Dockers ads were so successful. Over the years, several studies have been devoted to this problem, but perhaps the most instructive was done by two psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, Gerald Cupchik and Howard Leventhal. Cupchik and Leventhal took a stack of cartoons (including many from The New Yorker), half of which an independent panel had rated as very funny and half of which it had rated as mediocre. They put the cartoons on slides, had a voice-over read the captions, and presented the slide show to groups of men and women. As you might expect, both sexes reacted pretty much the same way. Then Cupchik and Leventhal added a laugh track to the voice-over-the subjects were told that it was actual laughter from people who were in the room during the taping-and repeated the experiment. This time, however, things got strange. The canned laughter made the women laugh a little harder and rate the cartoons as a little funnier than they had before. But not the men. They laughed a bit more at the good cartoons but much more at the bad cartoons. The canned laughter also made them rate the bad cartoons as much funnier than they had rated them before, but it had little or no effect on their ratings of the good cartoons. In fact, the men found a bad cartoon with a laugh track to be almost as funny as a good cartoon without one. What was going on?

The guru of male-female differences in the ad world is Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor at the University of Chicago business school. In a groundbreaking series of articles written over the past decade, Meyers-Levy has explained the canned-laughter problem and other gender anomalies by arguing that men and women use fundamentally different methods of processing information. Given two pieces of evidence about how funny something is-their own opinion and the opinion of others (the laugh track)-the women came up with a higher score than before because they added the two clues together: they integrated the information before them. The men, on the other hand, picked one piece of evidence and ignored the other. For the bad cartoons, they got carried away by the laugh track and gave out hugely generous scores for funniness. For the good cartoons, however, they were so wedded to their own opinion that suddenly the laugh track didn’t matter at all.

This idea-that men eliminate and women integrate-is called by Meyers-Levy the “selectivity hypothesis.” Men are looking for a way to simplify the route to a conclusion, so they seize on the most obvious evidence and ignore the rest, while women, by contrast, try to process information comprehensively. So-called bandwidth research, for example, has consistently shown that if you ask a group of people to sort a series of objects or ideas into categories, the men will create fewer and larger categories than the women will. They use bigger mental bandwidths. Why? Because the bigger the bandwidth the less time and attention you have to pay to each individual object. Or consider what is called the invisibility question. If a woman is being asked a series of personal questions by another woman, she’ll say more if she’s facing the woman she’s talking to than she will if her listener is invisible. With men, it’s the opposite. When they can’t see the person who’s asking them questions, they suddenly and substantially open up. This, of course, is a condition of male communication which has been remarked on by women for millennia. But the selectivity hypothesis suggests that the cause of it has been misdiagnosed. It’s not that men necessarily have trouble expressing their feelings; it’s that in a face-to-face conversation they experience emotional overload. A man can’t process nonverbal information (the expression and body language of the person asking him questions) and verbal information (the personal question being asked) at the same time any better than he can process other people’s laughter and his own laughter at the same time. He has to select, and it is Meyers- Levy’s contention that this pattern of behavior suggests significant differences in the way men and women respond to advertising.

Joan Meyers-Levy is a petite woman in her late thirties, with a dark pageboy haircut and a soft voice. She met me in the downtown office of the University of Chicago with three large folders full of magazine advertisements under one arm, and after chatting about the origins and the implications of her research she handed me an ad from several years ago for Evian bottled water. It has a beautiful picture of the French Alps and, below that, in large type, “Our factory.” The text ran for several paragraphs, beginning:

You’re not just looking at the French Alps. You’re looking at one of the most pristine places on earth. And the origin of Evian Natural Spring Water.

Here, it takes no less than 15 years for nature to purify every drop of Evian as it flows through mineral-rich glacial formations deep within the mountains. And it is here that Evian acquires its unique balance of minerals.

“Now, is that a male or a female ad?” she asked. I looked at it again. The picture baffled me. But the word “factory” seemed masculine, so I guessed male.

She shook her head. “It’s female. Look at the picture. It’s just the Alps, and then they label it ‘Our factory.’ They’re using a metaphor. To understand this, you’re going to have to engage in a fair amount of processing. And look at all the imagery they’re encouraging you to build up. You’re not just looking at the French Alps. It’s ‘one of the most pristine places on earth’ and it will take nature ‘no less than fifteen years’ to purify.” Her point was that this is an ad that works only if the viewer appreciates all its elements-if the viewer integrates, not selects. A man, for example, glancing at the ad for a fraction of a second, might focus only on the words “Our factory” and screen out the picture of the Alps entirely, the same way he might have screened out the canned laughter. Then he wouldn’t get the visual metaphor. In fact, he might end up equating Evian with a factory, and that would be a disaster. Anyway, why bother going into such detail about the glaciers if it’s just going to get lost in the big male bandwidth?

Meyers-Levy handed me another Evian advertisement. It showed a man-the Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Matt Biondi-by a pool drinking Evian, with the caption “Revival of the fittest.” The women’s ad had a hundred and nineteen words of text. This ad had just twenty-nine words: “No other water has the unique, natural balance of minerals that Evian achieves during its 15-year journey deep within the French Alps. To be the best takes time.” Needless to say, it came from a men’s magazine. “With men, you don’t want the fluff,” she said. “Women, though, participate a lot more in whatever they are processing. By giving them more cues, you give them something to work with. You don’t have to be so literal. With women you can be more allusive, so you can draw them in. They will engage in elaboration, and the more associations they make the easier it is to remember and retrieve later on.”

Meyers-Levy took a third ad from her pile, this one for the 1997 Mercury Mountaineer four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle. It covers two pages, has the heading “Take the Rough with the Smooth,” and shows four pictures-one of the vehicle itself, one of a mother and her child, one of a city skyline, and a large one of the interior of the car, over which the ad’s text is superimposed. Around the border of the ad are forty-four separate, tiny photographs of roadways and buildings and construction sites and manhole covers. Female. Next to it on the table she put another ad-this one a single page, with a picture of the Mountaineer’s interior, fifteen lines of text, a picture of the car’s exterior, and, at the top, the heading: “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Comfortable.” Male. “It’s details, details. They’re saying lots of different stuff,” she said, pointing to the female version. “With men, instead of trying to cover everything in a single execution, you’d probably want to have a whole series of ads, each making a different point.”

After a while, the game got very easy-if a bit humiliating. Meyers- Levy said that her observations were not antimale-that both the male and the female strategies have their strengths and their weaknesses- and, of course, she’s right. On the other hand, reading the gender of ads makes it painfully obvious how much the advertising world- consciously or not-talks down to men. Before I met Meyers-Levy, I thought that the genius of the famous first set of Dockers ads was their psychological complexity, their ability to capture the many layers of eighties guyness. But when I thought about them again after meeting Meyers-Levy, I began to think that their real genius lay in their heroic simplicity-in the fact that F.C.B. had the self-discipline to fill the allotted thirty seconds with as little as possible. Why no heads? The invisibility rule. Guys would never listen to that Dadaist extemporizing if they had to process nonverbal cues, too. Why were the ads set in people’s living rooms and at the office? Bandwidth. The message was that khakis were wide-bandwidth pants. And why were all the ads shot in almost exactly the same way, and why did all the dialogue run together in one genial, faux-philosophical stretch of highlight reel? Because of canned laughter. Because if there were more than one message to be extracted men would get confused.

4.

In the early nineties, Dockers began to falter. In 1992, the company sold sixty-six million pairs of khakis, but in 1993, as competition from Haggar and the Gap and other brands grew fiercer, that number slipped to fifty-nine million six hundred thousand, and by 1994 it had fallen to forty-seven million. In marketing-speak, user reality was encroaching on brand personality; that is, Dockers were being defined by the kind of middle-aged men who wore them, and not by the hipper, younger men in the original advertisements. The brand needed a fresh image, and the result was the “Nice Pants” campaign currently being shown on national television-a campaign widely credited with the resurgence of Dockers’ fortunes. In one of the spots, “Vive la France,” a scruffy young man in his early twenties, wearing Dockers, is sitting in a café in Paris. He’s obviously a tourist. He glances up and sees a beautiful woman (actually, the supermodel Tatjana Patitz) looking right at him. He’s in heaven. She starts walking directly toward him, and as she passes by she says, “Beau pantalon.” As he looks frantically through his French phrase book for a translation, the waiter comes by and cuffs him on the head: “Hey, she says, ‘Nice pants.’ ” Another spot in the series, “Subway Love,” takes place on a subway car in Chicago. He (a nice young man wearing Dockers) spots her (a total babe), and their eyes lock. Romantic music swells. He moves toward her, but somehow, in a sudden burst of pushing and shoving, they get separated. Last shot: she’s inside the car, her face pushed up against the glass. He’s outside the car, his face pushed up against the glass. As the train slowly pulls away, she mouths two words: “Nice pants.”

It may not seem like it, but “Nice Pants” is as radical a campaign as the original Dockers series. If you look back at the way that Sansabelt pants, say, were sold in the sixties, each ad was what advertisers would call a pure “head” message: the pants were comfortable, durable, good value. The genius of the first Dockers campaign was the way it combined head and heart: these were all- purpose, no-nonsense pants that connected to the emotional needs of baby boomers. What happened to Dockers in the nineties, though, was that everyone started to do head and heart for khakis. Haggar pants were wrinkle-free (head) and John Goodman-guy (heart). The Gap, with its brilliant billboard campaign of the early nineties-”James Dean wore khakis,” “Frank Lloyd Wright wore khakis”-perfected the heart message by forging an emotional connection between khakis and a particular nostalgic, glamorous all-Americanness. To reassert itself, Dockers needed to go an extra step. Hence “Nice Pants,” a campaign that for the first time in Dockers history raises the subject of sex.

“It’s always been acceptable for a man to be a success in business,” Hanson said, explaining the rationale behind “Nice Pants.” “It’s always been expected of a man to be a good provider. The new thing that men are dealing with is that it’s O.K. for men to have a sense of personal style, and that it’s O.K. to be seen as sexy. It’s less about the head than about the combination of the head, the heart, and the groin. It’s those three things. That’s the complete man.”

The radical part about this, about adding the groin to the list, is that almost no other subject for men is as perilous as the issue of sexuality and fashion. What “Nice Pants” had to do was talk about sex the same way that “Poolman” talked about fashion, which was to talk about it by not talking about it-or, at least, to talk about it in such a coded, cautious way that no man would ever think Dockers was suggesting that he wear khakis in order to look pretty. When I took a videotape of the “Nice Pants” campaign to several of the top agencies in New York and Los Angeles, virtually everyone agreed that the spots were superb, meaning that somehow F.C.B. had managed to pull off this balancing act.

What David Altschiller, at Hill, Holliday/Altschiller, in Manhattan, liked about the spots, for example, was that the hero was naïve: in neither case did he know that he had on nice pants until a gorgeous woman told him so. Naïveté, Altschiller stressed, is critical. Several years ago, he did a spot for Claiborne for Men cologne in which a great-looking guy in a bar, wearing a gorgeous suit, was obsessing neurotically about a beautiful woman at the other end of the room: “I see this woman. She’s perfect. She’s looking at me. She’s smiling. But wait. Is she smiling at me? Or laughing at me? . . . Or looking at someone else?” You’d never do this in an ad for women’s cologne. Can you imagine? “I see this guy. He’s perfect. Ohmigod. Is he looking at me?” In women’s advertising, self-confidence is sexy. But if a man is self-confident-if he knows he is attractive and is beautifully dressed- then he’s not a man anymore. He’s a fop. He’s effeminate. The cologne guy had to be neurotic or the ad wouldn’t work. “Men are still abashed about acknowledging that clothing is important,” Altschiller said. “Fashion can’t be important to me as a man. Even when, in the first commercial, the waiter says ‘Nice pants,’ it doesn’t compute to the guy wearing the nice pants. He’s thinking, What do you mean, ‘Nice pants’?” Altschiller was looking at a videotape of the Dockers ad as he talked-standing at a forty-five-degree angle to the screen, with one hand on the top of the monitor, one hand on his hip, and a small, bemused smile on his lips. “The world may think they are nice, but so long as he doesn’t think so he doesn’t have to be self-conscious about it, and the lack of self-consciousness is very important to men. Because ‘I don’t care.’ Or ‘Maybe I care, but I can’t be seen to care.’ ” For the same reason, Altschiller liked the relative understatement of the phrase “nice pants,” as opposed to something like “great pants,” since somewhere between “nice” and “great” a guy goes from just happening to look good to the unacceptable position of actually trying to look good. “In focus groups, men said that to be told you had ‘nice pants’ was one of the highest compliments a man could wish for,” Tanyia Kandohla told me later, when I asked about the slogan. “They wouldn’t want more attention drawn to them than that.”

In many ways, the “Nice Pants” campaign is a direct descendant of the hugely successful campaign that Rubin-Postaer & Associates, in Santa Monica, did for Bugle Boy Jeans in the early nineties. In the most famous of those spots, the camera opens on an attractive but slightly goofy-looking man in a pair of jeans who is hitchhiking by the side of a desert highway. Then a black Ferrari with a fabulous babe at the wheel drives by, stops, and backs up. The babe rolls down the window and says, “Excuse me. Are those Bugle Boy Jeans that you’re wearing?” The goofy guy leans over and pokes his head in the window, a surprised half smile on his face: “Why, yes, they are Bugle Boy Jeans.”

“Thank you,” the babe says, and she rolls up the window and drives away.

This is really the same ad as “Nice Pants”-the babe, the naïve hero, the punch line. The two ads have something else in common. In the Bugle Boy spot, the hero wasn’t some stunning male model. “I think he was actually a box boy at Vons in Huntington Beach,” Larry Postaer, the creative director of Rubin-Postaer & Associates, told me. “I guess someone”-at Bugle Boy-”liked him.” He’s O.K.-looking, but not nearly in the same class as the babe in the Ferrari. In “Subway Love,” by the same token, the Dockers man is medium-sized, almost small, and gets pushed around by much tougher people in the tussle on the train. He’s cute, but he’s a little bit of a wimp. Kandohla says that F.C.B. tried very hard to find someone with that look-someone who was, in her words, “aspirational real,” not some “buff, muscle- bound jock.” In a fashion ad for women, you can use Claudia Schiffer to sell a cheap pair of pants. But not in a fashion ad for men. The guy has to be believable. “A woman cannot be too gorgeous,” Postaer explained. “A man, however, can be too gorgeous, because then he’s not a man anymore. It’s pretty rudimentary. Yet there are people who don’t buy that, and have gorgeous men in their ads. I don’t get it. Talk to Barneys about how well that’s working. It couldn’t stay in business trying to sell that high-end swagger to a mass market. The general public wouldn’t accept it. Look at beer commercials. They always have these gorgeous girls-even now, after all the heat-and the guys are always just guys. That’s the way it is. We only reflect what’s happening out there, we’re not creating it. Those guys who run the real high-end fashion ads-they don’t understand that. They’re trying to remold how people think about gender. I can’t explain it, though I have my theories. It’s like a Grecian ideal. But you can’t be successful at advertising by trying to re-create the human condition. You can’t alter men’s minds, particularly on subjects like sexuality. It’ll never happen.”

Postaer is a gruff, rangy guy, with a Midwestern accent and a gravelly voice, who did Budweiser commercials in Chicago before moving West fifteen years ago. When he wasn’t making fun of the pretentious style of East Coast fashion advertising, he was making fun of the pretentious questions of East Coast writers. When, for example, I earnestly asked him to explain the logic behind having the goofy guy screw up his face in such a-well, goofy-way when he says, “Why, yes, they are Bugle Boy Jeans,” Postaer took his tennis shoes off his desk, leaned forward bemusedly in his chair, and looked at me as if my head came to a small point. “Because that’s the only way he could say it,” he said. “I suppose we might have had him say it a little differently if he could actually act.”

Incredibly, Postaer said, the people at Bugle Boy wanted the babe to invite the goofy guy into the car, despite the fact that this would have violated the most important rule that governs this new style of groin messages in men’s-fashion advertising, which is that the guy absolutely cannot ever get the girl. It’s not just that if he got the girl the joke wouldn’t work anymore; it’s that if he got the girl it might look as if he had deliberately dressed to get the girl, and although at the back of every man’s mind as he’s dressing in the morning there is the thought of getting the girl, any open admission that that’s what he’s actually trying to do would undermine the whole unself- conscious, antifashion statement that men’s advertising is about. If Tatjana Patitz were to say “Beau garçon” to the guy in “Vive la France,” or the babe on the subway were to give the wimp her number, Dockers would suddenly become terrifyingly conspicuous-the long-pants equivalent of wearing a tight little Speedo to the beach. And if the Vons box boy should actually get a ride from the Ferrari babe, the ad would suddenly become believable only to that thin stratum of manhood which thinks that women in Ferraris find twenty- four-dollar jeans irresistible. “We fought that tooth and nail,” Postaer said. “And it more or less cost us the account, even though the ad was wildly successful.” He put his tennis shoes back up on the desk. “But that’s what makes this business fun-trying to prove to clients how wrong they are.”

5.

The one ad in the “Nice Pants” campaign which isn’t like the Bugle Boy spots is called “Motorcycle.” In it a nice young man happens upon a gleaming Harley on a dark back street of what looks like downtown Manhattan. He strokes the seat and then, unable to contain himself, climbs aboard the bike and bounces up and down, showing off his Dockers (the “product shot”) but accidentally breaking a mirror on the handlebar. He looks up. The Harley’s owner-a huge, leather-clad biker-is looking down at him. The biker glowers, looking him up and down, and says, “Nice pants.” Last shot: the biker rides away, leaving the guy standing on the sidewalk in just his underwear.

What’s surprising about this ad is that, unlike “Vive la France” and “Subway Love,” it does seem to cross the boundaries of acceptable sex talk. The rules of guy advertising so carefully observed in those spots-the fact that the hero has to be naïve, that he can’t be too good-looking, that he can’t get the girl, and that he can’t be told anything stronger than “Nice pants”-are all, in some sense, reactions to the male fear of appearing too concerned with fashion, of being too pretty, of not being masculine. But what is “Motorcycle”? It’s an ad about a sweet-looking guy down in the Village somewhere who loses his pants to a butch-looking biker in leather. “I got so much feedback at the time of ‘Well, God, that’s kind of gay, don’t you think?’ ” Robert Hanson said. “People were saying, ‘This buff guy comes along and he rides off with the guy’s pants. I mean, what the hell were they doing?’ It came from so many different people within the industry. It came from some of our most conservative retailers. But do you know what? If you put these three spots up-’Vive la France,’ ‘Subway Love,’ and ‘Motorcycle’-which one do you think men will talk about ad nauseam? ‘Motorcycle.’ It’s No. 1. It’s because he’s really cool. He’s in a really cool environment, and it’s every guy’s fantasy to have a really cool, tricked-out fancy motorcycle.”

Hanson paused, as if he recognized that what he was saying was quite sensitive. He didn’t want to say that men failed to pick up the gay implications of the ad because they’re stupid, because they aren’t stupid. And he didn’t want to sound condescending, because Dockers didn’t build a six-hundred-million-dollar business in five years by sounding condescending. All he was trying to do was point out the fundamental exegetical error in calling this a gay ad, because the only way for a Dockers man to be offended by “Motorcycle” would be if he thought about it with a little imagination, if he picked up on some fairly subtle cues, if he integrated an awful lot of detail. In other words, a Dockers man could only be offended if he did precisely what, according to Meyers-Levy, men don’t do. It’s not a gay ad because it’s a guy ad. “The fact is,” Hanson said, “that most men’s interpretation of that spot is: You know what? Those pants must be really cool, because they prevented him from getting the shit kicked out of him.”