Celebrating unspoken manlove

Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

Fifty years ago a florist tried it. Now it's the turn of a fast food outfit. To compare the two is to see how far we've come in half a century.

"Say it with flowers" was the florist's slogan. It was aimed at the tongue-tied bloke. The flowers had two things to say, of which the first and nicest was, "I love you".

Men loved women but were too shy to say it. How much easier, then, to let flowers do the talking. Flowers were beautiful. They never fluffed their lines. And they didn't sully the purity of feeling with the poverty of words. Here was a metaphor that both sides understood. Thus flowers became a symbol of what poetry is meant to be - a raid on the inarticulate.

The second thing that flowers said was sorry. Men are deceivers ever, as Shakespeare knew and as women have to learn. Still, saying sorry can be as hard for men as saying "I love you", though for different reasons. So the idea of using flowers to say it appealed to men. And flowers might melt the female heart enough for the bloke to get away with whatever he'd done. Until he did it again, that is, whereupon a bigger, more costly bunch would be required. Women, bless them, want to believe if they can. Establishing flowers as a substitute for language was a marketing coup. So I was not surprised last week to find another outfit trying the same stunt.

It was a glorious afternoon, shorts and jandals weather, weather not to waste. So I closed the curtains and turned on the cricket. I watched the loathsome Aussies crush the pusillanimous English. Cricket leaves the viewer plenty of time to meditate. Tiring of loathsomeness and pusillanimity, I meditated on the ads between overs. I was particularly taken by a burger ad.

The fast food business likes to name its burgers so as to endow them with character. This burger's main characteristic was its hugeness. I'll call it the Normuss.

The Normuss commercial featured two young men on a camping trip. One of the men was a handsome Hamlet figure, while his mate, Horatio, was shorter and clownish. Hamlet wasn't happy. The cause of his displeasure was a tent. The tent was small and Hamlet clearly didn't fancy the idea of sleeping with Horatio in so tiny a chunk of real estate. Equally clearly Horatio understood how Hamlet felt. So, with a sheepish look on his face, he handed his friend a Normuss Burger. It was a peace offering, and it worked.

Hamlet looked at the burger, then at his mate. Suddenly his frown dissolved into smiles. "Say it," ran the voice-over, "with a Normuss Burger. Like 'Sorry, I thought I grabbed the big tent'. The Normuss says it big time."

The ad ended with the two boys sitting side by side outside the tent grinning at each other and each tucking into a burger of improbable dimensions.

Initially I took the ad to be cheap and laddish innuendo. Lurking beneath it was a sneering fear of homosexuality. Only the gift of the burger enabled Hamlet to overcome his nervousness about sleeping so close to his mate.

But England were batting so no runs were being scored and I had time to ponder the ad more deeply. And the longer I pondered the more I wondered why Hamlet had agreed to go camping with Horatio if he had doubts about Horatio's sexuality. Moreover, if he did have such doubts I wasn't sure they'd be appeased by the gift of a burger. If anything it would make Hamlet even more suspicious. And yet in the final frame the pair of them are grinning like chimpanzees.

Then it clicked. This wasn't cheap innuendo. Hamlet hadn't been worried about Horatio at all. He'd been worried about himself. He was the one feeling the homosexual attraction. And he was afraid that in so small a tent he would find it hard not to reveal his affection. And then of course the rest of the ad came clear. The burger wasn't an apology. It was Horatio's tentative declaration of love. Hence the sheepish, nervous look on Horatio's face, and the delight on both their faces when they realised their feelings were reciprocated. No burger, however delicious, could make two young men grin with quite such rapture. They clearly couldn't wait for the sun to set.

And there you have it. Fifty years ago commerce assumed a world of heterosexual uniformity. If homosexuality was hinted at it was with a sneer. But today a huge multinational can promote a burger as a talisman of gay love. If that isn't progress I don't know progress. We have much to celebrate.

The Southland Times