In 1994, eager to appeal to women, soft drink brand Diet Coke launched its “Break” advertisement. The ad depicted women watching from an office window as an attractive builder takes off his shirt. The ad ends with one woman saying “See you tomorrow,” implying that this ogling is a regular occurrence. The soundtrack was “I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Etta James.
The shirtless man in question was Lucky Vanous. The original advertisement was so successful he was brought back to star in the follow-up ad, 11:30 Appointment. He told the New York Times: “Neither I nor anyone else had any idea the commercial would cause this stir.”
Diet Coke Break went on to release a third ad, Dispenser in 1997, though this time with a new actor who kept his shirt on.
The advertisements were considered groundbreaking at the time because they consciously reversed the gender roles and deliberately sexualised and objectified a man as part of the commercial. The ads also showed women openly admiring the male form, comfortable with their sexuality. In essence, the “Break” ads were a rare example of the openly desiring female gaze appearing in advertising.
Diet Coke re-worked and relaunched the campaign in 2007 with Lift.
Then, in 2013, they had enormous success with the “Gardener” commercial, starring actor and model Andrew Cooper. According the Wikipedia, this ad was the most popular piece of advertising Diet Coke had produced in 20 years and it was shown during the Oscars. The ad depicts a woman rolling a can of the soft drink down a hill towards a hunky gardener. When he opens the can, it fizzes all over him, so he takes off his shirt, much to the joy of the women watching.
The “wet t-shirt” aspect of the commercial seems to take the sexualization of the male model one step further; exploding fluids are a hallmark of porn, after all. Even so, the ad remains distinctly chaste and the women end the scene with a non-threatening laugh.
It’s fair to say that these advertisements would not be able to air today. While they represent the female gaze, one can easily argue that they’re sexist. Indeed, in 2015 Diet Coke retired the campaign saying it “did not represent the values of modern, confident women.” As far back as 1997, the ads were subject to complaints of sexism, with the Dispenser ad pulled off the air in Canada after it was ruled demeaning to men.
That said, the ads were hugely popular and are considered “iconic” by those in the advertising industry. The ad was parodied by women’s sketch comedy show Smack The Pony with “Window Cleaner.” It also appears in British comedy The IT Crowd, when Jen distracts two female office workers by telling them there’s a builder taking off his shirt like in the ad. They run to look and discover he is an overweight and unattractive man. In 2019 Vauxhall Motors paid homage to the ad, showing a group of women gathering at an office window to admire a car rather than a man.