Advertising, or Why Watching Television is Hard

nba-commercials

Isn’t it so funny? Because see, Asian men are short and basketball players are tall. Contrast is amusing!

I saw a commercial last night for some cel phone thing that let you get NBA information all the time. I don’t really care about sports, or confusing phone add-ons, so I don’t recall exactly what they were trying to sell me. But this was the story: an Asian family is coming downstairs for breakfast, only to see that their dad has transformed into some famous tall black basketball player – I didn’t catch his name. See? Don’t care about sports. Anyway, his pajamas are super short and he looks very silly, he has a dialogue with his son to the effect of “you look different!” The mother looks at him, and in sultry-voice says “I’ve got something for you to do.” Cut to him cleaning the gutters without a ladder. The end.

On the surface, it’s basically “ha-ha, that’s so funny, he’s cleaning gutters because he’s tall.” And what they’re selling you is a famous basketball player in your house. If you had this phone thing, it’d be like having this basketball player at your disposal all the time. How fun for you!

Unfortunately, commercials (and all of television) are always rich with layers, usually exploiting negative cultural expectations regarding race, sex, and class. In this case, we’re given the Asian mom supposedly coming on to the big black man. This resonates with our expectation: big black men are virile, Asian women look cold on the surface, but are all secretly wild and kinky in bed. But it turns around! She wants him to clean the gutters! That’s funny because while it doesn’t follow the expectation of the dialogue, we’re still not surprised: this is a woman with a child, and a woman who looks her middle-age. Those women don’t want to have sex, they just want their husbands to do chores for them. So it’s a funny twist that doesn’t take us outside our realm of anticipated stereotypes.

This is how I watch television. All the time. On one hand, it’s incredibly frustrating, because I can’t just laugh at a joke. I can’t just sit through a love scene without picking apart its implications. On…well, not the other hand, but maybe the other side of the other hand, it’s also incredibly frustrating because I know that so many people just DO laugh at the jokes, and enjoy the scenes, and just buy it all without examining what their entertainment is telling them.

The worst culprit, of course, is advertising, because it is specifically aimed at selling you something, and only has a very short time to do so. However, whenever I see an ad get called out for encouraging dangerous cultural biases, there will inevitably be some detractor telling us that we’ve got our collective panties in a twist and it’s “just a commercial.” For example, this delightful ad for Audi aired during the Superbowl this year.

audi-superbowl-commercialThe commercial creates a subtle environment, in which every moment plays a part. The kid starts out anxious, unhappy that he’s going to prom alone. The mother’s reassurance is ineffective, but the father hands him the keys to the Audi and says “have fun.” A look of shock passes over his face, but now that he can drive the Audi, he’s more confident. He parks in the principal’s space, marches into the prom, and kisses the prom queen without introduction or overture. He’s cheered by the general assembly, but the prom king gives him a black eye. He drives home, exultant, and fades out to Audi telling us: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”

Let’s go over what this kid did, and someone please tell me what was brave about it? He parks in the principal’s parking space. This is defiant, not brave. It exemplifies bravery as willingness to take something that does not belong to you (that part’s important, read it again). He kisses the prom queen, who does not even know he’s there until he’s touching her. That’s not bravery, that’s assault. It is again exemplifying bravery as willingness to take what you want regardless of the consequences. It frames the prom queen as a “what,” rather than a “who.”

The commercial was posted on the Slutwalk Facebook page, saying:
“Grabbing someone and kissing them without their permission is not Brave, it’s Cowardly, and it is Assault. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean that our default state of existence is community property. No Thanks to Venables Bell & Partners for creating this Audi ad, and inspiring a generation of consumers watching the ads at the Super Bowl to think that grabbing and kissing someone without their permission = Brave.”

One of the first responses was from a man who said, “It didn’t look as if she minded? And being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message. Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.”

This comment demonstrates two of the most popular flaws in thinking, first about sexual assault, and the second about the media’s impact on our consciousness.

So, the first comment: “it didn’t look as if she minded,” is an incredibly common response to an unexpected and non-consensual sexual interaction that is generally considered minor, such as a kiss. Lots of people in this internet discussion echoed that sentiment. The first issue with this comment is that consent can’t be given retroactively. That’s not how consent works. “Go for it, if s/he likes it then it was consensual,” is not an acceptable way to approach sexual contact. You’re rolling the dice that the girl you’re assaulting is into that kind of thing. And that’s just backwards thinking. The bigger issue with this comment is that he is himself forgetting his second statement, that this is a constructed fictional account. Of course she didn’t mind, she was scripted not to mind because we’re being fed a scenario in which the assailant’s behavior is lauded as “brave.” If she didn’t smile, it wouldn’t be a good ad.

The second half of his argument is that “being a fictional account I don’t think anyone playing with a full deck would somehow misunderstand the message,” and that “Sex sells and we’d be tilting at windmills to try and stop it.” He’s right about that second half, but what he’s not considering is what kind of sex is being sold here.

What he’s trying to argue, that anyone “playing with a full deck,” should supposedly be able to see, is that this is a kid with low self-esteem who just got to kiss the prom queen. You can kiss the prom queen too, if you drive an Audi. That simple. But advertising is not that simple. Rooms full of people spend lots of time and money planning and scripting these ads. There’s a reason that the prom queen didn’t approach him as he got out of his car, saying “Nice car, wanna fuck?” That would still be selling sex, and the nerd would still get to kiss the prom queen, but the message would be completely different.

The message Audi wants to sell us is that this kid is brave. And being brave, he is defiant. He takes things that don’t belong to him. That includes the principal’s parking space, and the prom queen – even when he gets punched in the eye by the person that prom queen belongs to, it was worth it, because he was brave.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Audi is trying to make the boys of America into rapists. I’m not calling them malicious. I’m saying that this is a culturally acceptable message to send, and by including it in their ad, they are keeping it alive while organizations like SlutWalk are trying so hard to kill it and replace it with consent culture.

While people like the Facebook commenter want us to believe that commercials are no big deal, that anyone “playing with a full deck” can see that it’s just fiction, the problem is that most people (him included) don’t put this much thought into the media they consume. I’d guess most people saw this commercial and thought “that’s so sweet, the nerd got the girl.” They thought, yeah, he is brave. Go you, boy in the Audi. They did NOT think, for a second, hey maybe that prom queen is a person. Maybe taking a kiss from the prom queen isn’t the same as taking the principal’s parking space. Maybe there’s something wrong here.

Popular culture and entertainment media feed each other in an endless loop, and accepting unacceptable behaviors in media representation makes the jobs of feminism, racial equity, consent culture, or any other group trying to prevent their own marginalization, so much harder. So, maybe it is “just a commercial,” but there are millions out there like it, and they keep getting made because people keep buying into their messages.

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8 thoughts on “Advertising, or Why Watching Television is Hard

  1. This was a brilliant post! Advertising is amazing, and you know what I believe the best ads are? The best marketing campaigns? AXE! Yep, the body spray, body wash and shampoo company that theorizes in their marketing that, if you wear their products, beautiful girls will flock to you! Awesome marketing, but the actual products are nothing special and the ‘sprays’ are oversprayed by teen boys. Your post should be freshly pressed on WordPress and featured on the homepage. Really well thought out, detailed and needs to be read by the masses.

    • Thanks Layne. While I find the Axe commercials irritating, they are incredibly effective at reaching their demographic – teen boys. Their advertising promises that they won’t have to work for sex, and their price point is low enough for the high school boy’s budget. Home run.

  2. Please take these as *legitimate* questions and not trolling, I really am trying, but your first example has left me scratching my head.

    So, first: diversity on TV. People have a legitimate grievance over the fact that there is not enough diversity being displayed on TV, so my first thought was, great! Look, a commercial without a white person, awesome, right?

    Clearly not as you go on to explain, but my problem with the explanation is the only way out is to *remove the diversity from TV*. Let me explain.

    Sure, there are basketball players of other races, so let’s say the basketball player was white. But that doesn’t erase the issues you had with how the Asian mother responded. So that wouldn’t fix anything.

    If the mother was white, then it would have been a double racist-whammy of first the white woman coming on to the ‘viral black man’ and the second of oh no way, she only wanted him to be a servant. Yeah, that’s a real winner. So obviously white woman, black man is even worse in this case.

    So let’s switch it, white basketball player, black mom? Would that be better? Wouldn’t that still have the same problems of the black woman ‘using sex’ to get what she wants? That doesn’t seem an improvement to the situation if we’re delving that deep.

    So the mom can’t be Asian, or her reaction is racist, and the guy can’t be black, or the result is racist, so the only possible way to be not racist is to have both the mom and the basketball player white.

    Right?

    And now we’re back to only white people on TV?

    So honestly, what do you propose is the solution to the problem you’ve been presented? How could they have depicted this commercial so as not to have any possibility to offend a segment of the population? Because I honestly can’t see any way out of the box you’ve painted around the commercial without just making them all white.

    But actually, no, even that wouldn’t work, because then there’d be no obvious clue to the audience why the guy “looks different” as opposed to however her husband looked anyway.

    I’m not saying there isn’t racism on TV, or stereotypes or anything like that. I just don’t see how this commercial could possibly have had a better outcome, depicted any other way without actually being worse in some way or another.

    • I completely understand your argument and don’t think that you’re trolling. I don’t think the answer is to change the characters’ races, but their behaviors. You’re right, the commercial would still be offensive no matter what race they tried to change the characters to. Because it would still be playing on some form of racial/sexual stereotype. My solution would be to change the script. The message they’re trying to get across is “wouldn’t it be great to have a basketball player at your disposal all the time?” And I think there’s a way that can be said without playing into stereotypes for their humor. As an off-the-cuff example, the kid is trying to get a book off a high shelf, he calls the basketball player to get it down for him. The mom hands the basketball player a wad of paper to throw away, he masterfully throws it in the trash from across the room. Hell, have him clean the gutters, but the “you thought I wanted sex but really I just want you to do chores for me” joke is unnecessary.

  3. See also: Why listening to music is hard. One of the songs they play on the canned in-store music at work has the following chorus and verse:

    Verse: Now I’ve been hangin around you for days / But when I lean in you just turn your head away / Oh no, you didn’t mean that / She said I love the way you think, but I hate the way you act

    Chorus: Cause I always have to steal my kisses from you
    Always have to steal my kisses from you

    I’ll take “entitlement complex and rape culture” for $200, Alex.

    When I expressed this to a co-worker, she looked at me like I had grown a second head and said “It’s just a song. And it’s sweet.” I was at work in the mainstream retail industrial complex, so I didn’t press the issue.

    But at what point do you realize that it’s just a commercial, and it’s just a song, and it’s just a magazine ad, and just another commercial, and just a news segment, and just a billboard, and just another song, and just a book, and just another magazine ad, and just a judge’s ruling, and just another news segment… and… shit, well that’s kind of a lot now, isn’t it… so maybe the “just a” isn’t really valid anymore? It’s everything.

    What people who make the “just a ” argument fail to realize is that the fact that it shows up in small places doesn’t mean the issue is small. It means the issue is *huge* and has permeated culture all the way down to the smallest things.

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