See, That Ain’t Even Right: Insulting Commercials

The infamous Jell-O commercial from the 1960's.

Something I never noticed until this year is how strange commercials actually are. Being a child of the 1990’s, I often felt at ease or “at home” when I watched a commercial for a popular consumer product, a symptom of the Reagan administration for sure. Watching a Pepsi or Burger King ad meant I was right at home, in the good ol’ USA. No strange meats or sides of rice here.

And that is possibly the worst thing about advertising.

I could go on for days about American societal norms that constantly reinforce what is “normal” or “standard.” It’s “normal” to have the nuclear family, “normal” to have a two bedroom house in suburbia, normal to wear a certain brand of clothing or eat certain, normal food. Any deviations of such are considered weird and outrageous, thus we should fear being ostracized by our peers. These hegemonic ideals are continually perpetuated by the mass media, and no matter how fast you skip those commercials with your DVR remote, chances are you’ve already internalized these “normal” beliefs.

There are essays upon essays written about this phenomenon by much more eloquent and less prettier people than I, and I encourage you to arm yourself with such information. But you don’t need a Ph.D to understand just how fucked up commercials can be.

Like this one.

Luckily I’m not the only one who saw so many things wrong with it, but how in the holy crap did this even pass? I’ve seen enough Mad Men to understand the challenge of swerving a demographic’s tastes, especially when you’re tasked with trying to get those guys to give you money. But it’s not impossible. Light beer was formerly a “feminine” alcohol, but certain campaigns and clever commercials by a brewing company swerved that notion and now (most) men will happily drink a light beer with their bros. It’s a classic example of how you can influence others, whether you intend to maintain an ideal or swerve it.

But, this. Wow. Are they trying too hard? Abso-freaking-lutely.

People were outraged over this commercial, but I think, just me personally, most are looking at it the wrong way. Many cite that they’re excluding women, or that they maintain ideals of what a women shouldn’t be (daring, rugged, adventurous, action-oriented, etc.). And they have perfectly valid arguments. But I don’t think it’s just the exclusion of women that’s the problem. It’s one of them, but not the.

In my opinion, it’s the overtly masculine image that intimidates the males into adhering to these stereotypes (yes, stereotypes) that shares the brunt of the blame. Dr. Pepper isn’t the worst culprit of committing this act, but it’s certainly guilty in this commercial. You can watch for yourself and nitpick every little thing it does to appeal to men and how it reinforces what men should be… which is daring, rugged, adventurous, action-oriented, etc.

And that’s just not right.

On the flipside of a masculine product that is Dr. Pepper TEN (which I remind you is packaged in a hot pink can), there’s this gem from Victoria’s Secret.

Before I begin deconstructing the gender identities this commercial unfortunately reinforces, can I just say that for a Christmas commercial, I didn’t get one ounce of feeling the holiday spirit? And today is the day after Christmas. I am up to my ears in Christmas joy but this commercial contributed to none of it. For kicks: Try muting the commercial and just watch it. Could you tell it was for Christmas?

The subservient women laying down and demonstrating no physically intimidating poses are the first things you learn in advertising school. Like, literally the first thing. After orientation? Boom. Women in their underwear.

I’d be lying if I said this commercial didn’t pique my interest. As a heterosexual male, I’m predisposed to be entranced by beautiful women (and yes, in my eyes, they are quite beautiful) wearing next to nothing. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore what it’s doing, or most of all, who’s it harming. Change From Within’s Profitable Objectification: The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

I love hot women. I really, really do. But the commercial, the one produced for this just-passed holiday season? The one that’s for Christmas but does almost nothing Christmas-y? The one that rehashes all the basic ad techniques which are so prevalent they are the standard to which all advertising to women are based on? Yeah, that one? Ain’t right.

You know what else isn’t right? Racism.

Here’s something shocking to learn: I, Eric James, am an Asian! WHAT? Yes way. And when this commercial came out a few years ago, it didn’t take long for me to realize just how uneasy I began to feel. This is when I began to grow skeptical of these 30-second tableuxs.

I will grant naysayers this: The commercial is a few years old, and it isn’t overtly racist. But whether overt or subtle, racism of any kind is all kinds of wrong. I’m not even talking about the yellow outline his face is shadowed by, or his simplistic, loud English reminiscent of the guys at your local Asian food market. It’s his position as a spokesman, not one to be admired like Michael Jordan (who, arguably, also perpetuates a subtly racist imagery, another topic for another day… and another writer), but to be laughed at and sold as a mascot. He isn’t a brand leader, painted or depicted in a powerful, domineering, religious manner…

…but a beheaded loudmouth, stripped of any bodily presence. He’s only here to tell you one thing: SIX FLAGS! IT’S FUN!

In pursuit to maintain power, those who hold the keys will thrust their ideals upon others — the general population — to ensure their rule. And while that’s horrible, understand I’m not damning them. I’m not a hippie who wishes death upon all corporations while I tweet from my Apple iPhone. But does that mean it’s right? I haven’t met anyone that knows what I know and isn’t disgusted.

So what is there to do?

Plenty! Or nothing at all. That is up you. Once again, I leave it to the better informed to direct your path to avoiding or rising above the commercial cacophony. I personally believe in the power of the people. This is just me talking, but our voices are, in fact, very powerful if we so choose to speak. It’s up to us to speak out or not, and our purchasing decisions are just as influential as a mass protest. But that’s just me, being a romantic idealist.

If you’re interested in learning more about advertising and it’s dangerously influential effects, I highly suggest taking the time out to watch the videos below. While these are produced by people just like advertising is and therefore can easily be argued against, they are nonetheless very informative and helpful to learning about the things you see every day on your TV. Or on the bus. Or on the subway. Or on a billboard. Or before you watch a movie. Or…

Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly (Part 1) (Part 2)

Naomi Klein, No Logo (Full film)

Douglas Rushkoff, The Merchants of Cool (Full film) and The Persuaders (Full film)


One comment

  1. […] society is inundated with “super brands.” If you recall my previous post on advertising, I linked to several videos that investigated marketing and branding, in particular No Logo and The […]

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