Monday, February 02, 2009

American pop culture: It'll slay you!

It was difficult to watch the Super Bowl yesterday without being very conscious of the gratuitous violence. I'm not talking about the game now. I'm talking about the much-ballyhooed commercials.

The very first ad (once the game actually began, following six hours of football foreplay) set the tone: It depicted a business meeting where employees were brainstorming various methods of cost containment. When one of the workers (a male, natch) suggested cutting back on beer, the scene suddenly shifts to an exterior view of the building, and next thing you know, the poor guy is crashing through the window from an upper floor, presumably having been tossed out by his coworkers. Then there were two different Doritos ads. In the first one a guy throws a snow globe into a vending machine in order to get free Doritos, then his buddy throws a snow globe into his boss' crotch. (It's a little bit more complicated than that, but you had to be there anyway.) The second ad ends with the central character being hit full-speed by a bus. (And ain't that a knee-slapper!) "Funny violence" was central to several other ads as well.

Though sporadic mayhem in TV ads has been with us for some time now, I'm thinking the trend began to build to its current critical mass a few years ago with that series of Budget car-rental ads that showed employees dreaming up different ways of enticing customers; in the next shot you'd see the group imagining what would happen if the idea-of-the-moment were implemented, and the results were always tragically hilarious. Here, for example, is one where they decide on aromatherapy candles:

Other ads in the series featured the hapless renters in explosive collisions, getting electrocuted by falling power lines, etc.

So I'm asking myself: What does all this signify? (Especially given that advertisers consider it vital to create a "positive product environment.") Is this just harmless good fun? Or does it say something deeper, and possibly more sinister, about the America we live in?

Just thought I'd ask.

(Oh, and on top of this, incidentally, we had the ads that were simply mean-spirited, like Teleflora's "rude flowers" spot.)


notreallyalice said...

Violence has been funny (or not) ever since the roadrunner and Wyle E Coyote. :)

I don't know that pain and death are "sinister" so much as they are constant and unavoidable. Perhaps it is a "why not laugh?" sort of attitude.

Steve Salerno said...

NRA: That's true, insofar as cartoons and comedy routines. Even TV shows. But commercials were usually a different story. Even the same advertisers who sponsored violent shows were very, very sensitive about the light in which their actual product was displayed. To this day, in fact, a celebrity who has even the slightest whiff of scandal about him (like, most recently, Michael Phelps and his bong) risks losing an awful lot of endorsement money. So what I'm really wondering is, what's changing in advertising that makes it OK (if not even "hip") to associate violence and even death with one's product?

Steve Salerno said...

P.S. And did I use the word "even" enough times in that last comment?

Elizabeth said...

Steve, I think that situational "zing" -- i.e., some interpersonal hostility and violence in a humorous context -- gets people's attention and makes the commercials more memorable, especially for males who are, after all, the target audience here.

BTW, what's going on with your pic? It's changing and migrating! (Gets our attention, for sure. :))

P.S. No worry, you used "even" only five times. Admirable restraint, even by my standards. ;)

Voltaire said...

This reminds me of the game "Ow, my balls" from the movie Idiocracy.

Anonymous said...

The low-brow humor and funny violence Super Bowl commercials are aimed at viewers in various states of intoxication in noisy environments. Add in the current economic recession, and it's OK hate the boss and kill/maim your coworkers.

I was shocked that the Budweiser commercials were majestic, heartfelt and classy - the Clydesdales commercials were truly riveting; yet the Bud Light commercials with Conan, the skier, and the guy being tossed out the window were painfully lame and aimed at the lowest common denominator. Heads should roll over the Bud Light ads.

Mike Cane said...

I'm glad to see you noticed all the violence too. Many people on Twitter wondered about it too.

When the ads weren't violent, they were insultingly stupid. I can't recall one of them that stood out.

Steve Salerno said...

Mike: Agree totally. This was, overall, the worst crop I can remember in a long time. Good thing the game was worth watching (remember the actual game?), though I would've much preferred that it end with Fitzgerald's TD...

(Clearly Yekat demurs, albeit on another post.)