I love AMC’s Mad Men for a lot of the same reasons everyone else does. It’s well-written, exceptionally acted, and it uncomfortably pokes its nose into the unpleasant truths of its era (and ours) in a way few other shows have ever been able to manage. But I also love Mad Men for a reason that, while not exactly unique, probably hasn’t won the series an Emmys. Every couple of episodes, there’s always a scene wherein Don Draper delivers some pitch to a client that doubles as an incisive commentary on all the ways that advertisers manipulate their audience to make the rubes do whatever the men behind the curtain want them to do. My personal favorite was a pitch to an ice cream company for an ad campaign that alluded subtly to the iconography of the Virgin Mary. The company’s devout Catholic founders gobbled it up, without truly understanding why.
Now, seeing how the proverbial sausage is made in advertising (at least fictionally, but I can’t imagine that it’s much different in reality) is entertaining, though not exactly revelatory. I mean, how many thinking people don’t understand that when they see the seemingly innocuous opening of a bottle of Coors Light erupt into a party, replete with beautiful, scantily-clad women, a train carrying an endless supply of the drink in question, and feel-good seventies disco-pop, reality has left the building. We know that Axe Body Spray won’t cause a swarm of (again, somehow always) scantily-clad women to swarm us in a fit of scent-induced sexual frenzy. We know, too, that, despite what the Most Interesting Man in the World would tell you, Dos Equis doesn’t give you license to keep a pet puma. The question, though, is that if we know these things (and therefore, have built up some kind of resistance to their not-so-subtle powers of persuasion), why do they keep making ads? And, more to the point, why do they (apparently) work?
All these observations and questions were brought on by a commercial that’s aired a lot during recent MLB playoff games. Rather than provide a tedious description, I’ll just let you watch for yourself. But let me warn you, this video is not safe for work. In fact (and I’m being completely serious here), if you feel that it’s inappropriate or spiritually damaging to lust after women, then don’t watch it. In any case, proceed with caution.
As far as I can tell, this commercial is a hair’s breadth from being a literal manifestation of the phrase “sex sells.” Hardee’s hasn’t exactly shown a whole lot of restraint when it comes to their ad campaigns, and even the tamest of their commercials is fraught with stereotypically macho voiceovers hinting (although “hinting” is probably giving them subtlety points they don’t deserve) that “real” guys’ masculinity is somehow tied up in the enormity of the sandwich they buy at a fast food chain, but I think it’s fair to say they’ve crossed a line with this one that even “Girl-riding-a-mechanical-bull-while-sloppily-eating-a-gigantic-burger” didn’t approach. It’s unlikely they’re going back, and they’re by no means the only company airing commercials that overtly appeal to our most basic animal desires, but they’re the most prominent offender I can think of (GoDaddy.com has been lapped in this race, which should tell you something). Oddly, commercials actually selling sex, like those for Viagra and Cialis, are hilariously restrained and tasteful, all goofy looks across sun-bathed back porches and muscle cars cruising down coastal highways.
Anyway, at some point I’m supposed to tell you why I’m telling you all this stuff and answer the question (burning, I’m sure): what’s stuck in this guy’s craw?
Well, where to start?
There’s the gratuity, sure. And the time of day and programming during which it aired (I’m trying to watch a baseball game with my kid – might as well have been enjoying some apple pie to boot – at 5:00 in the evening, and suddenly I’ve got the implicit promise of lesbian sex being dangled in my face like bait in front of some dead-eyed fish). Annoying, sure, but the thing that would bother me more than all of that is just how insulting the whole concept is. I can imagine the pitch meeting now, the Don Draper wannabe sidling up to the front of the room. “We’ve decided to forgo even the illusion that we’re selling a product. Instead, we’re going to fill every frame with as much innuendo – and, believe me, we’re gonna stretch the innuendo as far as it’ll go without breaking – as possible. Every movement will imply or overtly promise sexual fulfillment. In fact, to make sure that they don’t misunderstand how they’re supposed to interpret what they’re seeing, we’ll throw in a couple of guys who will effectively pornograph-ize the whole thing by filming it with their phones. ‘THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT!’ it’ll practically scream at them. Hmm? What’s that? Yeah, we sell hamburgers and french fries, why do you ask?”
I say that this would bother me more than everything, except for the preceding scenario to be insulting, Hardee’s would have to fail to acknowledge the gap between what they offer and what their target audience wants. The problem is, there is no gap. Now, before you hurt yourself trying to defend your honor, let me assure you that I’m perfectly aware that there are plenty of guys who find this whole spectacle just as tasteless as I do. I’m sure you’re one of them. Now just calm down a second. Even though I acknowledge that Hardee’s’ commercial doesn’t “work” on at least some portion of it’s target demographic, it obviously works on a much larger segment of it, or else they wouldn’t air it. Advertisers test and test and test their potential campaigns on focus groups and make changes or push ahead based on the feedback of those groups. Whichever groups were providing them feedback certainly weren’t saying what I’m saying now.
So what to do? On the one hand, I think most of us have accepted that advertisers are going to what works, rather than what is ethically sound, in order to sell their products. And honestly, I don’t have any idea how to combat that. I could stop watching TV, going to the movies, surfing the internet, and never go outside, but I’m not sure that (A) I should have to perform what can only be described as media gymnastics just to get through a day without providing support to exploitative advertisements or (B) it would do any good even if I skipped every commercial that came on. By watching the baseball game, I’m implicitly supporting the corporate entities advertising during it. (Can ratings fairies tell when viewers change the channel during certain ads, or are their tools not that finely-tuned? I truly have no idea.) I guess I could somehow provide feedback to Hardee’s or TBS or something expressing my displeasure (although even mentioning that leads to an inevitable confrontation of the whole I’ve-only-got-one-voice-so-what-is-this-even-worth problem that crops up every election day). No idea inspires much confidence.
I’m sure that to a lot of people, this sort of hand-wringing seems dour and humorless and especially prudish. It may be worth noting that I draw a stark line between what I consider gratuitous sex/violence/nudity/language and that which serves an artistic purpose in, say, a Kubrick or Tarantino film. Not everyone makes such distinctions, I’m aware, and when it comes to advertising, I think the line ought to slide toward the conservative end of the scale. Anyway, I guess my point is that I think something actually is at stake when we interact with corporate entities and that the kinds of questions I’m asking here are important because they ultimately dictate how will respond when confronted by an assertion like the one made in the commercial above. Like it or not, Hardee’s is just showing us, as a culture, what we’ve told them we want. If we want to change their view of us, it isn’t enough to just want something different. We’ve got to take steps to show them. I wish I knew what that looked like.
If you’ve got ideas, I’m all ears.