The story is about an old Italian woman, in her bed, surrounded by her family in her final moments, recalling her charmed existence: "Don't cry for me, children. I've lived a long and happy life. I've done everything I've wanted to do. I've experienced it all. I've...."
At that point, she pauses. Across the courtyard, through an open shutter, she spies a neighbor about to bathe in a luxurious Kohler spa.
"Damn," the old woman says. Then she dies, with regret.
It's a joke, see, a dark little joke from GSD&M, Austin, Texas, about the luxuries you should treat yourself to you before it's too late. It's not an especially hilarious joke, but I get it, and I appreciate that the sentimental music and the cliched environs were designed to underline the vignette's melodramatic distance from reality.
But not distance enough.
How long have I railed against advertisers who play for laughs over very real human fears and tragedies? There was the Nike campaign featuring Dennis Hopper as a shoe-sniffing schizophrenic. There was a gritty, verite funeral spot from (now defunct) Britches Great Outdoors, with the punch line: "You're going to be wearing a suit for a long time. Dress comfortably ... while you can." Only two weeks ago, a Super Bowl spot for Degree deodorant joked about supermarket kidnappings.
As it happens, none of those spots particularly upset me, personally. In fact, I laughed hard at all of them-just before demanding they be pulled.
Why? Because my grim sense of humor, and the agency's, is irrelevant. What's relevant is that advertising isn't programming the viewer has chosen, come what may. No, advertising is an uninvited guest, and must therefore not just respect, but especially respect the sensibilities of the unsuspecting audience.
Certainly it has no business horrifying anyone. But too many insufferable smartasses glibly indulge their own tastes with no thought of the consequences, to the viewer or the client. They don't care about the anonymous viewers because they are too impressed with their own clever, inconsiderate selves.
Yeah, I laughed at Dennis Hopper. But I assure you, nobody who has been touched by the nightmare of schizophrenia was laughing at all. And those people number in the millions. The people who, at any given time, have just buried a relative in a dark suit number in the millions. And the people who have watched a loved one's last breath number in the millions. I am one of them.
Advertiser decorum has ceased being a theoretical question for me. My mother died not long ago, in bed surrounded by her children. She had been ill for some time, and her death was not unexpected. But she was my mother, and she died, and then she lay there, dead . It is an image that haunts me.
Thank you, Kohler, for reenacting it in service of a cheap joke. Believe me, I won't forget.