So much for Midwestern values. And this infuriating episode was no dream, either. It was just as real and as sickening as can be. It happened not long after Roy Rogers came into the house strictly uninvited telling death jokes one after another. A couple of them were kind of funny, but overall just too morbid for words.
Then, in the middle of a Sunday football game I was watching with my little girls, a man and woman materialized 5 feet in front of my recliner pawing each other like dancing bears. Hey, kids, check out the guy burrowing his head in the lady's cleavage!
All of these things actually occurred ... in the form of TV spots for Nintendo of America, Roy Rogers restaurants and a CBS made-for-TV movie. Maybe the late Leo himself didn't actually come into our house with unspeakable rudeness, presumption and moral bankruptcy, but the effect was the same: a guest in our home displaying complete disregard for the feelings, sensibilities and interests of the hosts.
Which is called bad manners. Which we're beginning to see examples of in advertising. Which, in an industry that exists to ingratiate its clientele with the reading and viewing and listening public, should be utterly non-existent.
Alas, as they say, these are funny times we are living in. The Age of Impudence, you could call it.
Advertising, they sometimes also say, is a mirror of our society-a truism that is superficially accurate, but seldom meaningful. Occasionally, though, what TV commercials reflect about our culture has a significance far outstripping transitory mutations of fashion, language and consumer desires, cutting instead to the core of our values.
For instance, it wouldn't be too difficult for anthropologists to use the accumulation of TV advertising of the past 50 years as a sort of Rosetta Stone of the evolving female role in society, an exploration certain to be as horrifying as it is enlightening. Sadly, when the mirror-image truism is truest, the particular reflections are none too flattering.
If advertising is a mirror, increasingly it reflects a society of rudeness, inconsideration and malignant self-indulgence-in short, as the politicians have been telling us, a vacuum of traditional family values.
In advertising the symptoms are not drug use, violence and out-of-wedlock births, yet a decay in values is nonetheless evident as more and more advertisers wage an uncivil war against mainstream sensibilities. Not a great number of them, thank goodness. But enough to be cause for alarm.
The latest outrage is Nintendo, which is so desperate to seem cool to kids it is preaching disrespect for adults and life itself. Then, of course, there is Benetton, which, under the pretext of sociopolitical commentary, has promulgated a series of shocking images calculated to inflame, provoke and horrify millions of people who are in no way prospective customers for $40 T-shirts. A photo of a priest kissing a nun was a blasphemy to Catholics worldwide. And images of a dead soldier's bloody clothing, a dead AIDS victim, boat people clinging to a ship's netting like so many vermin and Ronald Reagan retouched to appear to have Kaposi's sarcoma have been pokes in the eye for millions more who don't wish to get their political commentary from a sportswear retailer.
A few years back, Reebok International used a grim, docu-style spot about a bungee jumper whose failure to use the ankle-hugging Reebok pumps sent him crashing to his death on the rocks of Puget Sound. It was meant to be black humor, and probably taken as such by much of the target audience, but TV advertising isn't a rifle; it's a shotgun, and many people who didn't see the humor at all were caught in the spray.
Recently Sony Corp. of America (via Chicago agency Burnett, again) showed a car radio/CD player that called up a different horny bimbo with every channel-select button on the dashboard-as if, in the 1990s, the notion of dial-a-tart was perfectly acceptable to sell consumer electronics.
And, of course, there is Nike's Dennis Hopper campaign, due back with the advent of the football season.
Synthesizing his deranged roles in "Blue Velvet," "Hoosiers," and "Apocalypse Now," Hopper plays the ultimate rabid football fan. The story line is ambiguous, but he either is an ex-NFL referee drummed out of the officials' corps because of bizarre on-the-field behavior, or he imagines himself to be an NFL ref. He dresses in zebra stripes and a ratty trench coat, looking the picture of dishevelment as he wanders from stadium to stadium, ranting semicoherently about the magnificence of such NFL stars (and Nike endorsers) as Buffalo Bill Bruce Smith, Cowboys Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, and Detroit Lion Barry Sanders. In one spot, he has sneaked into the Bills' locker room and exults about Bruce Smith's ferocity while sniffing the player's football shoe. "He does bad things, man. Bad things." In another spot, he claims to see Barry Sanders escape moves in his sleep, whereupon he steps toward the camera and says, "And I don't sleep that much."
Let us leave aside for the moment the question of what all this has to do with selling shoes. Let's give Nike the benefit of the doubt and say the dark humor and over-the-top characterization of the Hopper spots serve to further enhance, and advance, the company's edgy brand image. Speaking for myself, I'm a huge Dennis Hopper fan and the spots made me laugh out loud.
But uncomfortable laughter it was. Guilty laughter, actually, because Referee Dennis is not an eccentric. He is a loon. He is a troubled, sick man who has forsaken personal appearance, who rambles with intermittent lucidity to strangers, who obsessively fixates on certain famous athletes to the point of trespassing in locker rooms and sniffing shoes, who cannot sleep at night, who either has lost his job due to erratic behavior or is delusional about a job he never had.
He is not, as Nike claims him to be, the ultimate football fan exaggerated to the point of absurdity. He is a paranoid schizophrenic. And he shouldn't be shoe-sniffing in TV commercials. Why? Because to large numbers of the viewing audience there is nothing funny about a persuasive depiction of a man losing his grip on reality.
While such depictions are commonplace in movies, for instance, they have no place in mass advertising, because viewers' relationship with TV commercials is fundamentally different-the difference hinging on advertising being an uninvited guest.
Disturbing content in movies or literature? No problem. "Saturday Night Live"? By all means. But on TV commercials, no. Someone who has suffered the unspeakable ongoing tragedy of schizophrenia, for instance, would have every reason to watch the Hopper spots and say, "How dare they!"
Unfortunately, in what increasingly has become a culture of victimization, almost anything you put on TV has someone or another shouting, "How dare they!" A few years back, Roy Rogers did a wonderfully nostalgic and very funny look at the frumpy cafeteria ladies of our school days past-only to get outrage from actual cafeteria workers who felt maligned by the portrayals. The proper response should have been, "Oh, shut up," but Roy Rogers, owned by Marriott Corp., operator of dining services in public schools, pulled the ad.
A Pepsi ad depicting a mythical cable TV show on artichoke cooking got an angry response from, yes, the artichoke lobby. And an innocuous PaineWebber spot, which implied the superiority of European piano teachers, was pulled in response to protests from American piano teachers.
Obviously, creatives cannot and should not be daunted by the certain knowledge that whatever they do will offend someone. But neither should they use that knowledge to rationalize ideas apt to offend, or anger, or hurt many someones. Breaking through the clutter is all well and good, but good manners must come first-although somehow this has come to be a controversial idea.
Not long ago, I sat in a restaurant with two colleagues and complained about the network promos punctuating Sunday football coverage. It is not at all unusual-indeed, it is infuriatingly routine-for the nets to advertise an upcoming TV movie, miniseries or late prime-time drama with the steamiest, most lurid outtakes they can come up with. It is very easy for me to keep my young children from seeing panting, face-sucking bodice-rippers at the hour the programs are broadcast. It is impossible for me to keep them from seeing the outtakes if they happen to be watching with me at what I thought was regarded unequivocally as a family viewing hour.
My friends ridiculed me for my Victorian indignation. "If you don't want them to watch, hustle them out of the room with their eyes closed," one suggested, derisively. He was teasing, but, in point of fact, that is precisely what I do. My whole point is I shouldn't have to.
"It's their network," my other colleague said. "They should be permitted to do whatever they want with it," a sentiment with which I can find no particular fault. But I can find fault with CBS' abject selfishness. Irrespective of what its rights are, the network should have enough respect for its audience to exhibit some manners. Demanding that from a broadcaster is no more an infringement on free speech than shooshing loud talkers in a movie theater. Self-censorship is not censorship; it is decorum.
Oddly, when I expressed such sentiments in Advertising Age with respect to the Nike campaign, the mail cascaded in about what a politically correct blue-nose I am. It was not surprising that frustrated "creative" minds, forced week in and week out to do insipid work for fearful, conservative clients, would take vicarious pleasure in seeing Wieden & Kennedy, Nike's go-go agency in Portland, Ore., expand the frontiers of advertising image-making. What was shocking was the letter writers' utter blindness to the notion of common consideration.
Indeed, advertisers not only have a responsibility to mind the sensibilities of readers and viewers, they have a special responsibility to do so. Historically most advertisers have taken great pains and gone to extreme lengths to offend no one, if not as a moral stand then as a matter of self-preservation. Nowadays, however, as more ads try to balance on the edge, too many go over the top.
But heaven help anyone who takes offense, because virulent inconsideration is not the only negative force at work in the society.
On the one hand, we are increasingly wallowing in an era of self-indulgence, where people feel free to do whatever feels good, whatever works to their advantage, whatever turns a buck and damn anyone who minds. In such an environment, drugs flood our streets and schools, record companies turn out grossly sexist, violence-preaching gangsta rap and advertisers feel free to barge into our homes spewing outrageous images and ideas without a moment's concern for whom it may upset.
But meanwhile, as I said, we also are becoming a culture of the aggrieved, wherein an infinite number of put-upon constituencies demand financial or judicial or linguistic reparations for some perceived slight to their dignity, the upshot being the ludicrous spectacle of speech codes and multicultural balkanism.
Political correctness is unfortunate in its own right, but a secondary tragedy is the backlash of intolerance for anybody genuinely offended by a genuine affront.
To take issue with offensive, rude, inconsiderate behavior nowadays is to be reflexively denounced as just another whining apostle of PC (or, by the whining apostles of PC, as a reactionary, expression-stifling fellow traveler of Jesse Helms.) But once again, this has nothing to do with political correctness.
What this has to do with is the Golden Rule, which, in addition to being what your mother taught you, is nothing less than the central civilizing principle of mankind. Yet it's a principle so basic, so obvious as to be typically dismissed as puerile.
It is not puerile. The Golden Rule is not kid's stuff. It is the fundamental counterbalance to the wanton indulgence of personal impulse and thus the foundation of every society that has ever prospered in the history of the world.
Is is perhaps time for a reminder that maybe, just maybe, "Do unto others ..." is worthy of advertising, too?