Yet our abiding veneration of The American Family may be the defining paradox of our age, considering that hardly anybody can much stand his own. (Or have you forgotten how happy you were to reach the end of Thanksgiving weekend without domestic violence?)
But if our reflexive dedication to family is more theoretical than practical-if we tend to idealize it even as we idolize it-the fact is the love and security of family life is our most cherished natural resource. Moreover, as the Eisenhower-era centricity of the nuclear family devolves ever further into our contemporary reality of chaos and disintegration, we feel a profound sense of loss.
Moms especially, of course.
Because moms, no matter how crazily they are running around from work to daycare to shopping to home, mainly want to mother like their mothers did. As study after study has revealed, they are wracked with frustration and guilt over their inability to do so.
This explains the strategy behind new Sizzle & Stir, from Unilever Bestfoods' Lipton. It's a sort of Hamburger Helper of the 21st century. You add the meat and some veggies. They add the everything else. It takes only minutes, but you feel like a nurturing, genuine mom. "Real cooking," is the tagline, and so long as the food photography is good-which it is-the advertising can hardly fail.
But not failing is one thing. Being fabulous is another.
This campaign, from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, is fabulous. The agency could have recreated some smarmy vignettes of alleged family life, but as we all know only too well, they are always laughably unrealistic. For instance, nobody is ever screaming at the top of his lungs. Nobody is quaking with sobs. Nobody is slamming doors so hard the whole house shudders. Furthermore, nobody is ever the sullen, multiply-pierced daughter from Dad's first marriage or Mom's drunken boyfriend or the nanny from Guatemala who speaks no English whatsoever.
Hence Bartle Bogle's unexpected and most ingenious solution: to cast a non-traditional family with recognizable, but long-since- eclipsed celebrities, and put words in their mouths that sound familiarly dysfunctional enough to ring true. In one spot, there is Sally Jessy Raphael cooking up dinner with her husband, Chuck Woolery, and the kids, Little Richard and Pat Morita. And in the other: Loni Anderson as Mom, Mr. T as Dad and George Hamilton and Mary Lou Retton as the kids.
Loni: "George, set the table."
George (in the family room, playing a video game): "In a minute."
Loni (to Mr. T): "That violence is going to go to his head."
Mr. T (smelling dinner in the skillet): "These spices are going to my head, and you know what that does to me."
(Loni smiles and kisses him on the cheek.)
Mary Lou (repulsed): "Eeeewww!" Then the phone rings and she answers. "Hello? ... Georrrrge, it's a girllll!"
George (to Mary Lou): "At least I get calls." Then, to his caller, under his breath: "I can't talk during dinner. I'll have to call you back." Then, back to Mary Lou: "It's not my girlfriend."
Mary Lou: "Yes it is!"
He socks her. "Owww!"
Then the onscreen type: "When you cook, you're a family. Lipton Sizzle & Stir. Real cooking."
Real advertising, too. It is just so wonderful how they have captured the silly litanies of family life and made them hilarious through counterintuitive casting. Sadly, the line delivery is not very good. George Hamilton, while a good sport to do this, appears positively tranquilized the way he somnambulates through his performance.
But everything else about this campaign is splendid. Jerry Falwell and his like can put a sock in it. The true family values are right here.