Category Archives: Deconstructing Commercials

Edible Miscegenation: Food for Thought (groan) on a Recent Ad Campaign

Full disclosure time: I have a nasty note-taking habit, and as a result, the forthcoming book review of Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe has turned into a bit of a term paper. A term paper that needs some serious work. We’re talking outlines, spreadsheets, coding, lists of themes and tropes, meta-structuring–obscene amounts of (dis)organization, here. And, if history is any indication*, most of this thorough preparation will be ultimately ignored in a sleep-deprived “holy fuck, fuck this fucking shitpile of amassed notes and ragged half-finished paragraphs I’m just gonna write the fucking thing I can’t even gaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhrgh!” moment of desperation.

So stay tuned for that monstrous gem. In the meantime, here are some disorganized and underdeveloped thoughts on a commercial about a new snack food. Fair warning–it’s a messy one:

Mel the Milkbite “has issues.” Yes, yes he does. Milkbite is basically a granola bar, and the advertisers have been tasked with coming up with a clever way to convince American consumers that this particular granola bar is different. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for. It offers hereforeto undiscovered combinations of deliciousness. Their marketing strategy has been to produce a virtual mini-series of these commercials. In each, we are made privy to the fraught inner life of one, Mr. Mel Milkbite, depressed offspring of milk and granola. “Who are you?” he asks his reflection. “I don’t know,” is the whispered reply. This identity crisis seems to stem from his mixed-food lineage.

One commercial in particular seems to play on the idea of a (damaged) mixed-parent child who confronts said parents about their decision to procreate. “You didn’t think, did you?” About how it would affect me, he goes on to say. The idea is that inhabiting an interstitial category makes life hard: one is “unclean” based on normative social structures, matter out-of-place. Mel is a product of miscegenation, and we’re supposed to laugh at this, or at his having “issues” because of it. This is where things get complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I can tease everything out perfectly. But I do think it’s worth at least trying to unpack what’s going on here.

On a superficial level, it’s pretty dumb that a milk/granola-bar is talking and has an inner life. There’s a type of surreal, absurdist humor in that by itself. But to make the character’s inner life so fraught with the internalization of social stigma is…crazy awful. And in that awfulness, in that banging together of expectations, also comes the humor.

Broadly stated, humor says what cannot be said in serious contexts. It draws its power from placing categories of things together that cannot normally coexist, often exploding them. This is the unexpected aspect of humor–combining those things that are not normally combined (e.g., a granola bar that talks…to a therapist, no less). The other, related aspect, is that one of speaking the unspeakable: drawing attention to what is rendered invisible in daily life. In a way, humor combats erasure and epistemic violence. The ugly side of this is poorly timed and unsympathetic “ironic” humor, to be discussed further on in this “essay.”

To get back to the break-down of the layered humor in the commercials, besides the inherent silliness of a talking snack food is the fact that Mel takes himself very seriously. This is another source of the intended humor of the whole ad campaign: we, the audience, are not supposed to take Mel seriously. We are meant, on some level at least, to dismiss his serious concerns as those of a fake, normally (hopefully!) inanimate character made of food. It’s ridiculousness played as seriousness, which I’m tempted to call satire or irony, but I’m just so confused at this point that I can’t quite suss it out.

The humor of Mel’s milkbite commercials at least partly comes from making fun of the very serious issue of racism and how it plays out in cases where children have parents that society marks as racially different. The commercial serves to reinforce this taboo against miscegenation…or does it question the taboo? I’m not entirely sure if the “humor” in these commercials is combatting or exacerbating the stigma…or denying that the stigma exists all together. But I’m obviously leaning toward the last two.

The commercial takes license to make light of racism because its creators seem to believe that our society is past all that. Look how ridiculous we were to have had anti-miscegenation laws! If those still existed, we’d have a bunch of depressed Mels wandering around, blaming their parents for giving them such a hard life. Boy, I sure am glad we aren’t racist, anymore! In any case, the fact that we identify with Mel and feel sorry for him (do we? or do we think his problem isn’t serious in this day and age? are we just laughing at him?) means that we recognize the taboo being referenced. In encouraging the audience to both understand and then dismiss Mel’s perspective, it at once negates real people’s lived experiences and makes the (faulty) declaration that we are post-racism. But we can’t be post-anything if we still understand the signs of that thing. And anyway, is this laughter at all healing? Because the humor is very dry…almost ironic. And that gets dicey, as I will try to discuss below.

I’d argue that the existence of this campaign and all the cultural baggage it is trading on doesn’t point to a post-racism culture, but rather to one that has a more complicated relationship with its racism. This commercial can only exist in a culture where its producers (in this case, marketers and advertisers) believe that the culture is post-racism. This makes the brand of humor “safe” enough for a mass-media audience. It still messes with expectations, but in a more meta way that comments on a social situation that is assumed to be long past. The producers seem to believe this humorous take on a historical reality–setting it in the present and using a snack food as its face–won’t offend consumers. That it will resonate just enough and in the right ways in order to sell the product. But it’s also arguably a present reality, and even if it weren’t, its “humorous” take on a decidedly un-funny cultural taboo that oppressed real people in real ways is insensitive. (The argument against the insensitivity claim would be something about irony and being post-race and why can’t I just take a joke, which I will touch on later and you can read more about at Jezebel.)

The commercial may trade in deadpan ridiculousness, but it’s still based in something very real. The undercurrent of (anti-)miscegenation is extended to and reintensionalized in this extremely absurd context, rendering it less serious, less worthy of careful consideration. But it is serious. The commercial is playing on the idea that the children of people who aren’t “the same” in one way or another have it harder. That they’re damaged. So, it’s both that this creates issues for the kid, and then creates the stereotype that these “types” of kids have issues, thus making the “project,” if you will, of actually combatting these taboos a bad thing in itself, instead of creating a world where these taboos don’t exist because there are more interstitial people, who then become accepted categories in their own right. (I know that sentence is confusing, but it’s too far gone to help at this point. I don’t even know.) But the point is that making light of the history and ramifications of anti-miscegenation sentiment and policy, “mixed” children of all kinds, and the current (effectively ignored) lived realities of people who inhabit this interstitial social categories is harmful. These commercials operate in a sort of post-racism haze of denial. Anti-miscegenation is over, so it’s okay to joke about it. These commercials try to get us to believe that taking it all seriously would be ridiculous in this day and age–we’d be like Mel.

The thing is, we don’t live in a post-racial world, as Lindy West points out. The “humor” of trying to make it seem like we’re post-race by framing someone’s difficult lived experience as mixed-race individual as funny–implicitly discounting that this experience could be less-than-rosy–falls flat. It makes fun of the individual for having “issues” as a result of their racialized social location; it belittles their own understanding of their particular experience. And that is pretty wrong.

Now, not being what our society would deem a “person of color,” I cannot speak to the lived experience of someone from a mixed-race background. But I don’t imagine it’s always a walk in the park, simply because our society remains socially stratified, and one of the markers that keeps certain populations in disadvantaged socio-economic positions is skin color. Skin color is taken as the definitive sign that signifies one’s race; as if it were a natural thing. As if it weren’t a cultural construct (which it is, and an arbitrary one at that). And in America, we still see people’s skin color. We treat each other in various ways because of this type of discriminatory vision. Now, are mixed-race couples more accepted than they were 50 years ago? Sure…but only in some contexts. Are the children of  mixed-race couples less subject to ridicule? Again, it depends. We can maybe make a sweeping generalization that things are “better,” but it is dangerous to do so. And to base an ad campaign on this very real and personal part of our cultural history (and cultural present) is hugely problematic… and because it’s meant to be funny, it’s quite insulting, as well.

To wrap up before this all gets even more out of hand, let’s get back to the milkbite character himself. Mel, if we are to take his perspective, is the product of an unholy union between milk and granola. The irony, of course, is that plenty of folks enjoy this very combination. The fact that mixing them is “normal” is why milkbite exists as a product in the first place: created to fill a newly discovered [read: invented] niche, marketed as the answer to granola-and-milk-eaters’ as yet unrealized unfulfilled need for a convenient snack that pairs their two favorite things. Milkbite was created because he should have existed all along–so the marketers want us to believe. He’s what’s been missing in this world of fast “health” food.

Is that why we laugh at Mel? Because his underlying “issue” is that he fails to grasp his true role in the world? Bringing us all together in a holy harmony of interstitial bliss? Is milkbite the future? Let’s look to the heated discourse surrounding the controversial ad that South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party put out… They don’t live in the future, and neither do we. In fact, the very existence of this series of commercials implicitly arguing that we do live in the post-race future proves, ironically, that we don’t.

*UPDATE* Balancing Jane has also written about the disturbing nature of this ad campaign and provides a link to sign a petition against it.

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*For example, I once compiled over 200 pages of notes in preparation for a ten page final. Yep. Rifuckingdiculous. It’s kind of a problem.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Racism

Separate Spheres and Situated Knowledge: Subtly Indexing Gender Stereotypes in a Bounty Commercial

I’d like to haphazardly discuss yet another example of the stealthy pervasiveness of gender stereotypes in U.S. culture. This example is from a nationally (and maybe internationally) televised commercial for Bounty paper towels. Perhaps you’ve seen it of late.

This commercial makes use of what I would call harmful gender tropes to market its product to consumers. Because it was created to be mass-mediated and appeal to as many (female) consumers as possible, one might argue that such commercials have to extend to and re-create certain structures of cultural categories, no matter how stereotypical and harmful these representations may be of culturally created groups of people. Otherwise, they would not be comprehensible to a wide audience. But I argue that such use of stereotypical representations are yet another example of gendered norms being held up as natural, with implications for what roles differentially gendered people are expected to play in our culture.

This commercial in particular offers up women and men as possessed of differentially valued sets of knowledge by virtue of their being women or men. This has to do with how gender intersects with the notion of separate-spheres: the idea that people generally inhabit either the public or private sphere on the basis of their being women or men. (Things are never this neat in real life, of course, and never have been.) However, the intersections of these false dichotomies (men:women :: public:private) is the assumption upon which one of the messages of this commercial rests: that women “know better” than men how to clean up messes because of the particular knowledge they have thanks to their primarily inhabiting the private sphere.

Now for a description of the commercial itself. Please note that the voice-over quote is most likely a paraphrase, as I could only find the commercial online en Espanol. To see for yourselves and to have a better basis to disagree with my analysis, here’s a link to the commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCbSCzvMYxY (The sound is off by a few seconds.) And if you don’t want to watch it, I’m going to describe it, anyway. Lucky you.

Two young girls (sisters?) are baking and dancing in the kitchen as a woman and man (one or both of the girls’ parents) go about their daily lives nearby. Theirs is an open floor-plan, so one can assume that the adults are “supervising” from the adjacent breakfast nook or dining room table. Mom’s at the table working on a laptop computer, Dad’s relocating a small houseplant to an undisclosed location. The houseplant is never heard from again. When Dad’s slightly behind Mother, they both look over to the kitchen and smile at the girls who are having so much fun mixing ingredients with dancing.

Because this is a Bounty commercial, a sudden mis-calculated hip-check delivered by older girl to younger sets off a chain reaction, sending a glass flying. Its contents spill neatly across the counter. (Finally, Bounty thinks. I’ve been off-stage for quite long enough, thank you.) Father bends over to look at the mess as Mother walks behind him. Her voice-over says, “My husband? Thinks this is a three-sheeter.” She pauses and smiles at his somewhat befuddled worry, then continues walking to the roll of paper towels, which the older of the two girls has pulled in anticipation of the clean-up. Older girl, presumably taking a cue from Father’s view of the world, offers about three sheets worth.

Not so fast! Mother stops the spinning in the nick of time and cheerfully reprimands this folly, half-wagging her finger and half-using it to indicate that no, they only need one sheet of paper towel. Because Bounty’s just that awesome. Older girl relinquishes the end of the roll to Mother, who winds it back and deftly rips off just one sheet. Then the requisite test: women’s hands do the side-by-side cleaning of Bounty-vs-notBounty paper towels. Cut to Mother cleaning up the mess the girls made with that one sheet. The two girls are seen in the background, talking and smiling in a corner of the kitchen. (Why aren’t they cleaning up their own mess? But that’s another issue.) Mother smiles at the now-clean counter. Thanks, Bounty.

Cut to the happy ending. Older girl carries a now-finished cake of Dr. Seuss proportions over to where the rest of the family stands, ready with a stack of plates and say-cheese smiles. Everyone basks in the ridiculousness of the cake. They are proud. Then the cake implodes, sinking into itself. Four human heads trace its spatial deflation in familial whimsy. Cut to more paper towel vs. kitchen counter action. Take that, spilled fruit punch! BAM: BOUNTY. (don’t forget to try our napkins!)

The End

So, remember up there when I was talking about separate spheres? I sussed that out from that one-line voice over, but a lot of the images and the attitudes that the mother and father characters visually exude back this up. The mother addresses the audience and expects us to identify with her exasperation over her husband’s misguided counting: “three sheets, he thinks—three! Silly man with his man-knowledge…clearly he knows nothing about cleaning with Bounty—am I right, ladies?!!”

It is the woman who is held up as the correct one in this scenario; the adult who has the privileged knowledge about cleaning and cleaning with Bounty in particular. Her authority comes from the fact that she is the woman, the mother: that she inhabits the female role that is relegated to the private sphere, where the household cleaning is done. The mother’s knowledge is situated here in the home—laptop-work notwithstanding—and gendered female, and because the scenario is taking place in this sphere, her female private-sphere situated knowledge is privileged as authoritative.

The husband’s assessment of the situation and the solution it requires is rejected because he, being a man, is not privy to the privately-situated female knowledge about cleaning kitchen counters with Bounty paper towels. Poor man, how could he know—he may be carrying a houseplant, but his knowledge is still mostly male. His male knowledge comes from the public sphere, where there are no kitchen counters to be cleaned. Without getting into second- and third-order indexicality, just trust me when I say that these gendered associations correlate in all directions.

The commercial uses these gendered associations in order to connect with its audience: ladies, don’t you find it hilarious when men don’t know how to economically dispose of waste? Aren’t you happy to be so wise in the ways of housework? Now get back in that kitchen where you belong. Where you are the master of disaster because you are a woman. This conglomeration of gendered stereotypes is harmful to both women and men: it makes a joke of men attempting to take on more traditionally “female” roles, effectively keeping them from mastering housecleaning tasks because the stereotypes assume that, being male, they do not possess the requisite knowledge to clean house effectively. They are laughed away from the merest hint of an attempt to understand the situation of cleaning up a kitchen counter spill. Men are simply no good at this; everyone knows that. (This is where I could go off on a tirade about 90s 3rd-wave feminism that sadly persists today, whose power comes from reinforcing gendered stereotypes with a favor for femaleness instead of maleness, and taking pot-shots at men and their stereotypical male ways. But I will refrain from delving into this issue. For now.)

Back to the gendered assumptions in the Bounty commercial. I’ve discussed why they are harmful to men.  These stereotypes are harmful to women because they assume that by virtue of their gender, they are automatically better-equipped to handle crises of the home variety. This effectively relegates them to the role of home-maker, expecting them to know how to cook and clean, etc. To have the knowledge/expertise to do so efficiently, and with the right branded products.

The overall effect of the proliferation of mass-mediated images and other representations that employ gendered stereotypes is that society as a whole loses by forcing everyone into a binary system of gendered roles and expectations. We are capable of so much more! So much more variation if we only allowed ourselves to be open to them… Woe betide the gendered person who tries to cross these lines separating tasks based on gendered spheres: you will become the butt of a joke in a commercial. Or worse yet, the punch-line to joke numbers 1-26 on a sitcom. In America, we still create images that reinforce these gender stereotypes and mass-mediate them, further entrenching them into the social consciousness. Mother knows best when it comes to kitchen messes, and Father is just a helpless bystander to be pitied for his lack of female/private-sphere knowledge. Am I right, ladies?

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Media

Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay

Heineken attempts to insult women less, fails

The Heineken beer company somewhat recently (let’s say in the last few months, with increased air time during the holidays) began airing a commercial in the U.S. During this commercial, a young man successfully wins the favor of a young woman by ever-so-graciously offering to dance with what appears to be her older female relative. Soon after it aired, a word was changed in the commercial’s voice-over. Both versions begin with the unseen male narrator saying the following [disclaimer: I could not find a clip online, so this probably part-paraphrase]:

This is a jungle…disguised as a wedding. In it, there are two kinds of tigers.

As we hear the narrator’s monotonously baritone, semi-disinterested voice, we see a lively tent filled with people of all ages in fancy dress. There is music and drinking and general revelry, and it seems as though this party has been in full swing for a while. The camera follows a young man as he weaves through the crowd, his eyes on a particular young woman sitting at a round table.

It is the Unseen Narrator’s next utterance (he is the only one we hear throughout) that contains the word-change. As far as I can tell, the images we see on the screen do not change from one version of the commercial to the next. As Unseen Narrator says this next sentence, we see another young man approach the young woman that initial guy has his eye on. He offers her a drink and she dismisses him. Initial guy smiles and heads in for what may appropriately be described as “the kill” in this jungle-wedding universe, under the simultaneous cloaks of night, chivalry, and erected wedding tent. As all this goes before us, Unseen Narrator continues his interpretation of the scene, uttering the sentence under scrutiny:

One, who goes straight for the prey...” (at this point Inferior Tiger is being dismissed by the young woman)

“…and the other, who lets the prey come to him.”

At this point, Tiger #1 (initial guy who has crossed the wilds of the tent to reach his young female target) places two bottles of Heineken (what, you were expecting domestic?!!) on the table and invites her older female relative to dance. Young Virile Woman melts into a surprised and grateful grin, eyes ablaze in admiration. On the way to the dance floor, or possibly while engaged in semi-tandem movement that defies description, Tiger #1 steals a triumphant smile back to/at his prey. And everyone presumably lived happily ever after with Amsterdam-crafted beer (except granny/auntie, who may have eaten it mid- poorly-executed spin).

Allow me a melodramatic eye-roll. Now, I am not the only one who could (and seemingly did) rant about this commercial as it originally appeared. But I’d rather rant about both versions and the change that took place and its implications. The fact that there are two versions, the second quietly replacing the first, points to the complex conceptions that Heineken, its marketing division, its advertising firm, and American viewers have of gender relations, and the politics of negotiating them. What I find to be most interesting about this commercial is that at one point early into its run, the word “prey” was unceremoniously changed to “prize.” Same invisible, disinterested-yet-amused male narrator interpreting the scene for us. Same lovely images. Different word. But, I would argue, very similar meaning, however well it may have placated those who raised the initial fuss. Allow me to deconstruct:

In the second version (single woman=“prize”), we’re not longer just in the jungle. We’re now at a jousting match or something…in the jungle wedding. Young, attractive women are objects and goals rather than targets for mauling and eating. Great. The underlying conception of young, virile, single, conventionally attractive women remains fairly consistent. In the meantime, men are still tigers–active and in pursuit of said Young Virile Woman. In both versions, women are passive sheep over whose eyes wool may be pulled so as to get into their cotton pants. (Apologies for implosion of that half-woven textile metaphor back there.) Women remain goals in an elaborate game during which men are the players, and these men must reach these goals not directly—which would be a far too simple and inferior method, one for the inexperienced losers–but via an elaborate route that panders to the gendered goals’ uncontrollable emotions and affections toward older relatives. Relatives for whom they may feel responsible. With all of this firmly in place, how can Young Virile Woman react with anything but: Oh my stars–you’ve so graciously asked my grandma/great-aunt Norma to dance with no hidden agenda! I may swoon! What a gentleman! You must see in her the awesomeness that I do! Oh, I do! I do! After this dance, let’s ditch her, down these overpriced beers, and go fuck in the coat closet.

To be clear, this is a “reading” of the commercial for tropes and implicit meanings. I have no idea how these were produced, what the intended meanings were, what decisions were made and when, etc. All I know is that two versions were made and aired, and that one word was changed. This indicates that there were complaints to and/or a change of interpretation on the part of the company. I have no insider information, just common cultural background and vocabulary, each of which can be mined and deconstructed for meaning within particular contexts. We all (meaning primarily TV watchers in the U.S.) know the tropes, and it’s my pleasure to unearth all of them and their many sometimes-harmful implications.

Related to the idea that we share certain socio-cultural knowledge is the argument that since this is a commercial, it is designed to appeal to a certain segment of the population–hopefully a wide one–that will buy this product and increase Heineken’s profit margins. Thus, it panders to shared socio-cultural categories. That this commercial is merely reflecting back those very images and tropes and gender roles that the general U.S. population is perceived by Heineken and its marketing partners to identify with, understand and approve of. (For a great dissection of the American advertising industry and its practices, check out Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream. I’ll try to review this fully in a different post.)

These commercials and the one-word difference between them could be upheld as an acceptable version of how the TV-watching public is thought to be comfortable with presentations of courtship, masculinity, and femininity. Women are prey while men are predators, and in the ostensibly more-PC version of hegemonic gender roles, women are prizes while men are winners. The male change of gendered role is much less negative: in the first version men are portrayed as the inverse of prey: the predatory tiger. The category of predator is a negatively charged one in U.S. culture, so changing the Tiger from a predator to a sort of knight/winner is a more positively conceived cultural category that further serves to place the audience on his side. This also implicates the watchers of the commercial in the male gaze, partially erasing it from the viewer’s consciousness.

While the dichotomous gender roles are placed in different guises/categories, both versions of this highly gendered commercial put forth the idea that women don’t want to be approached directly, as equals, as people, as fellow tigers. Rather, they want to be lured under false pretenses. They want to be made to do the work–to walk right into the tiger’s den. They want to be duped like the clueless prey/prizes they are. Thanks, male gaze.

In both versions, the young, conventionally attractive female is the passive object of both tigers’ active intentions. Also in both cases, the older family member woman is used. She is a pawn in this risky game of jungle chess. And yet she is a grateful pawn–delighted at being part of the game/chase at all. She is portrayed as blindly grateful to be the ostensible object of the young tiger’s honorable attentions. Both females are powerless to resist his clever ruse. No, this Tiger #1 fellow is the winner. And both seem happy about it.

Side-gripe: why is Granny/Great-aunt Norma not the prize? That’s ageist! Plus it points back to the whole virile-young-thang category that Young Virile Woman, who is under constant pursuit by the relentless tiger knights, has been thrust in, sans personal agency. (Thanks again, male gaze.) Besides, Granny/Great-aunt Norma’s gonna have a hell of a lot more interesting things to talk about, and many more years to draw on. (Okay, well maybe just in my opinion.) And even though she is but a barely-tolerated stop on the circuitous journey to the prize, Great-aunt Norma is likewise cast in a passive, somewhat dim-witted role here. As a woman, she, too, is unable to see—or perhaps expects or even enjoys—this ridiculously complicated and misogynistic courtship ritual.

This brings me to another point I’d like to go back to: why must there be all this deception? It’s presented as more noble for a young man to approach a young woman via the guise of taking interest in her older relatives than it is to approach her directly. Even as the Unseen Narrator seems to be sharing a secret with the audience via his interpretation of the events that unfold, he does it with a wink: we recognize both the situation and its deconstruction/metaphorization. It’s presented as normal and expected that people play these games; as if that were the Right and Honorable way of going about meeting people you want to bang and courting them.

Now, it is true that we the audience have no idea what Inferior Tiger said to Young Virile Woman. Maybe he was a total cad. But we don’t get that information. All we are shown is how each tiger chose to actively pursue this passive prey/prize. And to tie this in with the above discussion of ageism, why must talking to the relatives of young women you want to bang always be about “getting-in-good” with them and their clan? That inherently cheapens whatever activity you’re doing with said relatives, which with a little reflection on the parts of both Young Virile Woman and Great-Aunt Norma, rather undermines your whole agenda, Tiger. (Not that either woman is allowed the possibility to deconstruct along with the Unseen Narrator and his audience minions, slave to the male gaze beer googles he so cunningly places over their eyes.)

Finally, the second version is arguably worse than the first with regards to its implications, as the “prize,” of course, is sexy fun times with Young Virile Woman. Maybe a relationship, but let’s not kid ourselves. If, like Inferior Tiger who was too forward, Tiger #1 has just noticed her across the crowded tent (in his pants–hey-oh!) then this is no West Side Story. Tiger #1 wants to bang her (all right, so did Romeo/Tony). Maybe that’ll be the first step in getting to know her better as a person, but in the champange-and-Heineken hazed hangover morning, they’ll both probably just shake hands awkwardly and go to their respective homes. Sure, Disinterested Unseen Narrator assures us that Young Virile Woman is ostensibly the “prey/prize,” but are we really going to let a beer-goggled-brewery and its invisible male spokesperson convince us that there is love and first sight? Gag me with a green glass bottle. This is an ad, after all–it’s all a gorgeous, and some might argue delicious, lie.

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Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay