Monday, February 09, 2004

Super Bowl Sunday and Society

So many people are citing this year's Super Bowl as the proof of a complete absence of dignity and moral behavior in our society. Whether that's correct or not, the New Jersey Jewish News Editor Andrew Silow-Carroll makes a great argument.

Mauled in America
(by Andrew Silow-Carroll, New Jersey Jewish News)

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and the boys and I are curled up on the couch, doing the male-bonding thing. My sports acumen is wafer-thin, but like the rookie teacher who stays one chapter ahead of the class, I need only a quick scan of the day’s sports headlines (or a fast leap onto Google) to answer most of the kids’ questions. “Have the Patriots ever won the Super Bowl?” Two years ago. “Can an MVP be from the losing team?” Unlikely, but it’s possible (Google confirms it: Chuck Howley of Dallas in Super Bowl V).

And then there are the questions for which there are no answers, such as, “Abba, what’s erectile dysfunction?”

I hate to sound like a prude, but this year’s Super Bowl was an assault of tasteless, inappropriate, and uncomfortable images — and we missed the half-time show! Like most viewers, I used to look forward to the Super Bowl commercials. But that was before advertisers seemed to decide that the country’s most powerful economic cohort lives in frat houses. Horses passing gas, chimps making bedroom noises, those footballs soaring through tires (wink, wink). I have seen the future, and his name is Howard Stern.

More upsetting than the Animal House humor is the advertisers’ odd conviction that violence sells. So in the first big ad of the game, a mutt chomps on a guy’s private parts to get him to dislodge his Bud Light. (Nothing says “Have a cold one” like an implied castration.) In an ad for 7-Up, men try to slam dunk through a basketball hoop on a moving truck and fail, repeatedly and graphically. And in perhaps the most disturbing commercial, for Lay’s, an elderly couple fights over a bag of potato chips. The man uses his cane to trip the woman, who falls to the floor. What focus group told Lay’s that associations with broken hips would help move snack food off the shelves?

I first noted the trend a few years back, about the same time that Pepsi offered up a little boy drawing so hard on a straw that he ends up squashed in the bottle. Yuck, right? That same year, a commercial featured young men using a cannon to fire rodents against a wall — an unforgettable image from a now forgotten Or perhaps you remember the “Got Milk?” campaign in which children watch in horror as an elderly man hefts a wheelbarrow and his arms are torn off at the socket. Or the cheese ad in which cats keep flinging themselves at the glass window of a cheese shop. What exactly is the connection between mutilation and dairy products?

As a father, I find I can live with the sexuality of much of modern advertising. As my mother once put it, when she and my father discussed if my preadolescent self should be allowed to read Love Story: “If he understands it, then it makes no difference. And if he doesn’t understand it, what difference does it make?” My 12-year-old understands what Levitra does. As for his nine-year-old brother, I can get away with vague explanations like “It’s a medicine older people need. Hey, who wants ice cream?”

But violence is a different story. Its implications are clear no matter the child’s age. I find that kids understand the difference between the slapstick of cartoons and the sickening depictions in the most violent ads. The former is stylized and exaggerated, removed from reality. The latter has lately become all too real, in commercial after commercial. Take the Computer Associates ad in which the assistant cracks his chin on the edge of the conference table. You see the impact, the twist in his neck as he sinks to the floor. Ten years ago his injury would have been implied; today the advertiser wants you to feel his pain.

Cartoon violence also has its own morality. When characters like Wile E. Coyote and Daffy Duck are shot, squashed, or immolated, they, and only they, are suffering the consequences of their own unfortunate behavior. In current ads, innocents become victims. 7-Up, to single out perhaps the worst offender, seems to have staked its future on ads in which bystanders are put in harm’s way. Here’s how the company itself describes one of its ads, in which its “spokesman” hires a parade balloon: “As air rushes out, the balloon flies off like a rocket, dragging the 7-Up spokesman for a ride and blowing the parade participants everywhere.” The Un-cola punishes the undeserving.

The entire Super Bowl spectacle is an easy target for those who like to rail about what’s wrong with America. One letter writer in The New York Times wonders if the broadcast provided Muslims with confirmation that “our culture is morally corrupting.” The tsk-tsk crowd, meanwhile, is having a field day over the Janet Jackson incident. (Although they miss the point. What was really on naked display was public relations disingenuousness at its worst. When Justin Timberlake described his baring of Jackson’s breast as a “wardrobe malfunction,” he nearly beat out President Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities” for the Spin-of-the-Year award.)

I don’t think I watched civilization crumble on Sunday evening. But I certainly saw a piece fall off. I worry about children raised on a medium in which humor, cruelty, and commerce are mixed so freely and so frequently. In this, I’m with Blanche DuBois: “Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable.” No matter what it does to the bottom line.

Copyright 2004 New Jersey Jewish News. All rights reserved.

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