Sometime around seeing the second soft-drink commercial in which a seemingly sympathetic character threw a heavy can of soda at another character’s head, then ran away like a crook fleeing the scene of a crime, it struck me that something was wrong in the land of Super Bowl advertising. Classic game-day spots of the past have included such uplifting narratives as the tale of NFL player “Mean” Joe Greene bonding with a young fan, or that of a determined donkey trying to join a team of Clydesdale horses. But this year, it seemed like the recurring theme was personified by the soft-drink commercials: people behaving badly, without any repercussions. This trend might have escaped my notice had it not already been evident for some time on the big screen as well.
First, let me illustrate the trend by describing some of the rotten characters featured in game-day commercials. And no, I’m not going to mention any of the accompanying products by name-the manufacturers of those products tacitly endorsed boorish behavior by green-lighting these ads, and therefore did nothing yesterday to earn my support. Beyond the soft-drink ads, offensive spots included:
• The campaign for a snack chip starring a fan so ardent he licks other people’s fingers (and pants!) to taste the crumbs left over when the chips are gone. Because, of course, it’s appropriate to molest people.
• The commercial for an auto product in which an office drone mistakenly believes he hit “reply all” when sending an NSFW e-mail. In a panic, he violently destroys all of his coworkers’ computers and smart phones. Because, of course, it’s appropriate to destroy other people’s property in order to cover up your own mistakes. (To say nothing of sending NSFW e-mails from a work computer.)
• The commercial for a spectator sport in which fans of that sport react in delight when they get caught up in horrific disasters like a Ferris wheel run amok. Because, of course, it’s appropriate to celebrate the suffering of other people.
• And, of course, the instantly controversial campaign for an online discount provider in which messages about serious global issues like deforestation and the plight of the Tibetan people are mere set-ups for product endorsements. Because, of course, it’s appropriate to suggest that saving money on a bikini wax is more important than being concerned about the destruction of the world’s rain forests.
Obviously, the “joke” in each of these commercials is supposed to be that we, the viewers, know the characters in the commercials are behaving badly-even though we would never act that way ourselves, we can relate because these boorish characters speak to our lowest instincts. It’s okay to make jokes about people being horrible to other people so long as we’re on the joke. Right?
Not so fast. Think about some of the insufferable characters appearing in recent blockbuster movies. Last year, for instance, Robert Downey Jr. virtually cornered the market on personifying jerks on the big screen. In the superhero epic Iron Man 2, his Tony Stark character was even more of a spoiled brat than in the original movie, arrogantly flaunting his wealth; recklessly destroying property and endangering people during a tantrum; and shamelessly putting sleazy moves on women. Then, in the road-trip “comedy” Due Date, Downey played a businessman so inconsiderate of other people’s feelings he almost pathologically insults every person he encounters. Downey blurred the line between this unflattering onscreen persona and his offscreen image as a cocky movie star with his tone-deaf appearance at the Golden Globes last month, when he “joked” that women who sleep with him become better actresses.
At a certain point, buying tickets to Downey movies encourages him to keep moving in this direction, just like the preponderance of ads featuring obnoxious characters suggests we’ve lost our collective propensity for shame. You remember shame, don’t you? It’s that powerful force we used to employ in order to compel people into behaving considerately. Well, apparently shame has been replaced with an inexplicable tolerance for actions that even ten years ago would have gotten people shunned from polite society. Back in the ’90s, movie star Hugh Grant had to do a humiliating perp walk on The Tonight Show after his close encounter with a prostitute. But today, Charlie Sheen actually locks a hooker in a closet, and the biggest impact on his career is a barrage of unkind jokes on late-night TV. It’s as if the idea of his employer actually firing Sheen for being a reprobate who doesn’t deserve to make a zillion dollars a week has been removed from the equation.
Nonchalantly tolerating abysmal people, as seems to be happening throughout virtually all contemporary media to some degree or another, seems symptomatic of a disturbing cultural trend.
In the current Natalie Portman comedy No Strings Attached-and its upcoming Mila Kunis-starring clone Friends With Benefits-viewers are treated to the raunchy adventures of modern young people making deals with each other to have sex without the burden of emotional commitments. Similarly, the forthcoming comedy Hall Pass, with Owen Wilson, depicts husbands given permission by their wives to screw around for a week without repercussions. Sure, participating in legitimate relationships is difficult-you know, with the whole “taking someone else’s feelings into consideration” thing-but when did the idea of being completely irresponsible become such a widespread fantasy? When did the act of stomping on someone else’s emotions become fodder for cheap sex jokes?
The rise of inconsiderate characters is troubling, but thankfully not yet dominant. Even among this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials, there were several spots that scored laughs without rudeness. The car commercial featuring a child in a Darth Vader costume trying use “the Force” to start a car (until his dad secretly helps him out with a remote control) was immediately memorable. The car ad featuring rapper Eminem praising his beleaguered hometown of Detroit had unexpected emotional punch. The soft-drink commercial featuring two border guards discreetly adjusting the border between them so they can share a cool drink had a kind-hearted, universal message.
And at the movies, admirable characters still dominate, partially because the current corporate culture in Hollywood seems to demand that nearly every film feature a one-dimensional protagonist. Luckily some of these heroic characters, like The Fighter‘s Dicky Edlund and True Grit‘s “Rooster” Cogburn, have depth and edge in addition to inherent decency. Nonetheless, it’s worrying that audiences are embracing new archetypes like the self-absorbed pricks that Downey plays and the horndogs appearing in the various sex-without-commitment comedies.
So beware, America: Just like the movie ads that played during the big game foretold what we’ll see at the multiplex in the next few months, the game’s regular ads paralleled something we’ve been seeing at the multiplex for a while. The a-holes are invading, and unless we make them feel unwelcome, there will be more of them. Think about that the next time you see an ad for a movie in which every character seems obnoxious, or the next time you see an ad showing a product being endorsed by obnoxious characters.
It’s a fact that we’ve entered uncharted territory because technological advances like Facebook, Twitter, and even the automobile social-networking apps advertised during the Super Bowl allow people who are already self-involved to indulge themselves, and create peer pressure motivating normal people to become more self-involved. But we still have a collective voice, and we don’t have to go quietly into the dark night of omnipresent narcissism and rudeness. With any luck, discouraging inconsiderate behavior in popular culture might cause some beneficial blowback in actual culture.