Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Tale of Two Stupid Commercials

I watch some of the fine programming content Comedy Central makes available through their web page, which unfortunately means I see the same small set of commercials over and over again, ad nauseum (see what I did there?).

There's the regular stuff, happy pastel singing laundry detergent, horrible snide neighbors lording their smart phones over people, a kid who loves bacon so much he marries it (which ends with "you may now eat the bride" and a sickening wet chomp that is the stuff of nightmares). But there was one in particular that bothered me.

The ad follows a handsome, scruffy young man on the prowl for fresh lady-meat, but every time he comes close to one of his victims, flakes of head skin swarm from his rakishly unkempt mop like a swarm of cylon fighters, and the girl's face slow-motion freezes in a look of unnameable, lovecraftian horror before she vaporizes in a puff of cgi dust, leaving her discarded clothes. The young man looks sad to have missed an opportunity for sex, but doesn't seem particularly weighed down by the guilt of constantly annihilating strangers with the mere presence of his weaponized dandruff. He then goes home and shampoos with the advertised brand, and, miraculously three different girls appear (I think they're implied to be the same girls, but I don't think they are) without those pesky clothes that were left behind. They proceed to paw insatiably at his head, with that vacant, slightly bite-y look models wear on the covers of both Cosmo and GQ. "Don't lose girls to dandruff" the sophisticatedly accented lady announcer reminds you, in case you missed the message.

I know, intellectually, that the intended message of this commercial is "buy our dandruff shampoo!" and not "women who do not want to sleep with you functionally may as well not exist." But I went out of my way to be somewhere else when the unskippable ad came on. This one commercial is probably responsible for more clean dishes in my apartment than any two other factors combined.

So then a new ad came into rotation. "Don't you wish you could just make some things disappear?" a young woman in club wear asks, as a rat-like man with an open-to-the-sternum disco shirt seems to sniff at her from behind. She flashes him a disgusted look and he pops in a familiar cgi dust effect that sets her hair swishing playfully at the camera. She then walks toward us with swinging hips as she enumerates the virtues of the particular tampon she's trying to sell us. Across the room, a nonthreatiningly normal looking boy is being chatted up by two women you don't really see well before our off-screen heroine presumably splatters them out of existence with the sheer, horrible force of the obliteration power this new tampon has granted her. She then skips up and begins a happy conversation we can only assume he's smiling and nodding along to out of fear for not only his life, but his very physical existence.

This ad is also stupid, but it doesn't bother me.

And I got to wondering if that makes me a hypocrite. I mean, I like to think I'd also be bothered if the god-murderess of the second commercial were going up to dudes and trying to engage them in tampon conversation, only to vaporize them horribly when they told her they just wanted to be friends. Tampon girl is malicious in a way dandruff boy isn't. Sure, her first murder could be argued to be defensive, or at least provoked, but all those girls were doing was standing next to a boy whose attention she wanted. They didn't deserve to die. Dandruff boy just wanders through a hellscape of unintended casualties (though he's either incredibly callous or really bad at pattern recognition to keep at it). Maybe I'd be upset if the dudes in the second commercial were as objectified as the ladies in the first. Dandruff boy's new shampoo lands him a silent, lustful harem and the implied promise of sex with at least two more women than we assume he has penises; while all tampon girl seems to want is a chance to talk to her boy of choice. These dudes don't have time for much development, but they do at least get "creepy potential date rapist" and "cute but normal boy", while the lady's characters are "sexy, horrified club girl", "sexy, horrified librarian", and "sexy, horrified gym girl", all of which dissolve away into "indistinct, hair-crazed sex-vixen". But those two other girls in the tampon commercial get about the same, and the second ad gives no indication that they will ever be rescued from the icy void of non-existence, not even for group sex with a previously unacceptable stranger.

I don't think I'm having this reaction because deep down I think it's more okay for girls to vaporize boys (and other girls) than for boys to vaporize girls.

But I do have to admit a large part of it probably has to do with the fact that the first ad is, to a certain extent, about me but not for me (girls will totally sex up a guy with a non-flakey head!), while the second ad is, to about the same extent, both about and for me (girls, tampons will make all your life's travails conveniently vanish!). I wonder if there are gentlemen out there, similarly given to pointless analysis, who rankle at the idea of a tampon-powered psychic serial killer cornering them after she brutally dispatches all the other perfectly nice girls. The boy in the commercial doesn't seem to mind, but then again, neither do the bitey towel girls in the shower-seraglio foursome.

I can't get over the feeling that the disparate responses I have to these two ads are meaningful. Telling. It's possible I think this because it's very late at night, I admit, but still.

It probably doesn't bear thinking about.

But I'm going to anyway. 


  1. Just one thought, having not seen either commercial: on the shampoo one, is it possible that the intent of the effect is not, "Dandruff makes women explode into a puff of nothingness" but rather "Dandruff makes women run away so fast their clothes are left behind"?

  2. I loved reading your analysis. And I thought I was the only one who spends time railing about stupid, sexist ads and being irritated when women are portrayed as mindless sex toys. In my experience, males don't seem to be as offended by ads that objectify them sexually or that portray them as mindless in the ways that women have been objectified since time immemorial. My guess is that it's something of a novelty for them to be regarded that way and maybe it's even so ludicrously counter to what they've experienced in their lives that they don't take it seriously when they are portrayed that way. They don't seem to be as sensitized to that kind of reverse sexism as many women are.

    Maybe it's a bit analogous to many people of northern European descent in the US not being terribly offended by some of the slang terms used to refer to their various ancestries.

    However, stereotypes that seem to get the faces of some males (at least) to twist with bitterness:

    1. Short men can never be remotely attractive (even to relatively short women). Think about it--the archetypal creepy guy in commercials and movies and what not is nearly always short. "Mr wrong" may or may not also be plump, bald, obnoxious, unwarrantably cocky or have bad skin, but short seems to be the starting point for building a stereotypically unappealing male. The males I've known who are vertically challenged tend to be rather sensitive about this fact, because (as we women well know) it HURTS to have someone dismiss you the second they see you due to something you can't really do anything about.

    2. Males must have better jobs and more money than the women they hope to attract. I vaguely remember a credit card commercial from many years back that showed a man buying a woman a drink in a bar and he paid with a REGULAR credit card instead of a gold card (this is back before platinum and titanium cards made 'gold cards' something they gave 18 year old college freshmen). The gal got glassy eyed and excused herself to visit the rest room and never came back (and she did not leave her clothes behind). I knew a couple of guys back in grad school who really hated that ad because it suggested that a man without lots of money (and let's face it, who in grad school studying an academic discipline is or ever will be rich) is worth a damn.

    Now having said this, I don't think the 'males must be tall and rich (or if short, very, very rich)' stereotype is nearly as bad as the 'women must be young, 20% underweight but with large boobs, gorgeous, blond, spunky yet sweet and never, ever get angry about anything and all the rest. But there are a few things, at least, that males also get annoyed by. May be why that credit card ad wasn't on for very long (since it targeted men but it ticked at least some of them off).

  3. 1. Some women do, or at least did, pay attention to the color of a man's credit card. Back in the late 1980s, whenever I took a woman to dinner for the first time, I always paid with my American Express Gold Card (which was something of a status symbol back then). I would only do this on a first date, because first impressions last (and I preferred using my non-gold card because of its airline mileage benefits).

    I wasn't sure if women paid attention to my credit card, but why chance it?

    Well, once, when I took a particular woman on a second date, I paid with my non-gold card. She blurted out, "I thought you had a gold card!"

    Wow! I thought. So women really DO pay attention to such things. She HAD noticed my Gold Card during our first date, though I made no mention of it, nor prominently flashed it before her eyes. Yet still, she noticed.

    2. Studies have shown (and this has been my observation) that men are almost always dumber, and less ethical, than women in commercials. Sometimes, a boy may be smarter than an adult woman, but never an adult man.

  4. Hey, sorry I'm late coming back to the comments

    Marshall- I'm pretty sure they just poof into nothing, and I say this as someone who's watched a lot of warner brothers' cartoons, so, you know, a position of highest superhuman speed authority.

    Erica- hey, thanks, I'm glad you had fun with it. I had fun writing it. Getting me talking about soft spots in "the typical male ego" is probably not good for anyone involved, because not everybody's actually like that, and I don't like to speak of it as if it's an absolute. I've certainly run up against it before, but I generally believe if people are that insecure about it, it's best to give them some time alone to heal their psychic wounds, rather than attempting to work around it in some sort of relationship.

    Anonymous- Dude. If you're reading this, I would love you to link the studies from point 2. I desperately enjoy hard data.

    Also, unless the credit card you use makes a big difference to you, why would you ever voluntarily date a woman who considered it a problem? I never get this about the dating scene. People complain about these assumed ugly traits for both sexes, but never seem to question their universality.

  5. Don't forget. That lady in the second commercial also vaporized an entire line of people!