My favorite worst commercial came on TV again last night! Let’s talk about it.
(If you are one of those people who Doesn’t See Commercials, congratulations you must be very proud, but also hold up, because amid car commercials and Macy’s shoutfests you are missing out on one of American popular culture’s most fascinating and insidious running social commentaries, which you probably know is important because you probably watch Mad Men, only without commercials.)
I think you know how a society feels about people, lizard-brain deep, when you see how they’re used to sell what to whom. Axe makes sure we know the preservation of masculinity through sexual compulsion is a man’s highest priority. Swiffer makes sure we know that women, when given a break from homemaking, will either take a bubble bath or read a women’s magazine. Toy commercials make sure you know which are for boys (loud ones!), and which are for girls (pink ones!).
IKEA has a commercial in which an Asian-American couple picks out a kitchen together. It also has one in which a young Hispanic lady is teaching a younger male relative to make flan. I notice them every time they’re on; not hard to imagine why.
And sometimes, a commercial hits the nail on the head about so many social assumptions that when you describe it to people, they make you find it to prove it’s real.
[Trigger warning: portrayal and discussion of diet-related issues.]
I KNOW, RIGHT?
To recap: A young lady in a fancy dress sits alone in a diner, picking at a salad. Across from her, a happy couple eats a pair of brownies while staring into one another’s eyes. After they leave, she rushes the counter to finish off the crumbs. But lo! What’s this? A hot guy has come to push her hand away and show her a Fiber One 90-calorie brownie! She takes a bite, her eyes closing in that face of ecstasy you usually see on portraits of saints. She opens her eyes – and is alone! Who is that mystery diet-policer? We’ll never know. THE END. BROWNIES. FEMINISM HAS WON.
There’s sort of so much to unpack you don’t know where to start.
– The initial image of a woman eating alone as a symbol of dissatisfaction and rejection? Perhaps.
– The equating of romantic partnership as “permission” to enjoy food/life and eat actual brownies? A solid contender for the extended metaphors of happiness, fulfillment, and monogamous romantic and culinary satisfaction that haunt this Fiber One Diner.
– The assumption that this woman, who may well have been stood up for a date when we meet her and is picking at the salad of body and life remorse, has to be physically restrained from racing over and literally eating the crumbs of happiness left by the happy couple? (Maybe the worst part. Salad sluts get nothing!!)
– The part where, after having her food intake physically dictated to her by a complete stranger in the for-your-own-good gambit, she awakens from the 90-calorie trance and is STILL ALONE, the living embodiment of the bone-chilling idea that in the existing patriarchy, nothing a woman does will ever be good enough? (Maybe the worst part.)
– That the multibillion-dollar diet industry is working hard to make sure people, women in particular, stay in the self-loathing cycle in which they spend money on 90-calorie brownies, because not to do so means you are doomed to a life in a diner from 1991, picking at a dry salad and waiting for the men that show up at intervals to wave dessert substitutes at you? (A bit specific, but maybe the worst part.)
– That this actress had to sit on this set for hours, biting into weirdly rubbery brown square after weirdly rubbery brown square and praying for a spit bucket, all the while having to pretend that brownie was actually good for take after take after take? (Definitely the worst part.)
This commercial, on the surface, tells us nothing more than Ladies Like Chocolate, Here is Thinner Chocolate, which is such an old saw that the commercial probably flies under a lot of radars, in the same way most people just accept that in a cleaning product ad, you’ll be watching a woman houseworking about ninety percent of the time. (If there’s a man, he’ll be making a mess, amirite?) And of course, every ad for a product is in competition with every other ad for a similar product, so this commercial could not be less interested in trying to make a commercial that doesn’t look like it is about a delusional malnourished; it wants to make sure you think about this brownie those crucial two seconds longer than you do those Three Musketeers candy bars, in the ad for which three ladies catcalled the guy to make him let go of his candy bar in surprise so it would float into the air and they could all jump for it at the same time. (Commercials do not think very highly of ladies, do they, yikes.)
But in that way, commercials are microcosms of the world in which they think this commercial will be effective. This ad is every diet ad. This ad is for all women. This ad will move this product off the shelves because enough women are watching it and thinking the self-denial mantra of so many customers of the diet industry who have been encouraged to make these very assumptions a hundred thousand times, and who might have glanced at that commercial just for a moment, and thought only: “I mean, I’d like a brownie-brownie, but.”
I watched three channels last night. It aired on every one.
You know, let’s just all watch the IKEA commercial about the kitchen cabinets, shall we?