Super Bowl ads vs. service workers

[6 February 2007]

By Rob Horning

Economist Brad Delong wonders what’s going on with the Super Bowl ads’ scorn for low-wage jobs:

I am not imagining this, am I? The underlying background assumption of these commercials is contempt for the men and women who serve the fast food and work the loading docks and deliver the pizzas and staff the call centers of America, isn’t it? The exectives of GM and Nationwide Insurance and their creative ad professionals think that denying the dignity of labor is the road to selling annuities and SUVs to the fiftysomethings with spare cash watching the Super Bowl, isn’t it? This is a Sign of the Apocalypse for our current Second Gilded Age, isn’t it? Or am I overreacting?

A good question, related to this story PopMatters ran the other day about GEICO’s caveman ads. The implication of these ads seems to be that sympathy for low-wage workers or marginalized groups is contrived, as contrived as the set-ups of the ads themselves, that to raise such objections as “What about the service worker’s dignity?” is to exhibit a fuddy-duddy political correctness that epitomizes a lack of cool. The only people who would leap to defend the fry cooks from the affronts in these ads are not fry cooks themselves but patronizing bleeding hearts who want to earn points for their conscientiousness. Presumably, the fry cooks aren’t bothered by the ads because (a) they find them sufficently funny, (b) they are content with any sort of recognition, even as the butt of a joke (the reality-TV eager-for-humiliation paradigm) or (c) they don’t identify themselves with the job, which they too have contempt for. People in those jobs don’t see themselves working them forever; the jobs are disposable and interchangable; meanwhile those working them are rooting their identity in future jobs (call it the permanent identity hypothesis) or in their consumption practices—what we are is not what we do anymore, or rather what we do mainly is shop, collect things and display them.
Also (and this may contradict the point above and may end up being tautological), I think when we watch ads, unless we are consciously resisting and hurling insults at the screen, we end up suspending our actual selves and adopting a provisional persona, a kind of collective transpersonal identity which codifies all the traits recognized as socially dominant. This self is open to the fantasies the ad wants to communicate—this openness makes the ads enjoyable rather than an irritating intrusion; in fact we’re grateful to the ads for helping us assume this powerful persona that public discourse (ads, again) is continually flattering. (That’s why it’s strange that the ad industry promotes the Super Bowl as a commercial showcase—it prompts viewers to adopt a critical attitude, as though they were expert judges of rhetoric and persuasion instead of the receptive blobs we typically are, softened up by formulaic entertainment. The critical attitude stymies the adoption of this alternate persona.) This provisional self is awash in aspiration and knows itself able to make good on all of marketing’s empty promises of transformation, reading accurately and vicariously experiencing all the meticulous details of the lifestyles ads convey. It revels in the (demented) faux utopias of beer ads and truck ads, full of anxiety-free relations, effortless beauty, unspoiled landscapes and perfect homes. The provisional self can know no failure, so it adopts the appropriate elitist perspective toward low-wage jobs and finds the comedy in them—the laughable idea that society makes people do things such as that. Ha! Can you believe it? The jobs themselves are shifted to the realm of fantasy, comedic nightmares invented solely for the purposes of getting laughs. Ads induce us to adopt a transcendent persepctive from which the fantasy and magical thinking ads trade in register as real and the tedium and injustices of life register as false, as jokes.

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