Cheese Food for the Holidays
Ah, the holidays. The time for selling. At least in my business. Pre-holiday time is boom time in the commercial world, and it’s a good time to see what’s going on in the collective mind of corporate America. The horror! The horror! This year I worked on three holiday campaigns, and each one imparted its own little slice of it.
The first one was for the New York Lottery, and it was actually quite funny. It featured a cranky, cynical snowman talking about all the lousy gifts he’s gotten over the holidays: “Scarves. I got one for every outfit. Oh, wait. I only got one outfit.” What this translates to is a tall, bitchy gay man wrapped in layers of cotton batting and covered with Styrofoam snow – the kind of stuff you will never, ever get out of your clothes (Trust me on this. I had a Secret Santa who filled my closet with the stuff in college. I think I still have some of it around). Every once in a while, he needs a repair – to be re-swathed in batting, a light dusting of flakes – and the three, giggly wardrobe people, who clearly have their own thing going on because nobody else can figure out why they’re always giggling, come in and make the adjustments. They’re like his handmaidens, ready to remove his head to give the poor guy a breather from his portable sweatbox when necessary, which means the sound guy has to run in to unplug the microphone in the head, adding stress to our day – but the snowman is actually only playing bitchy, he’s quite good natured about the whole thing, so I’d rather not see him suffer. I even got a phone picture taken with him because, well, who doesn’t want their picture taken next to a giant snowman?
We actually shot this spot just before Halloween, and one of the major topics of conversation on this job was the indictment of “Scooter” Libby. Everyone was getting bulletins by phone.
“Cheney’s going down.”
“Naah. Nobody’s going to get indicted for exposing Plame because they can’t prove it was deliberate.”
“But at least obstruction of justice.”
“Have you seen the bumper stickers?: ‘Clinton lied, nobody died.’ And “Better blow jobs than no jobs.’”
The other major topic was what the script supervisor should dress up as for an upcoming Halloween party. The director, a former ad exec, had a few suggestions.
“How about a pregnant bride with a black eye? Or wait, how about the sexy pharmacist?”
“I find pharmacists very sexy. Those little white coats. Plus, you’ve got your access to prescription drugs, which is great –“
“And birth control. Kind of one stop shopping.”
Does this tell you anything about how ad guys think? And he’s perfectly nice. He’s just a young, rich white guy who’s got no clue about how anyone else could find his view of things scary or offensive. And because guys like this are making the ads we see on television every, what is it, 8.5 minutes?, that leaks into the culture.
What’s more frightening about this spot, however, since I’m already biting the hand that feeds me, was this dialogue:
“This year, get your friends and family something they can really use: holiday scratch-off games from the New York Lottery!”
Is this the best the average person can hope for for a holiday gift in our stagnating economy? Lottery tickets? I myself was thinking the choice was between that and a new Lexus – since I’ve seen that ad only about 100 times this season. Interesting to note that I never saw the snowman ad, but a friend of mine said she was seeing it all the time. I wonder what programs she’s watching compared to what I’m watching. Clearly, she and I are experiencing the two vastly different versions of America that the people who market TV advertising know full well exist, even if the government won’t admit it.
But back to the set. I really don’t have much to say about the second spot, which was for Home Depot, except for a brief monologue captured in an earlier blog (see “The Shopper at Home Depot’s Brush With Fame”). And that hope improvement doesn't seem like not such a bad way to spend your holiday money – except, do people really want to find a wicker sock organizer tub under the tree? (Actually, I would. My socks could use some organizing, if you’re out there reading this, Mom. Although we don’t have a tree since we’re Jewish. But more on that later).
The third job was for a home improvement reality show called Moving Up which had a tie in with a major purveyor of dairy products. So we did two spots where a real, home-owning couple pretended that, now that they’d fixed up their home, they were having holiday parties for a bunch of extras – using brand name dairy products to make dips and desserts and so on.
Now is a good time to explain one phenomena of film production with food products: the food stylist.
The food stylist is the person hired to make the food product into whatever form it’s supposed to be, utilizing only edible components and, yes, the product itself, and to make it look perfect. It is a much more specialized job than that of a prop person, who also has to work with food sometimes. Prop people can pull together anything with sawdust, fishing line and different varieties of tape, but that’s not necessarily what you want to do with something that your actors are going to have to put in their mouths.
The first day, the food stylists were making cream cheese brownies. All day, cream cheese brownies, shaved down into absolutely perfect rectangles – which meant that there were always little scraps lying around to be scooped up by the make-up guy loitering at their table for precisely that reason.
He gleefully held up two Ziploc bags of orange cubes of cheese product.
“This is what we’re having tomorrow!” he said through a mouthful of cream cheese. “I just love this stuff! I make the most delicious meatloaf roll with it. You just sauté a little onion and garlic and pepper, a little broccoli, and then you roll it up with the cheese in the meat. And then it cooks up and when you slice it, the stuff just oozes out, mmmm!”
“But couldn’t you use some, uh, actual cheese?
He looked appalled that I might be knocking his recipe.
“I’ve tried them. They don’t melt as well.”
“Have you tried jack cheese?”
“No, no, it wouldn’t have the same golden color!”
I then noticed that he was eating only the cream cheese topping off the brownies and I realized that this discussion was probably not worth continuing.
On the second day, we began working with the cheese product, which was made, through another tie-in with a salsa, into a dip. It was an assembly line of gooey, reddish orange stretching from the food stylist table in the driveway and passed through the back door by the props, who would then deliver it into the hands of the actors.
Now is a good time to talk about another phenomena of film production with food products: the spit cup.
I’ve already talked about how many takes we do during commercials. Well, imagine having to take a large bite of a hamburger or piece of cake or a chip with a mondo glob of cheese product salsa dip on the end each time. No matter how much you like what you’re eating, you’re going to get kind of sick after you’ve had to do it 100 times. But, while you must bite, you don’t, generally, have to swallow for the camera. Enter the props with the spit cup – or bucket, if, as in this spot, there is a whole team of extras eating the product. They can spit their food into the bucket and then they only have to deal with whatever nasty residue it leaves in their mouths. I have never, for the sake of my own sanity, gazed into the depths of a spit bucket, and the whole process is pretty nasty to watch – and, I’m sure, much more nasty if you’re having to do the spitting. Sometimes you see actors eating for the first few takes because they don’t like the idea of having to spit. But they come around soon enough. It really is a smarter way of doing things than losing your lunch.
Anyway, even though I can’t say I had too much fun on that job (both the director and the AD yelled at me), holiday spots can be kind of festive. And hopelessly Christmassy. Because everything’s always done up in red and green and gold, there’s always a tree, and wreaths, hello, people THERE IS NO WAR ON CHRISTMAS. But you know what? If companies choose to be more inclusive by talking about “holiday shopping” instead of “Christmas shopping,” I say go right ahead. We do give presents for Hanukkah, you know. In fact, in my family, that’s pretty much all we do (except for my brother, who’s gotten much more Jewish since he had kids. I hear that happens). So why not pander to us too, dammit? And to people who celebrate Kwanzaa, if they give Kwanzaa presents, and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, we’re all Americans, we all get time off this time of year, and we all spend our money – just not on Christmas. So I say, come and get it. You know, I grew up in the much less politically correct 70s and 80s, and I have to admit, I felt left out of the dominant culture. Chosen People, whatever, South Park’s got it right, it’s tough being Jewish at Christmas. So any further gesture at inclusion is fine by me. And if Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like it, he can take it up with the all-mighty dollar, because that’s what’s driving Home Depot, and Wal-Mart, and Target to be so friendly to us – and driving his own news channel, of course, which is trying to make it’s own bucks by running this story into the ground. And it’s a good thing he probably doesn’t really care who wins as long as people watch, because he won’t. Maybe someday he’ll start talking about something real, like the War on Civil Liberties, or the War on People Who Disagree With the President, or the War on People Who Look Like They Might Be of Middle Eastern Descent, or the War on People Who Are Just in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time – oh, wait a minute, I guess I’m talking about the War on Terror, aren’t I?
But I’m rambling, and let’s not go off for the holidays on that note.
Our last shot on the New York Lottery commercial was when the poor snowman opens his closet and gets showered with hats – more presents he doesn’t need – and sighs, “Every time.” Of course, this took a while to do, what with having to set the trap door in the closet to spill hats on him over and over again. But at the end of the day, they had all these hats they had nothing to do with, so they gave them away to the electrics. I have to say, they all looked dapper and wintry as they walked off into the night with their gear, covered in fake snow. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa came early for them.