Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Fear & Sex

Rampant Capitalism Eats the World Part 3 (yes I know it's a new year but I've still got things to say on the subject, all right? And I know I promised to story you all on the Vegas shooting trip, and I'm working on that, but in the meantime, I had to get something up here, so…)

Recently, I worked on the job on which I took this photo. It was an ad for Chuck E. Cheese, where a mom wraps her kids in bubble wrap before sending them out to play.

The kids were quite good at showing their exasperation at Mom, and she played it sort of obliviously perky. And yet, the subtext is: Yes, this mom is psycho, and you, Viewer Mom, are not like THAT…but wouldn't you feel safer with your kids frying their minds on bad pepperoni and video kickboxing at Chuck E. Cheese, "Where a kid can be a kid," as opposed to out in the unsafe streets of America, where a kid can be a target for drunk drivers and drive-bys?

Now, before I put it that way, I'm sure you were thinking this ad sounded cute, funny, maybe even marginally clever. You were thinking, "In the annals of advertising, this ain't too bad. It's better than our former Surgeon General talking about how he has a button that he wears around his neck at all times to alert a medical unit if he's fallen and he can't get up, which just makes me incredibly depressed."

And you know, you're right. It is. And in general, a lot of the commercials I've worked on have been more entertaining and better crafted than the features I've worked on. Which says more about the features than anything else. Except perhaps how much money goes into advertising compared to what goes into independent filmmaking. (And, hmm, maybe this is one reason why I seem to have major bug up my butt about advertising at the moment…But I'm not here to psychoanalyze myself today...)

Still, here's one thing these two ads, and much of what you see in between your favorite reality shows and reruns these days on the boob tube (MPAA YOU SUCK!!!!!), if you don't have TiVo, have in common: they're trying to sell you something by scaring the shit out of you.

Not on any level that you're necessarily even aware of it, but on that slightly subliminal level that you don't want to admit is there, because you don't want to feel manipulated, and you don't even want to admit that you have fears, do ya? But you do. And they have to do with everything from your airplane going down in flames when you have 30% less legroom to having those little wet patches under your arms if you don't use the right deodorant. Oh, I know how you think. I'm right there with you. I'm a New Yorker, remember? Neurosis is my middle name.

Of course, fear is not the only tool in their arsenal. Let's not forget commercials for Bud/Victoria's Secret/Levi's/Calvin Klein/any perfume or cologne except for maybe Egoîste (although really that too, because screaming women are hot)/any ad starring Kate Moss (and there are a lot of them since she became a famous coke-head)/need I go on????

And again, as with when they take aim at the fear jugular, it's not intended to be obvious when or how this is all working on you. For example, is it logical that that they use sexy spots of women in various states of undress to sell products to straight women? (though we know that men do a lot of the lingerie shopping out there. What woman is really that excited to buy herself garters?). But aside from targeting our unconscious lesbian impulses -- Ooh, I just felt a few pulses quickening there! That was the main reason I wrote that, cheap shot, right fellas? -- somebody smart/with access to a few focus groups figured out at some point that while men tend to be sold on being sexed-up, women are sold on the feeling of being sexy. That's why while a lot sales du sex are in-your-face -- Axe Body Spray? Pretty in-your-face -- many absolutely aren't.

But, really, when you boil it down, you can stick all advertising into one category or the other:

Amaretto di Sarono ad where that woman licks the ice cube: sex
Cleaning products with germ-fighting potential or scrubbing bubbles: fear
Canon Powershot with Maria Sharapova walking in high heels even though she's playing tennis: sex
Those ProActiv spots where they show Jessica Simpson's acne real close up: fear and sex.
iPhone, iPod, all Mac products aside from the ones with John Hodgman playing the PC: sex
Mac ads with John Hodgman: fear (sorry, John)
Jenny Craig spots with Kirstie Alley: definitely fear
Hanes underwear spots with Marisa Tomei/Jennifer Love Hewett/half-neked boys playing dodgeball: sex
Hanes underwear spots with Cuba Gooding Jr making an idiot out of himself in front of Michael Jordan: fear
Most car commercials aside from Volvos: sex
Volvos ads (they're even scary in Japanese): fear
Completely unsexy Mastercard commercials that try to get you to buy cars for Christmas: hmm…

Well, okay, maybe there is a third category, and that's just plain old greed. But then again, isn't avarice highly powered by fear? Fear that you won't measure up to what your buddies have, or what the world thinks you should be? And it's also supercharged with sex as well, because as we all know, the more shit you have, the more sexy you feel, and the more tail you get. At least, that's the theory if you're male. Yeah, I know how you guys think. I work in an all-male environment with way too much downtime, remember? I've got all damn day to psychoanalyze you all. Not that it gets me dates.

And I know what you're thinking now (cuz like I said, either I feel your neurotic pain or I can psychoanalyze you): what about commercials aimed at kids? Like the kind of ads you see on Saturday mornings, for video games, Transformers, My Little Pony, Count Chocula (do they even have My Little Pony or Count Chocula any more? Boy am I old), Bratz, Hot Pockets, etc. Yes, those one would definitely categorize as greed greed greed. But also -- speaking figuratively of course -- these ads are the most in-your-face toy and food porn out there. They are designed to appeal to kids on a purely sensory level, and boy do they work. I don't know if you remember what it was like to see those ads when you were a kid, but I do. The moment you saw those cookies coming out of the bag or the little girl combing Barbie's hair, you wanted one nownownow I WANT IT NOW! Or at least, um, that was me, as my parents, who I can see nodding their heads in unison as they read this, can attest. But for those of you who weren't bratty, think of it like the iPhone spots, just not as artful and with way more low-budget production values, because they only have to appeal to the mind of a seven-year-old who doesn't care about the lighting. That's right: 100% desire.

And now you're thinking, "Okay, Beotch, what's your point?" Or at least, that's what you're thinking if you're Queen Latifah (who has sold her soul to Wal-Mart, Curvation and Pizza Hut and so I can understand why she's a little defensive).

Well, I don't know if it makes a difference, but for a long time I've thought that if you know you're being manipulated, you can stop letting it happen. If you can break down the process and see through it to what's really going on, you can decide not to cave. Is that true? I don't know. Let's face it, I want an iPhone as much as the next geek.

But I think that the only way that media gets better is if we pay attention to it and watch as active consumers, not passive ones who just let it crawl in our eyeballs and cozy itself up to our brains to do its dirty work. I know, commercials are not like, for instance, most local TV news or Extreme Makeover Any Edition or Cops, which you can (AND SHOULD, especially if you're a Nielsen family) choose not to watch. Not everyone can afford TiVo, or to get up and go to the fridge at every commercial break, unless they really want to add some pounds. I suppose you could just walk away and go to your computer during those breaks, but then again, what are you going to find on your computer? Advertising. It may not be as sophisticated at this point as what you get on your tee-vee but it will be.

So the point is: just think about it. Maybe go through the ads you see and come up with your own list of fear and sex (and feel free to post it here) or however else you think they're trying to get you. And don't let them get you. If you want to buy something, buy it, but don't buy it because some piece of mind-warping bullshit got you going.

Because you're better that that. I know you, remember?