Friday, February 15, 2013

"Prom": Possibly the Worst Sexist Commercial of the 2013 Super Bowl

2013: Another year of sexist Super Bowl ads.  Its amazing that anyone, myself included, can still be shocked by tasteless, male-oriented advertising, but they manage to somehow push the new envelope they've created every time.  I'm only going to address the above ad.  The others were too obvious and didn't strike me to the same degree.  I will be largely addressing arguments in defense of this ad that you may or may not have seen elsewhere on the internet.

Virtually all art is ideological, whether it wants to be or not.  You might arguably exclude some abstract art and maybe a few other small categories.  I think storytelling, though, is especially ideological.  Even the most fluffy entertainment can be analyzed into an implicit worldview.  Something can't just be a meaningless commercial, especially one which is not taking the absurdist humor route, but is instead playing it straight.  Some offensive tropes have become so cliche that creators and viewers just use and watch them without even thinking about it.

Here's my interpretation of the story which is straightforward, logical and probably shared by many others.  It's so simple, it will seem silly to even lay it out for some.  First, this commercial is essentially a short story with a product placement.  It absolutely plays within teen movie genre, despite only being a sixty-second "short film."  I have yet to see an official standard for the minimum length of what constitutes a short film.  The story opens with our hero who is an undeserving "loser."  He has no date to the prom.  His proud mom is trying to make him feel good while his bratty sister is adding her two cents.  His dad, understanding the importance of prom, let's him take the Audi and encourages him to have a good time.  One of the pillars of this commercial, in my opinion, is misplaced sentimentality.  With his new-found confidence, he goes to prom as a total bad-ass.  He parks his car in the principal's spot and doesn't look back as he locks it.  Cool guys don't look at explosions or their locking car.  He marches right in and through the crowd.  He goes right up to the hottest girl at school and right after she turns around and does not recognize him (0:42), he throws himself on her and starts making out with her without her permission.  He probably has a crush on her and is "showing her how he feels."  How do we know she's the hottest girl at school?  She's gorgeous and she's the prom queen, not to mention it would be anti-climactic if she was only the second hottest girl at school.  She is originally thrown off and not wanting it (0:44), but quickly begins to enjoy it and reciprocates.  The whole room is startled by what's happening and how awesome he is.  Her boyfriend, who is a mean jock that doesn't deserve her, comes in to beat him up.  At the end, he rides off with a smile on his face and a black eye.  We see one shot of her smiling and exhilarated, thus further cementing his awesomeness.

How did I come to this interpretation?  It's quite simple: when most people consume a story, whatever the medium, they take what is in front of them and then fill in the blanks with the most logical, obvious and conventional answers possible.  As I already mentioned, this is a genre story which also colors the way it is perceived.  The entire commercial is nothing but tropes, culminating in Forceful Kiss and Give Geeks a Chance.  This is not abstract art.  It does not need one thousand different explanations.  Some people have tried to defend this commercial by saying that they might have a history, despite no evidence for this on the grounds I have already laid out.  A literature teacher once taught me that you can not claim something about a story that has no evidence in the text.  If anything, the text definitely points away from this.  I once again remind people to look at 0:42 and 0:44.  An artist, especially with a simple, sixty-second story such as this one should be in control of his message.  Pointlessly and completely leaving out key details, even in such a short medium, makes no sense.  Audi tried to make the "back story" excuse, but in my opinion, it was just a contrivance they made up when they were caught off guard by the criticism.  If the criticism had never happened, they would not have given the commercial this interpretation.  This defense requires a very against-the-grain reading of what's on screen.  As my teacher says, you can't rely on explaining your story in the DVD commentary.  A story should be complete in itself.

Now let's look at the girl in the commercial.  Many have noted that the kiss was consensual.  Yes, but not initially.  The fact that the kiss was eventually consensual actually makes the whole thing worse because it sends the message that such terrible behavior might get a positive response.  If you're good enough, she might enjoy it and thus forgive and then participate.  If she pulls away at first, keep going.  I would rather see her move away in terror and disgust.  Who is she anyway?  She is a non-entity, a mere symbol set on a pedestal.  The fact that she is the prom queen only further highlights her empty symbolic nature.  She is a stepping stone to his self-confidence.  Kissing her makes him awesome because she is the "hottest girl in school" and every guy wants and should want to kiss her.  The high school social order is only shallow when it applies to men.  Pretty and popular girls really are all they are cracked up to be while their boyfriends are still jerks.  She couldn't be just any girl that he secretly had a crush on.  At the end, when there is a shot of her with an exhilarated smile, it is not so we can identify with her or be happy for her situation.  It is only to build up the male hero even more.

People have disturbingly argued over "How bad is it really to forcefully kiss a random woman?"  Allow me to answer that: It is always horrible!  No exceptions!  It is not "brave," as the commercial claims.  Granted, a situation like this would cause varying levels of discomfort depending on who it was perpetrated on, but it is always bad.  I'm tired of media depictions of women as tough people who can put up with sexual harassment.  Maybe they can't, but most of all, they should never have to.  Not to mention, the next morning, she might regret being selfishly used and having her reputation sullied in front of the whole school.  Being a female, the negative fallout of this moment could easily fall much harder on her.  The top YouTube comment on this video (followed by mine!) was "Lol, what a slut." so I can only imagine what a gym full of her teenage peers might think of her.  Plus, getting caught up in the whirlwind moment doesn't actually prove she has feelings for him.  As a guy, it would take a lot to disturb my comfort zone, but I'm a man so it's generally different, although no one should try this with a man either.

Some people have said this is only a commercial and everyone needs to chill out, except them, who are still angrily defending it.  Commercials impact people.  Why did advertisers spend an average of four million dollars for thirty seconds this year?  Because commercials impact people.  To claim that these commercials only sell their products and have no ideological impact on top of that for anyone is naive.  Most commercials operate on at least two levels.  They sell you the product, but also the "effects" of the product such as "bravery."  For another example, the man who uses hair coloring gets with a beautiful woman at a bar.  They are selling the product and the scenario it claims to make possible.  They are saying, for better or worse, that picking up women at bars is good.  While it would be ludicrous of me to point to anything specific, with roughly 108 million people watching the Super Bowl this year, common sense tells me that at least a few were impacted in some way.  Also, this commercial is powerful because we partially believe it is possible.  If it was one hundred percent absurd, it would not have moved people the same way.  It plays to a sort of collective male fantasy that many have had at some point in their life, but had the good sense not to pursue.  Also, women seem to like it because they haven't thought out the real implications.

And I suppose this ad is only selling e-book readers?

Lastly, we have to be able to analyze this story outside of its emotionally-manipulative context.  The motion picture is a very seductive medium.  You can essentially use all sorts of emotionally-manipulative aesthetics to sell any behavior or worldview.  Just think of propaganda films.  As television and movie viewers, we must constantly be on guard with our moral and intellectual fortitude as we absorb the explicit and implicit media messages that are sent our way.

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