Benign Ads, and the labor of consent

Posted in Uncategorized by Keguro on February 10, 2010

I find myself amused, and troubled, by reactions to the much-anticipated Tim Elbow ad. Tracy Clark-Flory on Salon writes,

Are you kidding me? That was what all the controversy was about? A poorly-written 30-second spot set to upbeat elevator music? I missed the Puppy Bowl for that?

The ad, she complains, was not terribly conservative, not even “obviously” pro-life. It was cheesy, set to “upbeat elevator music.” Nothing to see here, folks. Move on. It was, as she puts it “that.”

This that worries me, because it is a profound misreading of how what might be termed cultural politics, or better, cultural advocacy, functions. For Clark-Flory, the ad’s message lies in its presentation. And while she acknowledges that it leads us to the Focus on the Family website, where more explicitly pro-life and anti-gay material is available, she still sees the ad as a singular event, not as simply one part of an unfolding whole.

This singular event, this that , can be dismissed, or so she claims.

But what if the ad is not a singular event? What if, instead, it is an assemblage of all the debates that swirled around it? What if it includes CBS’s decision not to air a pro-gay ad? What if it includes the racist, sexist, and homophobic ads aired? And what does Clark-Flory miss in assuming that cheesy ads do not have a certain cultural power?

Clark-Flory misses that cultural products seek consent. They invite us to share common values, to affirm shared principles. In doing so, they create us as particular kinds of communities. Not “we hate gays” or “support abortion,” but “we value family life.”

If we re-embed this ad in the circumstances of its production, we might read a script that goes something like this. This ad values family life. It is being shown in lieu of a gay ad, that is, an ad that does not value family life. Value family life.

To value family life in this scenario requires one to take a position against the gay ad that was replaced, the one that devalued family life: the cheesy image of a mother and her loving son beats two average looking gay guys fake kissing anytime.

In looking for a more aggressive, more “political” ad, Clary-Flory missed the politics of this particular one. And that is a shame.

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4 Responses

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  1. mchambe2 said, on February 12, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    I completely agree with your analysis. I too was ‘disappointed’ in this ad at first. I had geared myself up for some kind of hate rant that was surely going to cause an uproar. After viewing it, i thought, ‘seriously that hardley made sense…and then he tackled her?’ I intern at the Human Rights Campaign, and all week leading up to the Super Bowl we gossiped on end about the controversial ad. Today upon our first day back after snowmaggedon, we all talked about what a weird and lame ad it was. Your post makes an extremely valid point. I think we need to look beyond the ad itself and concentrate on what kind of message is being sent that Tebow was permitted an advocacey ad and gay rights was not. Even when out celebrities are featured in commercials, I’ve yet to recall seeing one for gay rights. Even more so, focusing on the Super Bowl commericals, I saw repeatedly in LGBT news that most feel the majority of the ads were outrageously sexist. Completely gender stereotyping men and women… do you agree or disagree? Although the Tebow ad had a clear message… and the ability to mushroom into a catalyst of anti-gay messages, what do you think about the whole theme of the Super Bowl commercials?

    • keguro said, on February 13, 2010 at 1:33 am

      I must confess that I did not spend any time watching superbowl ads, though I know they are available online. But it is true that most ads depend on supporting ideas about gender, about who does housework and cooks and who mows the lawn and “mans” the bbq.

      I have yet to spend much time on Logo, but i wonder if the ads there are sufficiently different? And, if so, how do we understand their politics? Do they support the same class-based identity paradigms, only with queer actors?

      There is a broader point to be made about the Tebow ad, though. In a climate where political opinions are satirized and caricatured, depicted as “extreme,” it is really easy to miss the ways politics functions by building consensus, by seducing individuals. It is dangerous to imagine that forms of “extremism” and “radicalism” can be profiled, and many of us seem to believe so.

  2. ascheer said, on February 14, 2010 at 2:49 am

    I am a little confused by your last point about “extreme” political opinions. Are you making a connection between the right-wing political rallying around family values and “terrorist” profiling? That’s definitely real. The religious right/radical conservative movement/whatever you call it is very good at organizing against otherness. Why aren’t murderous pro-lifers nationally understood to be domestic terrorists?

    Additionally, it feels relevant to point out that US culture is ruled by consumption and materialism (capitalism). Advertisements are designed to poke at consumers’ insecurities, convincing them that they need to buy stuff to feel fulfilled/adequate/normal/attractive/not smelly/etc. Advertising is yet another tool of the very well funded conservative-racist-sexist-homophobic agenda that works to define normalcy in US culture. I am still working through the massive collection of hair and skin-care products I bought in middle and high school.

    I have watched some Logo, mostly while house-sitting, and I have to say that the advertisements and programming definitely support the exact same class-based identity paradigms. There are definitely more ads for pet related products though.

  3. keguro said, on February 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Indeed, advertising does rely on fear. Combined with the fear is also, always, an invitation to shared values. So, for instance, while some ads might chastise individuals for not being good parents–if you were a good father or mother you would play more with your kids, read to them, and so on–they also build consensus around the notion that particular configurations of intimacy and family are more valuable. Shame and guilt participate in consensus building, rarely critique.

    It seems to me that it is intellectually dangerous and politically suspect to profile political positions, and too much of it happens. We give too much weight to terms like “far right” and “extreme left,” so much so that we are shocked to meet “just another” regular guy, instead of the undisguised devil. I am not suggesting that these positions do not exist, nor am I denying some of the vicious ways some members of these positions behave. Rather, I am trying to suggest that when we caricature positions and their members, we ignore some of the real ways such positions gain members and elicit our trust.

    We do engage in a kind of political profiling–an article this past week labels Obama’s positions as those of a moderate republican. I am interested in what such labels accomplish, how they make us choose the media we engage, the causes we embrace, the knowledge we consume and generate. I worry especially about the stakes for knowledge, because dismissing a work or an individual without engaging it is always cause for concern.

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