Benign Ads, and the labor of consent
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.