Commercial Americanness By Charles Bivona


Lethargy rules the day in today's American commercial. A man-it's almost always a man-sits on a couch or a lounge chair, apathetically watching a television. He is the great hero-slob, sleepy-eyed and disheveled, fixated on food and sports, and sometimes engaged in a battle of "wits" with his actively insistent yet completely non-threatening wife. In the universe of the ad he is the very spectacle of Americanness--uneducated but empowered, indifferent but somehow blessed, inactive but always managing to come out on top. His foes are either passively vanquished or initiated into his world of inaction.

In one commercial a wife leaves home one morning and asks her husband to open an account with an online stockbroker before she returns. The scene montages, the daylight wanes, the husband shifts position slightly, searching for maximum comfort. When darkness falls and the wife's headlights flash in the driveway he springs to action and quickly registers with the broker. The obvious message is one of convenience, the speed and ease of joining this specific web site, but the subtext is one of entitlement. This man in his laziness is the very embodiment of what Americans consider freedom. He has the right to be a slob, to be lazy, to overeat and be indifferent about his health, his family and his world.

But deeper than the ad's claim that we have the right to behave this way is the image of a world without consequences. There is no need for effort or concern in this quintessential American universe; in the end one's Americanness will be triumphant. This is a lasting vestige of manifest destiny, the magical idea that a divine hand has touched our shining city on a hill, and that inhabitants of this land have special powers in the galaxy. The television Americans are overweight and lazy, self-righteous and greedy, but in commercials all things work out in the end. The pizza is delivered quickly so no one has to cook, painkillers mask tension headaches so stress needn't be managed, and there is no death, no serious illness, and no disappointment in the thirty-second mini-drama.

And the hero-slob owns the stage of the mini-drama, giving us a vision of our ideology. His clothing, his facial expressions, his posture, everything about him signifies the American smugness, the ignorant lethargy, and the complete self-absorption that has made our country so popular with the rest of the world. Even his wife is the perfect picture of the fantasy American wife, sustaining him completely to further add to his Nirvana of helplessness. In some ads she introduces the hero to vegetables and smirks as he chews a broccoli spear with amazement. In other commercials he passively rubs his aching temple--absolutely void of a pained expression--until she arrives to introduce him to the miracle of Aspirin.

Even when the woman takes center stage and becomes a sign of American Womanness-which often resembles maleness in a skirt-she always uses the hero-slob as a sounding-board to achieve her effect. In one such ad a woman dupes her husband into cleaning until a single sheet of a brand name paper towel wears out. Of course the paper towel lasts forever, and the man is forced to continually wipe the counter with the utmost pathos while his wife watches his football game in his lounge chair. The male is vanquished in a great battle of wits and the wife takes her place on the mantle of laziness, passively viewing the world on a television screen with the same disinterest.

Despite this crossing of generalized roles it is gender-based stereotypes that give our advertisements the spectacle of the perfect American couple. The commercial husband is "typically male," an unintelligent ape that watches sports and can barely dress himself. The commercial wife is typically female; a mother figure that makes sure the man doesn't starve to death or wander out of the house naked. The man has no brain and the woman has no identity separate from her husband.

They each have a place but no emotional responsibility. They completely accept each other's vacant characters and enable each other's generalized gender-based idiosyncrasies. The husband tricks the wife into going to Sears to buy tools, while she hatches a plot to get him to eat healthier. The wife nurtures the children and sings them to sleep; the husband gets tongue-tied and can't talk to his son about sex, drugs, college, the future, or anything really. The wife accepts the man as a bad communicator and looks at him lovingly for trying. She gets diamonds. He gets peace and quiet. No one really communicates, so no one ever gets angry, starts an argument, or leaves. The commercial family is also a spectacle of Americanness-a sign of the lies we like to tell ourselves about our "family values."