Ads can sometimes be rich targets for interpretation, because they tell you – not what the culture looks like, but what other people think it looks like. They have to make and commit to a serious judgment on this question, since the serious business of making money is at stake.
A couple of ads have been running repeatedly on Hulu.
The first is an ad for the whiskey-flavored liqueur Southern Comfort. You can infer from the ad that the company has decided to target younger customers. The ad seems to inhabit the same universe as Napoleon Dynamite, a puzzling film that was popular a while ago. From this ad and another set of ads that have been running for a while, the Geico ads set in some imaginary gallery, we can infer that hipsters are thought to take a keen interest in pop cultural trash from about two decades ago. I have to admit that the appeal of Napoleon Dynamite, the aesthetic, mystifies me. It’s a genuine puzzle, a question that would repay reflection. I’m even more mystified when I remember that my supervisor at a summer gig teaching middle school kids, an extremely boring 30-something woman, loved the movie, to the extent that the only thing we all knew about her was that she loved the movie, and we got her a “Pablo for President” t-shirt as a parting gift.* I submit that one important feature of anything that appeals to hipsters is that it must be irony-proof: Napoleon Dynamite was such a seamless document, so one-dimensionally earnest in its attitude toward itself, that it gave no prompting to the viewer about why it appealed to him, and this lack of a meta-level protected it from being undercut by further irony.
Let me focus on the Geico ads for a bit. What does pop cultural trash have to do with irony? The most notable thing about the trash is that nobody wants it. It takes real skill to find material as bereft of value as this. For most products of culture there is at least one good thing to say, some reason it was made in the first place. When you encounter this stuff, your first reaction is to remember that there are cultural products you are glad to have forgotten. Your next reaction is to regret that someone has remembered them.
Why is this material so attractive to the hipster? The first reason is precisely that it is so hard to find that finding it, remembering it, is a demonstration of cultural research skill and exhaustive knowledge. The second reason is that its lack of value is a kind of refuge. These days the purpose of irony is to provide that refuge. The lack of value protects you from the accusation that you believe in something, that you affirm something. If you endorsed something with value, you could be made fun of for believing in the worth of whatever end is served by that value. This is dangerous when you believe that there are no ends that can be cogently defended against a committed attacker. Let me take an analogy from international relations theory: everyone knows that the available technology favors the intellectual offense over the defense. You know that most of your peers are committed attackers, because they, like you, believe that it would be foolish to try to build something of lasting worth. The strongest tools available to us (the only tools, it sometimes seems) are ones for tearing things down.
Anyway, all of this is at play in Napoleon Dynamite, in the Geico gallery ads, and in the Southern Comfort commercial, which inhabits the same world as Napoleon Dynamite. Everything, and everyone, is unappealing, unattractive, unpleasant, offensive to current taste. Why is all of this conjoined? So we can enjoy the irony of acting as if none of it is true.
But the most important feature of the ad is the mockery of masculinity. We’re in a salon – not really a place for men. Yet a man acts out what he, and all of the onlookers, imagine is an impressive display of manly prowess. (Of course, we, the viewers, know better). Masculinity is revealed here for what it really is – or, what marketing agencies believe this generation thinks it is. It’s a pathetic charade, ineffectual buffoonery, taking in both men and women. But the ad is not harsh on any of its characters; it’s sympathetic and gentle. This is a show of good taste. Knowing its target is weak, the ad is not redundantly aiming to bring down the reign of masculinity. This is no call for revolution; it’s an enjoyment of the status quo, using it as a launching pad for some fun and humor. It’s a kind of minstrelsy of masculinity. (I do not intend to invoke the gravity of pre-civil rights treatment of blacks in America, or anything near it. I just think it’s an apt analogy).
The second ad is a much less self-consciously daring one for – Chase? Some bank. It shows a fit, attractive man, first wearing a suit, buying some comic books. Then he’s at a health store buying some protein bars. Then he’s at a theater buying tickets for a comic book movie. The music is manly and soaring. “So you can follow your dreams,” the voice over says, as he rockets upward – in a see through elevator, to a comics conference. “So you can save the day,” the voice over says, as he steps on a piece of a toilet paper that was stuck to the foot of a man dressed up as his favorite comic book superhero. He gets the nod, and a thumbs up, from another superhero – sorry, another man dressed as a superhero. The narrative, the filming, the earnest tone, and the serious expressions suggest that we’re meant to confuse the two, and to see these figures with the same awe and admiration as the protagonist of the ad does.
It’s a very sympathetic ad, with no agenda of critique or irony. In fact it’s a rather endearing attempt to be “with the times” in taking comics fans more seriously than they used to be. But this is a careful act. The protein bars are a little hard to make sense of; they’re probably meant to support the viewer’s taking the comics guy seriously by removing any doubts about his masculinity. He works out! A lot! At the same time it give us some insight into his state of mind – he wants to be a man! So he works out, and reads comic books. I don’t disparage this; I don’t know anything about comic books but I assume that they express ideas about masculinity. I think it’s perfectly valid to be interested in them for that reason, along with others. Comic books hearken back to a period of American history when masculinity was taken more seriously than it is now.
What does it mean to “follow your dreams”? It means to revel in the world of comic books. What does it mean to “save the day”? It means to protect the fantasy, which might have been tarnished by the embarrassing toilet paper stuck to the fake superhero’s foot. The protagonist’s act, as well as the nod from the other superhero, establish a sense of complicity. This makes the protagonist even more sympathetic – he’s not under some delusion; he knows the world he revels in is constructed, and he enjoys it anyway.
It’s an oddly touching ad, because of the ad’s sympathetic handling of the protagonist – we’re made to feel that there’s really something important and admirable in these “dreams” of his. And, because of the frank acknowledgment that it’s all a fantasy, even a fragile one. Here, again, the ad treats masculinity as a fragile fantasy, though treating the fantasy as one deserving of respect.
*My theory is that she embraced the movie because she believed it to be sophisticated, for the sake of a kind of cultural upward mobility.