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Advertisers’ False Modesty

Philip Burrowes

Plush Daddy Fly’s end-of-term show was promoted by, among other things, a poster announcing the group’s “Affirmative Action Show.” On it, the sketch-comedy troupe bedecked in robes as pale as their skin, save one brown-skinned fellow in a black outfit. The joke, of course, is that affirmative action had successfully produced this token colored person, but that that the group was still effectively lily-white. Funny as one might think the joke, it didn’t erase the fact that Plush Daddy Fly was actually “whiter” than any non-graduate student organization had a right to be at MIT. Just because you acknowledge that a situation is wrong doesn’t allow you to blamelessly perpetuate it. Right?

Maybe a throwaway poster from over a month ago doesn’t seem like enough to get worked up over, however topical it’s become in this regurgitative news cycle. Let’s look at something relatively fresh. Charlie (and “Donald”) Kaufman’s film Adaptation, the film adaptation of Susan’s Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” only recently went into wide release. Dude, like, it’s so meta. One trailer for the film has Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) opining, “I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a Hollywood thing ... It’s like I don’t want to cram in sex, or guns, or car chases, or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end,” while the viewer is treated to a montage of sex, guns, a car chase, etc. Seeing the movie, one realizes that the inclusion of plot contrivances (of the actual film, if not film-within-the-film) are not nearly so hackneyed, but that doesn’t erase the fact that it is a movie depicting how contrived movies are through the use of plot contrivances.

Critics have lapped it up for the most part, and it was nominated for six Golden Globes. Satire at its finest, one might say. The critics aren’t evaluating the trailer, and that’s the issue here: the movie is being sold on how hypocritical it appears. Neither Kaufman nor the film’s director Spike Jonze are probably to blame for the creation of the commercial itself, so maybe it’s unfair to connect that to the success of the film.

Advertisements for far less artistic products have joined in on what may be a self-abnegation trend, notably two products that are near and dear to the MIT heart.

Entertainment Arts/Maxis officially released “The Sims Online” to much fanfare recently, more so than for the “SimCity 4” and “The Sims”-for-PS2 releases. Like Adaptation, it had been seen in smaller circles before a bigger commercial test, but unlike the film, “The Sims Online” was poised to make a ridiculous amount of money (not to mention being faithful to its source material). Supposedly the best-selling computer game of all time, “The Sims” allows you to micromanage the lives of individual people, including telling them when to sleep or go the bathroom. The main difference in the online version is that the AI for other characters has been replaced with actual people on other computers. One spot for the game begins with a Sim-couple getting married, but once they close the virtual door on the wedding, the male is rebuffed in his real-life advances on the female with, “It’s just a game.”

The second product on tap is Miller Lite, which of course all underage attendees of the Institute aren’t familiar with. It’s a beer. Beer ads are notorious for being exploitative of women for the sake of selling the product to heterosexual and closeted homosexual males who are forced to mask their true selves under hyper-masculinity. A recent ad begins with two women getting into a catfight/striptease over whether Miller Lite tastes great or is less filling, cuts to a group of men saying how that would be the perfect beer ad, moves to two other women looking in disgust at said men, then finishes with the first pair of women continuing to wrestle.

Both of these products owe their popularity to escapism, but it is predicated on a gendered escapism. It’s not that women don’t drink, and certainly not that women don’t play “The Sims,” but the underlying message of both is that the real world is emasculating and you know you want to be distracted from it. Since we are supposedly too sophisticated in this day and age for unabashed pandering, to communicate this message, a product-purveyor must be self-conscious, tongue in cheek, or even smug. That doesn’t eliminate the fact that the same message is coming through; it just makes it more comfortable for the recipient. In the above cases, it’s a pretty disturbing message at that.

We could go on and on citing individual cases of paradoxically adulatory abnegation such as the above. Ultimately we will come to the same question: does that make it okay? Is it any worse, after all, than watching blooper shows or DVD features? For both, the selling point is making a laugh out of a flaw. The solution is not so easily packaged. Just as a blooper can go over the line, from a Freudian slip to a physically destructive trip, so too can the self-conscious critique do both good and harm. Adaptation has by and large been accepted as good, and almost anyone can see through the shamelessness of Miller Lite. Can the meta-mundanity of “The Sims” survive as an animated chatroom? Time and sales charts will tell. Does Plush Daddy Fly suck? Yeah, pretty much.

P.S. -- None of this is an affront to either Bad Taste or last week’s Bad Ideas Competition. Seriously. Don’t even look for any hidden messages.