The typical American child today cannot escape the bombardment of sexuality, in every medium, at every moment, day or night. It happens at the movies. It happens on television. It happens on the radio. It certainly happens in advertising. Ad critics used to be outraged about "subliminal seduction." In these randy times, almost nobody's subliminal about seduction.
Unlike the programs they fund, commercials have to be simple, direct, and cut to the point quickly. Producers of programs might try to suggest that their envelope-pushing sex scenes of suggestive dialogue are tangential to the plot. Ad makers don't have that luxury. They're either blatantly selling with sex, or they're not.
The latest ad debate began as the National Football League's finest began fighting to the finish. Miller Lite's creative team borrowed almost exactly the memorable old Linda Evans vs. Joan Collins public-fountain catfight on the 1980s show "Dynasty," updated for the 21st century with a lot more flesh. Two sexy bombshells, one blonde, one brunette, come to watery blows over the classic Lite slogans of "great taste" vs. "less filling," but with their clothes falling off and suggestive flashes of bulging bikini-clad breasts and buttocks.
Then the commercial cuts to two guys in a bar saying "who wouldn't want to watch that?" Next to them are two women, presumably their dates, blankly staring at these Neanderthals. After the hard sell for the beer, the scene returns to the two bikini-clad babes fighting in wet cement. (Originally, this scene ended with one girl saying to the other "Let's make out." Someone with a shot glass full of taste eventually edited that line out.)
Miller spokesmen defended the ad as "a lighthearted spoof of guys' fantasies." Some people think it's a funny exaggeration of male and female attitudes. Others cringe and think it's a crude caricature of gender relations, or a shameless excuse for dragging male eyeballs to the beer logos.
But not enough are asking: what are the children seeing? Miller suggests this ad isn't any worse than the hundreds of steamy scenes seen in prime time. But Miller knows full well there are probably a lot more pre-teen boys watching NFL football games on weekend afternoons than watch adult-themed prime-time shows.
Another new commercial promotes the athletic prowess you can acquire with Nike Shox sneakers. Unfortunately it's chosen to make a streaker the star of its commercial, albeit with his private parts pixillated. The streaker disrupts a very realistic-looking soccer game broadcast, outrunning security guards and then suggestively twirling his hips around a flag in the corner of the field. If you streak in public, you get arrested for indecent exposure. If you streak on TV, you can be the star of a commercial. To be sure, there are creative flashes to make the viewer laugh, but they would be utterly lost on many 12-year-olds watching a football game. They just see nudity.
Budweiser is airing an ad where a new boyfriend and girlfriend are watching the big game. She's wearing only an old oversized sweatshirt that she says belonged to an old boyfriend. He asks why she won't wear one of his sweatshirts instead. She says that bigger just feels better. He looks uncomfortable. How many ways can that be interpreted? At least this one might go over the heads of some younger ones.
Not every new commercial relies on nudity or sexual themes to plug the product. Take Pepsi, whose last prominent campaign tweaked viewers by suggesting septuagenarian Bob Dole was taking an unhealthy fancy to teen-pop sex kitten Britney Spears. Their new Super Bowl commercial will feature Ozzy Osbourne and his kids Jack and Kelly advertising Pepsi Twist. Jack and Kelly "twist" into Donny and Marie Osmond, much to Ozzy's horror. Ozzy then wakes up to reveal this nightmare to wife Sharon, except she's now "Brady Bunch" mom Florence Henderson.
You'd like to think that this is a blow in favor of traditional values - see the foul-mouthed metalhead have a nightmare instead of providing one. But you know instinctively that Pepsi's ad team is really ridiculing Donny and Marie and Florence as has-beens of hoary wholesomeness. The joke's on them.
Miller Lite, Budweiser, and Nike will probably not suffer financially - they'll probably benefit - for dancing around the boundaries of taste in their commercials. Too few people really take the time to think about how these thirty-second scenarios are processed by the young. It's just another reason why many parents feel assaulted by popular culture, even in its tiniest fractions.