Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, July 09, 2005


Subtexts are important. It could be argued that it's subtexts that separate real literature from entertainments, but I'm not talking about literature here. I'm talking about the media.

Except for the purists among us, we all sit down to watch a little mindless TV from time to time. Perhaps in order to excuse myself for wasting the time, I will sometimes deconstruct the commercials as I watch. For example, there's the current commercial for the HP notebook computers. The theme of the commercial is that it "puts full entertainment at your fingertips". The scene is one of those large, amphitheater-style, college classrooms. The professor, a dull-looking sort, who is lecturing on radioactive decay, is a Hollywood stereotype. He's dressed like Fred McMurray from the old Nutty Professor movies, with glasses, and a sweater buttoned up over a white shirt and tie. There are a coule of close-ups of students looking bored. Then there are the three students with HP laptops. None of them are paying any attention to the lecture, and they're having fun with their computers. One is playing a computer game, another is listening to music, and the third is watching a movie, and the scenes of each are coming alive, right there in the classroom.

The message of the commercial is obvious, as it's meant to be. The audience is college students. I don't know about all colleges, but in many of them students are required to have laptops, and this commercial tells them that, if they buy a HP laptop, they can have fun while sitting through dull lectures. Nothing terribly interesting there, but look at the subtexts. One of them is that science is boring, and that scientists are unattractive nerds. This is a very persistent prejudice that advertisers often play off of. But why? When it comes to the producers of the commercials, they're probably just mining an image that is part of their creative vocabulary, but its sources go beyond that. We live in a very anti-intellectual culture. Not only does the advertising industry exploit this tendency, but they promote it as well. Consumerism depends upon impulsive self-indulgence. Good consumers do not engage in much critical thought, so those who capable of such thought must be presented as uncool.

Another subtext, given the way the commercial is presented, is that it's all right to entertain yourself during a classroom lecture. These kids' parents are paying for a very expensive education, and they are probably going into substantial debt themselves, but they're being encouraged to blow off a lecture to play a computer game or watch a movie. In other words, it's okay to blow off a lecture to indulge your desire for diversion. A broader message here is that it's okay to follow your impulses. That's at the core of most commercials because it's the basis of our economy. Good consumers behave impulsively.

One of the more egregious commercials from my point of view was on last year. It was an ad for a Jeep SUV. The scene was a painting class. The teacher is strolling down an aisle between her students, telling them what she's looking for in their paintings. Then she says something like "I want to see what's in your soul." She gets to the last of the students, who has painted the SUV and the teacher says, "That's what I'm talking about!" Every time I saw it, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I'm thinking of building myself a rubber room. Maybe I should just turn off the TV instead.


Blogger David Matthews said...

Well said.

9:15 PM  

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