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
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
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
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
watching 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 30-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.