Vulgar USA

Posted: Apr 14, 2006 12:05 AM

A couple of weeks ago I was felled by a particularly nasty flu. Too sick even to read, I listened to radio and watched television for long hours every day. What I heard and saw was not conducive to recovery. I admit to being a little "out of the loop" as I almost never watch entertainment television on the major stations. But the level of vulgarity that now seems utterly ordinary is just unbelievable.

Bud Light has a series of radio commercials that celebrate "Real Men of Genius," a very tongue-in-cheek tribute to the ordinary guys whose greatest accomplishment, these ads seem to suggest, is filling their bellies with light beer. One of these "tributes" was aimed at "Mr. Supermarket Produce Putter Outer" and went like this:

"Today we salute you, Mr. Supermarket Produce Putter Outer?(Mr. Supermarket Produce Putter Outer). You have perhaps the greatest job known to man, squeezing giant melons all day long. (Love those squishy melons.) When women come in looking for squash, you say, "Perhaps I can interest you in my giant zucchini."? (That ain't no zucchini!) Day in and day out, women step on your grapes, and you don't even flinch. (Ooooooh!) Is that a banana in your pocket? No, it's a plantain. (Muy, muy grande). So crack open an ice cold Bud Light, O King of the Kumquats, because if one guy has to fondle our plums, we're glad it's you. (Mr. Supermarket Produce Putter Outer)."

This sort of thing was once decried by the Legion of Decency (a Catholic watchdog group that rated movies). But in our jaded era, decency is a snigger word. And that's too bad because decency is such an unassuming virtue. Here's the American Heritage Dictionary's second definition of decent: "Free from indelicacy, modest." Indelicacy. Now there's an antique concept. The Edwardians could recognize indelicacy. Our ad writers bulldoze right past it into crudeness. It may be impossible to rescue the word decency in this vulgar age. But perhaps we can campaign for the same thing under a different name. Taste will do. I'm assuming that millions of Americans feel as I do about this endless barrage of tastelessness, but how will the sellers know if we don't complain loudly and often?

Another huge American company that has descended into toilet humor to sell its product is Procter & Gamble. Their ad features a row of men and women singing the praises of Pepto-Bismol to the beat of a song that lists "Nausea, heartburn, diarrhea." (If you've missed it -- lucky you -- they kindly post it on their website.) The dancers place their hands over their mouths, stomachs and backsides for the appropriate ailment.

Procter & Gamble has also aired a commercial for its Herbal Essences shampoo that promises an "organic" experience and shows a woman writhing and moaning as two men wash her hair. According to complaints posted on the web, she declares at the end of the shampoo, "OK, boys, it says to repeat if necessary. That is, if you are up to it."

It isn't even that raunchiness is a guaranteed moneymaker. In the year after airing the famous Paris Hilton soft porn ad, Carl's Jr. and Hardee's profits declined in comparison with previous years. The Parents Television Council reported that "sales at restaurants open at least a year were flat at Carl's Jr., while Hardee's same-store sales fell 1 percent, well below last year's increases of 6.4 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively."

The Parents Television Council does good work monitoring the good and bad guys in the popular culture world. (They've rated Proctor & Gamble as among the top 10 worst advertisers both for the sleaziness of their ads and for the content of the programs they sponsor.) But it would be misleading to suggest that the only reason to protest lewdness is that children are watching. Nor are the feminists correct to condemn pornography only because it objectifies women. This stew of smuttiness coarsens our sensibilities. It appeals to our lowest selves. It makes a mockery of words like delicacy, refinemen- and modesty.

And it makes it much more difficult to recover from the flu.