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You're Doubtful About America's Moral Degradation? Did You See Those Super Bowl Ads?

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One of my major theses in my writings the past couple of years is that America's general culture has manifested a kind of breakdown of moral structures. And I argue further that this breakdown created the moral environment in which evil forces like those embodied in the Bushite regime could rise to power and enjoy the support of a substantial proportion of the American populace.

Not everyone here has bought that thesis.

Of such skeptics, I ask: did you watch the ads on the Super Bowl yesterday?

With a few exceptions, it seemed to me, these ads constituted a barrage of high-violence, high-conflict, occasionally sadistic mini-dramas, conveying the idea that life is war and cruelty and cheating are funny, or at least the way of the world.

In one of the beer commercials, two youngish men get to the last beer at about the same time. (Actually, it seemed to me that one of them got his hands on it after the first had already grabbed it.) To decide who will get the beer, they decide to do rock/paper/scissors. But one of the guys (the latecomer), instead of playing it straight and fair, actually throws a rock at the other fellow, hitting him pretty much where David killed Goliath, and walks off with the beer, while the other young man is sufficiently injured that his head drops down again after he tries to raise it. The ad is presented in a way that indicates that we manly men are supposed to think that's all pretty cool, pretty funny, and that we should celebrate the success of the man who ended up with the beer.

I was appalled. Not too many steps, in my view, from that ad to the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

Another ad --I thought it was a public service announcement, but I think it turns out to have been for a pharmaceutical company-- dramatized the challenge of maintaining heart health as a gang-mugging of a heart by a group of thuggish medical problems. We watch as these sadistic criminals like Diabetes and High Blood Pressure drag the heart off the street into an alley where they administer a cruel beating.

When some ad agency decided how to sell a global positioning system (GPS) for one's car, they decided it should dramatized as a fight to the death with a monster constructed of unwieldy road maps.

A company that offers to help people find better jobs also enacted a variety of war-and-torture scenes to capture the nature of the workplace that people presumably are eager to leave.

I didn't take notes on these ads-- wasn't planning on writing anything about it. So I I'm doing this just from memory, and don't recall the other pieces of this pattern. (And by the way, there were also some lovely ads from the makers of Coca Cola, the folks who work hard to addict our children to sugar and caffeine. Not all the ads were brutal.)

But I do recall clearly feeling battered before the first quarter was over. And turned off to think that these ads must comprise some sort of a mirror in which to see the image of American manhood. I say "must" because I think that the very smart people operating with multi-million dollar advertising budgets generally work on the basis of a well-developed understanding of their target demographic.

And the demographic for the Super Bowl --American men, in a mood for football and beer and pick-up trucks-- evidently is one that is primed for violence and sadism and an amoral attitude toward them both. At least that seems to have been the judgment of a handful of advertizing agencies marketing very different kinds of products: each of these apparently independently came to the conclusion that crass violence --of a kind that simply would NEVER have been used in ads forty years ago-- sells, and that it does hurt its appeal to spice it up with a pinch of sadism and a dash of sociopathy.

Now, is it possible that this has anything to do with America being willing to be governed by the likes of Bush and Cheney and to tromp all over international law and wage aggressive war?
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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