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Jewish World Review May 3, 2000 /28 Nissan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Consumer Reports


Liminal advertising --
ADVERTISING IS NOT EXACTLY enjoying a golden age. In decades past, the worst thing about it was its stupidity ("whiter whites, brighter brights!" or "please don't squeeze the Charmin). A generation ago, there was a minor contretemps about so-called "subliminal" advertising. But these days, it's the liminal stuff that is disturbing.

Have you seen the new commercial for diamonds? The premise is that an adult son has purchased a diamond pendant necklace as a gift for his mother. We never see him, but only the response of his father and brother. The father leaves a message on his son's answering machine saying, "How do you think this makes me look?" The young benefactor's brother then grabs the phone to mutter something --- closing with the word "jerk." The person we next see is the radiant mom fingering her new necklace and sighing into the phone "Son, this is your mother. Thank you."

Now, this might be less offensive if it were done with more humor. One senses that the commercial's creators were intending this to be funnier than it turns out to be. But really, do we want commercials for any product to be premised upon promoting family disharmony? Do we want those watching to accept equably the image of one brother calling another a "jerk"?

But beyond matters of taste, this diamond commercial raises other questions. Thanks in part to the efforts of the diamond cartel itself, but also because of fashion, diamonds have become the symbol of romantic love.

The deBeers folks have mined this image to maximum effect, leaving most marriage-minded young men with the idea that nothing says "I love you" like a diamond. Expanding this idea, the diamond people have now injected into the world's consciousness the idea that a big wedding anniversary requires a diamond band -- the cost of which makes a solitaire seem cheap.

So what are they up to now? Isn't there something unsettling, almost incestuous, about a young man purchasing a diamond for his mother? And what about the effect of showing up his dad? This is treated casually in the ad, but it's not something to be swept aside. The father's feelings and dignity matter, or should. In this roaring economy, there are probably many, many sons who can afford to buy trinkets their dads cannot. But that hardly repeals good manners, sensitivity or the commandment to honor your mother and father.

Three ads currently showing encourage hedonism and childishness. All are for cars, though in the case of the first one you wouldn't know it right away because it features a man on a bicycle. It's the theme music that is subtly subversive. To a rock beat, the song croons, "I can do whatever I want, just any old time." Well, no you can't. Not even in the land of free.

You have obligations, responsibilities, duties. We're not all pleasure seeking beings all of the time.

Another car company encourages viewers to "go outside the lines." Once again, the sensibility of rebellious children is mistaken for dash or daring or panache -- or something.

The worst of this genre features voice of a young man and goes roughly as follows: "When you win at tennis, you may say to your opponent, 'Nice game,' but what you are really thinking is: 'Na, na, na-na, na. I'm better than you are.'" This is done in the teasing sing/song of very young children. The next thing we see is the car.

Now, in point of fact, it isn't true that most people are so insufferably self-satisfied when they win at tennis. They might be thinking any number of things, like "I can't believe I finally won after losing three in a row."

Or, "I wonder what's bothering him, he didn't play at all well today." But clearly, the people who made this commercial think this way, and simply assume that everyone else does, too. Worse, they think it's cute to sell cars on the basis of such vulgar vanity.

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