The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

*Everything* is Toasted March 21, 2010

While streaming the disastrous catastrophic demoralizing infuriating basketball game yesterday, I happened to catch a Mercedes-Benz commercial.

“Isn’t that Draper?” says 7abibi, the indifferent victim of second-hand Mad Men viewership.

And so it was!

Apparently, Jon Hamm is the new voice of Mercedes-Benz. Their logic being that Hamm is both extremely popular from Mad Men and his recurring role on 30 Rock, NBC’s Tina Fey vehicle, and because he has a “terrific, very resonant voice with a lot of gravitas to it.”

It’s true that Hamm’s a mega hunk with buckets of talent. I’m glad he’s getting the attention he deserves. I’m just not positive that the commercials are going to have the exact effect Mercedes-Benz is going for.

Sure, talking points about eco-conscious engineering drip like glistening ambrosia from Hamm’s well-molded lips, but all I hear is Don Draper pulling another one over on us, “it’s toasted” style.

Go watch the clip. It’s short and important. Go.

Back? Okay. This is the first episode of Mad Men. How could I not be hooked? For those of you who haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I really do urge you to give it a shot. The sets, costuming, hair, and makeup are outdone only by the superb writing and acting.

The down side to watching Mad Men? Well, you start to feel like EVERYTHING is toasted.

Like Don says, advertising is all about telling the story that affirms the consumer. If an ad can do this well, it generally leads to consumption of the advertised product.

More often than not, the story that we’re being told about one product, is actually just as true for the competition. It’s simply that one company has been more successful in branding.

Sometimes the story being told is true but irrelevant. Like “natural botanicals” in shampoo. Sure they’re in there, but they may be included in such tiny amounts they have no effect whatsoever on your hair. The active ingredients are probably a mix of unappealing things like detergents, preservatives, fragrance, and dye. But, hey, slap in some technically present “tropical essence” and your customer feels like they’re washing their hair with shampoo made from fairy lights and tropical fruit. Don’t even get me started on “chemical free” products. Uh…what is your product made of then? Dark matter?

Think the Lucky Strike ruse is old news? The rebranding is eerily similar to this company’s attempt to change the name of prunes (image: old people with constipation) to dried plums (image: hip foodie in search of exotic delicacies). The product is the same, the words and the story we tell ourselves has radically changed.

As you know, I love stories. I even like to be told stories about a product that someone wants to sell me. Heck, I even tell myself stories about the products I’m buying sometimes. I hunted down the exact brand and shade of red lipstick used on Joan in Mad Men. Why? Because we’re both fair, I love lipstick, and when I wear it I can tell myself that I am a capable and feisty professional woman like Joan.

I use my Imaginary Heroine powers and try to tell myself a story to make me feel differently, act differently. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But other times it does. That little bit of lipstick makes feel just a touch more ready for Monday.

Laura Mercier creme lipstick in Mistress, an office maven's best friend

As immersed as we are in media culture, we need to be hyper-aware that the story we’re told by advertisers (as well as politicians, professors, journalists, novelists, etc) is by no means complete. Mostly because no human is omnipotent or infallible, but also because some humans seek to manipulate others. Sometimes for innocuous reasons and other times for malicious reasons, but almost always for reasons that benefit the teller and not the listener. Not to go all Professor Moody (who had his own agenda, especially whilst being impersonated a murderous Death Eater*), but we need to have constant vigilance on this issue.

Take for instance, the commercial blitz for the 2010 Census. That joyful man in his bathrobe is “being counted!” and in doing so he’s funding after school sports, fixing roads, and saving pregnant ladies in labor.

However, that story ignores some of the more ugly uses of the Census in the past. Like rounding up Japanese Americans for internment in the 1940s or giving information on the concentrations of Arab Americans to the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 and 2003. Not to mention the more recent identity theft that resulted from the Census Bureau misplacing 672 laptops as well as Census workers posting respondents’ data on a public website while testing software. These aren’t fairy tales of civic duty, they’re nightmares of government excesses and ineptitude.

And if you’re thinking of using the above reasons to skip the Census, forget about it. You’re required by law to take part if you’re over 18. The Census Bureau is able to levy fines of $100 per blank answer, $500 per willful wrong answer, and $5,000 for non-compliance. So, fill out your form and hope that Bathrobe Bob is right this time around, okay? If that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, follow-up mailing your letter with a screening of O Brother Where Art Thou and cheer when Little Hogwallop says “I nicked the Census man” and Delmar responds “Now there’s a good boy.”

I guess all we can do is listen to the stories we’re told and try to think critically about our responses. Where does this story come from? Who is telling me this story? What do they want me to take away from this story? What do they want me to do and why? Should I take their advice or should I decide to act differently?

Because if we don’t, we’re all going to end up toasted.

*Ever notice how we all seem to attribute thoughts and actions to Professor Moody that were expressed NOT by Moody, but instead by Barty Crouch, Jr.? Even Ron, Hermione, and Harry, who would have reason to know better, continue to quote Crouch-Moody and take his advice. Weird. I don’t know if this is JKR’s subtle comment on how much people resist the notion of betrayal or if she did such a good job with Crouch-Moody that he hoodwinked not only the Potterverse, but also its fans and author!

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One Response to “*Everything* is Toasted”

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