Every year advertisers hire experts to crack open our skulls and get a good, clear look at the current state of our most secret mortal dreads and primal hungers. They do this because they are fucking evil, as the late, lamented Bill Hicks explains here (not remotely safe for work)
for those coming late to class.
The one and only upside to Madison Avenue's relentless dredging of the American mind is that, if you happen to be interested in what is truly driving us at any given moment (and you know how to read the goat entrails of commercial culture) then it's all there, laid out for you like a Sunday brunch buffet.
Now the advertiser’s dark art has always been built on an offer of redemption through consumption; the promise of fantasies satiated or fears vanquished for the low, low, discount price of $19.99. This is the ocean we swim in, but even in the blasting glare of a million shiny lies clamoring for my attention, this particular “Just For Men” commercial really caught my eye
for the way it ruthlessly plugs directly into the main transmission lines of male existential horrors that slithering just below the surface of modern American life.
You saw a 30 second commercial?
I saw a tiny, horror haiku built by Raymond Carver out of spare parts left over from
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
A brutal meditation on what awaits the unlucky at the played-out threadbare end of the American Dream.
Think of the vast, implied back-story of the guy in this commercial -- this American guy I’ll call Joe the Boomer -- who we meet at his darkest hour: backed into a savage corner from which he believes his only possibility of deliverance comes in the form of a magic potion which promises to claw him out of his shallow, middle-aged grave and back into a facsimile of youth.
As the failure Joe is today, something as basic as, say, a job interview in another city probably means standing in a mile-long line with hobos and teenagers, shambling in his paper airport security slippers through pat-downs at the hands of surly strangers, until he is unceremoniously crammed into a Greyhound Bus with wings on yet another leg of his desperate hunt for a job -- any job -- across a suddenly foreign and hostile nation.
Consider how different it was when Joe was his daughter's age; when he was a young white, middle-class God and America was his Mount Olympus.
To such a Young God in America, air travel was rare and adventurous; a rocket-ride through the heavens, eating sundaes dispensed by pretty ladies in short skirts and being awarded a pair of golden Junior Pilot wings from a Competent, Noble and Mighty silver-haired Captain at the end of his tour of the cockpit. (Girls got a “Junior Stewardess” pin.)
And as Joe the Boomer grew up, it was just assumed that coming of age white, male and middle-class in America meant becoming one of the Mighty Men. It meant a rewarding and prosperous life piloting a Great Nation through war and tribulation, through the end of a century and safely into his dignified retirement, while along the way, pretty ladies in short skirts brought him sundaes...and sex...and children...and gold-tinted, silver-haired companionship.
It meant growing up to be Jim Rockford, or to marry Suzanne Pleshette.
Or at least to travel a little way into the wild, wisdom grasses with that other Suzanne
where she would feed him tea and oranges
That come all the way from China.
But agribusiness efficiency experts with vinyl hair and Blackberries downsized all the flavor out of all oranges.
And it’s not tea anymore but teevees -- the same teevees that unemployed, obsolete Joe used to make until the factory was closed and the jobs moved overseas -- that now come all the way from China.
And now -- at the same age or a little older than the Mighty Men were when they bestrode his childhood -- Joe finds that instead of being the master of his own fate, he has become a peasant on someone else’s land and his dreams of a dignified retirement -- or of just keeping a roof over his head -- have been vaporized by the merciless, compound interest which failure can exact for even the smallest mistakes.
They have been frittered into confetti by young, dark-haired men who come from a far-away place called Wall Street and who are neither competent nor noble, but who nonetheless -- by some sick and incomprehensible alchemy -- now sit at the controls where Joe was supposed to be sitting. Who fly Joe's once-great nation ever deeper into an alien and inhospitable future, while pretty ladies in short skirts cater to their every whim and bring them everything they could ever want.
And of course, whatever bits of his American Dream the banksters didn't get have been shattered by divorce.
In the commercial, Mrs. Joe is obviously long gone: probably left Joe and his grandpa hair for a Wall Street kinda guy, with a bigger cock and lusher, darker pubes. A guy who is, even now, somewhere far away, fucking his ex-wife crazy while they both laugh and laugh and laugh at Old Gray Loser Joe.
Joe played it all by the Rules of American Success so far as he knew them, and yet that life full of promise and the easy power of youth is gone with nothing to show for it and there is no longer enough time or strength left in his tank to chase it all back down.
Everything is gone.
Well, everything but the kid.
Shit, ten minutes ago she was teething and Joe was her Competent, Noble, Mighty hero; now she's his daughter-wife. While Joe can't even remember how to tie his own tie, his own child has turned into June Fucking Cleaver in tiny, faux-pearl earrings -- making mommy-faces and helping him slip the symbolic noose around his neck -- as they hide out together in a furnished duplex at the ass-end of his life.
Hide out, because right outside his door the monster that feeds middle-aged men like Joe into an emasculating abattoir is waiting to finish him off.
This is where the advertisers pick up Joe's story; at his moment of maximum humiliation and vulnerability, when his manhood and his identity as a father and husband hangs in tatters all around him.
Then ask yourself who it is that Joe cannot avoid seeing almost every day, and whose very existence rubs Joe's face in his own weakness and failure? Whose life is in every way the exactly opposite of Joe's; whose attractive, prosperous and not-at-all-fucked-up family just moved into the best house in the world while Joe sweats out his slide into penury and oblivion in a couple of furnished rooms as his daughter-wife looks on pityingly?
Late at night while his daughter sleeps on the couch in their rent-by-the-week duplex that's not much bigger than his first apartment, Joe watches his Chinese teevee and sees this black guy from Chicago with the sinister, foreign-sounding name
busy living the life that was supposed to be Joe’s.
Then, two channels away, sincere men who seem to understand and completely sympathize with Joe's problems sink shafts directly into the heart of Joe's worst nightmares and whisper to him that his deepest fears are all true. That the black guy from Chicago with the sinister, foreign-sounding really has stolen Joe's birthright. Really does intend to destroy what's left of Joe's country.
Really isn't even legally the President.
Because when measured out by the spoonful, the fears of millions of men like Joe can make a hair dye salesman rich.
But when laced with blood, sold raw and by the pound, and pointed in the right direction, those same fears can topple governments.
Which is exactly what those sincere men on Joe's Chinese teevee are betting on.
* (Edgar Allan Poe, "The Masque of the Red Death")