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February 10, 2010 -- Three recent TV ads get our attention with totalitarianism. They do so to different degrees and in different ways. And they certainly are barometers of the shift in the popular culture in this once-free country.
The first was the “Green Police” advertisement for Audi that was broadcast during this year’s Super Bowl. It starts with a clerk asking a customer that standard question, “Paper or plastic?” When the customer answers the latter, Green Police swoop in and cuff him with the words, “You picked the wrong day to mess with the eco-system.”
A man is asked by the eco-cops whether he installed the lights on his house; next we see them hauling him away as a news reporter announces that “a man has just been arrested for possession of an incandescent lightbulb.” Another jackbooter empties illegal plastic water bottles and a bather is dragged out of his hot tub for having the temperature too high.
As Green Police on Segways man a roadblock, they allow the guy in the Audi to drive on through because he has a “clean diesel” car.
The ad does get our attention, as is its goal. But does it suggest that an Al Gore Gestapo is a good thing? And what the hell were the Audi folks thinking?
Perhaps the ad’s authors were hoping with this subject matter to catch the PR lightning of the now-legendary Apple computer commercial that aired during the 1984 Super Bowl. In that ad we see an auditorium with Big Brother on a giant screen haranguing a cowering crowd of identically uniformed prisoners. A beautiful female runner jogs into the hall and hurls a huge hammer at the screen, destroying it and freeing the inmates from the tyranny of IBM as imagined by Steve Jobs.
Whether you think Big Blue was the devil or not is not the point. That commercial clearly was assuming that the audience would reject anything that smacked of an Orwellian 1984 world.
The Audi commercial perhaps was having some fun with what might seem to be just a few steps in the future if the logic of eco-cult is played out in our society. And perhaps in the future, when folks complain as new environmental restrictions tighten around their necks, they’ll say, “It’s like in that Audi commercial.”
Still, the car in the Audi ad doesn’t smash a repressive system as the Apple computer jogger did. Rather, it escapes repression by complying with the system. This is certainly a bad subliminal cultural message, and it’s shocking to think that a company would think such a message could enhance the image of its brand in a free and individualist society.
The second commercial isn’t as graphically interesting as the Audi one but is much more approving of repression, which makes it more dangerous.
We see happy-looking children and generally beautiful people smiling, playing, and frolicking. We hear the voice-over tell us, “Denmark is the first country to legally ban artificial trans fat. The Danish people seem to be doing just fine without it.” Since trans fat is associated with certain heart problems, we’re told, this “sounds like a pretty good law.”
The ad then touts Smart Balance, a butter substitute. It concludes, “Our taste is so great that the folks over in Denmark thought it was downright illegal.”
Okay, that’s a cute final line, the sort of thing an ad strives for. But this commercial presents a government banning individuals from doing as they please in a very private matter—eating—as a great idea. The ad’s premise is obviously that it is right for a paternalist state to limit the liberty of us poor, stupid peasants for our own good.
The existence of this ad is an indication that the culture of freedom has deteriorated enough that the Smart Balance folks don’t worry about losing customers who, while they might like the company’s healthy products, would be outraged by its sick political morality. Perhaps the company is appealing to a niche market, the eco-cultists who are paternalist in sentiment to begin with. Otherwise, by presenting government bans on products as happy-faced occasions, this commercial brazenly undermines the ethos of freedom in this country.
The final commercial, which has been around since 2006, is the most morally disgraceful. It features Joseph Kennedy Jr., the son of the late senator Robert Kennedy and nephew of JFK, pimping for the Venezuelan president and strongman Hugo Chávez.
The commercial is for the oil company Citgo . We see poor Americans complaining that they have to wear sweaters and sleep in the kitchen by the stove because they can’t afford heating oil. Joe Kennedy then announces 40 percent off heating oil for such folks “from our friends in Venezuela at Citgo.” We’re invited to call him at Citizen Energy, the group that administers the program.
So what’s wrong with this sort of help-the-poor stuff?
Venezuela is run by Hugo Chávez, a power-hungry Marxist pushing a socialist revolution. Chávez has worked systematically to destroy individual liberty and what remains of economic freedom in his country. He has reacted to the thousands who have opposed him, marching in the streets and going on strike, with intimidation, demagoguery, and bullets. He had the country’s largest independent television station shut down for its opposition to him and its failure to broadcast his political propaganda. He worked to eliminate the two-term limit so he can remain in office as long as he can rig himself into reelection.
He has increased the government’s control over the economy. His policies have led to shortages of electricity and water in his country and thus a surplus of misery for the Venezuelan people.
Chávez is trying to replace Fidel Castro as the hemisphere’s most virulent America-hater. He has welcomed America’s enemies to his country—most notably Iran’s Islamist leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—, has praised terrorists, and is forming alliances with such types against the United States.
Citgo is Venezuela’s government-owned oil company. In the past it has operated to some extent above politics, with Americans holding many top executive positions. But because of opposition within Citgo to his communist policies, Chávez replaced the company’s leaders with his own cronies. Citgo revenues as well as its leadership fuel Chávez and his march to totalitarianism, and the company is collapsing due to his depredations.
This brings us to the Citgo commercial. While it doesn’t mention Chávez, it does tout Venezuela. And, of course, it shows what the viewer takes to be poor Americans who are the victims of capitalism being bailed out by those kind and prosperous folks in power in our Latin neighbor. The fact is, of course, that any Venezuelan would be a benefactor of his own country and mankind by putting a bullet through Chávez’s head.
But Joe Kennedy chooses to pimp for this dictator. The Kennedy name still has a certain caché, and Joe’s appearance in the commercial is a stamp of approval on Chavez’s anti-American enterprise. Citgo officials are betting that most Americans pay little attention to who’s behind its company and what agenda is being touted. Fortunately, in this case many were paying attention. A “Boycott Citgo” movement in the United States contributed to the 7-Eleven company dropping that oil company as the supplier of gasoline for the pumps at its convenience stores.
The ideas that underlie a culture often change for better or worse through indirect as well as direct mechanisms. Most of us don’t pay close attention to TV commercials, and the ad men making them up ultimately want to sell products.
But the subtle or not-so-subtle messages that they contain and the values they assume can alter thinking over time. Thus it’s useful to keep our radar tuned as we watch the ads on the tube. These three ads, in particular, are a barometer of the forward creep of cultural collectivism and dictator-love.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.