For a long time now, DirecTV, a television broadcast satellite service provider, has been making television commercials that insult their viewers by making them seem a little looney. A few years back, one spot featured a man overjoyed that he was receiving a DirecTV package worth about $350 a year as his inheritance instead of getting the business, house and bank accounts. At the time I wondered why DirecTV thought that its potential customers would want to see themselves depicted as fools.
The Summer 2018 edition of “our customers are crazy” TV spots touting DirecTV adds a disturbing element: a subtle undertone of racism that smears both African-Americans and Latinos, presenting them as bad parents who rush through the responsibilities of child-rearing to have more time to watch football games.
First a brief description of each spot, and then a discussion of why they are racist.
In the first spot that came out, earlier in the summer, an African-American father stands at the door of his young son’s room, leaned against the doorjamb, and starts spitting out homilies of advice such as “A firm handshake goes a long way” and “Nobody like a snitch.” The boy, who appears to be around eight or nine, looks more and more befuddled as his father continues. “Whatever the contractor tells you, add six months” “Never get the extended warranty.” Finally, just before fleeing the scene, the father says “Birds? Bees? You get it. Cool.” He doesn’t see the totally confused expression on the boy’s face, nor hear his short, almost apologetic “Huh,” because he’s already out the door.
Where to? The TV room, where we see the entire family watching television underneath the screen-filling caption, “MAKE ROOM FOR SUNDAY.” Meanwhile, the voice-over announcer makes the pitch: “Get every live game every Sunday for no charge when you switch to DirecTV.”
The other commercial started to air a few weeks later, at least in the New York area. It takes the same form, except the lead-up to the family watching football on TV and the sales pitch is a scene of two Latino girls—maybe 11 and 9 years old—selling lemonade outside their middle class home with a big yard. A customer asks for a glass and the mother suddenly appears with an enormous plastic cup into which she slowly pours two complete pitchers of lemonade. The customer and kids look startled, but the mother insists on pouring every drop out of both pitchers. Then she starts to gather the cashbox and other paraphernalia on the table and says, “Time to pack up.” Again, we cut to the family watching football on TV and the big headline “MAKE ROOM FOR SUNDAY.”
In both these spots, parents rush through their responsibilities to their children so that they—and the kids—have more time to watch football on TV.
Bad parents, or at least a humorous caricature of bad parenting, to be sure. But what makes these spots racist?
There is no third commercial featuring a white (or an Asian or Jewish) family. Every person in the series of spots is a minority. The only bad parents we see are minority parents. The only parents who mistakenly think quality time is watching television sports with your child are minority parents.
These spots play endlessly on cable television especially during Yankee games and other sporting events. You would think a TV ad campaign lasting as long as this one would have at least three spots, which when I had an ad agency was pretty standard for an ad series. Perhaps DirecTV and its ad agency wanted to market the dish TV service specifically to minorities who love football, using their long-term advertising brand of caricaturing the foibles of their customers. Maybe they figured since they were targeting only two minority groups that they only needed two spots. Maybe they thought they could save money that way. Maybe.
The insensitivity of DirecTV and its ad agency penetrates down to the details. Most 21st century advertisers are aware of the large number of single-parent families and so try to represent them in TV campaigns consisting of multiple spots. That explains why there is no father watching football on TV in the ad about the Latino family. But hold on a minute! Don’t they know that Latinos have the lowest rate of divorce in the United States? Maybe DirecTV thinks the father was swept up in a Trump immigration raid.
I’m not accusing DirecTV of overt racism, just of insensitivity and stupidity that led to racist undertones permeating the two spots. Clearly the company wants to expand its market among Latin and African-American populations, which is why they featured them. But not to have at least one ad in which a white mother or father models bad behavior in a comic way creates a subliminal false impression that minorities are bad parents, especially among the pro-Trump, white supremacist crowd.