Two commercials currently on TV are making me—and probably most other viewers—squirm with discomfort. Both are meant to be funny, but once explained, the logic behind the humor may turn stomachs.
The first is a spot for Lay’s potato chips that opens with an animated version of the classic Mr. Potato toy getting home from work. He can’t find his wife anywhere. He hear a strange crackle and then another. He follows the sounds until he sees his wife hiding in a room with a bag of Lay’s potato chips, munching away. She is suitably embarrassed at what amounts to an act of cannibalism, but the commercial explains that the chips are so delicious that they are irresistible. The last shot shows Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head snacking on the chips, both with a look of mischievous glee on their face—they know they are doing a naughty thing, but it just doesn’t matter.
The scene is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, “Weekend,” at the end of which the main female character sucks on a bone from a stew prepared by the revolutionary who has forcibly made her his concubine. “What is it we’re eating?” she asks, to which the punky gangster answers, “Your husband.” She has the last line of the movie: “Not bad…” and then keeps gnawing on the bone.
Eating another being of your own species is generally considered to be an abomination. Although the Potato Heads are not humans, they are stand-ins for humans with human emotions and aspirations, just like the various mice, ducks, rabbits, dogs, foxes, lions and other animals we have anthropomorphized since the beginning of recorded history. From Aesop and Wu Cheng’en to Orwell and Disney, authors have frequently used animals as stand-ins for humans in fairy tales, satires and children’s literature.
So when Mrs. Potato Head eats a potato, it’s an overt representation of cannibalism—humans eating other humans.
The advertiser is trying to make fun of transgression, to diminish the guilt that many on a diet or watching their weight might feel in eating potato chips, which after all, are nutritionally worthless. But behind the jokiness of a potato eating a potato chip stands more than the idea that it’s okay for humans to eat them. The implication in having a potato playing at human eating other potatoes is that we are allowed to do anything transgressive, even cannibalism—everything is okay, as long as it leads to our own pleasure. The end-game of such thinking is that our sole moral compass should be our own desires.
Thus the Lay’s Potato Head commercial expresses an extreme form of the politics of selfishness, the Reaganistic dictate that everyone should be allowed to pursue his or her own best interests without the constraint of society. Like the image of the vampire living on the blood of humans or of the “Purge” series of movies in which people are allowed any violent action one night a year, the Potato Head family eating other potatoes that have first been dried, processed, bathed in chemicals, extruded and baked symbolizes and justifies what the 1% continues to do to the rest of the population.
And it’s a happy message, too! We don’t get the sense that it’s a “dog-eat-dog world in which you have to eat or be eaten.” No, Lay’s presents the gentle Reagan version: you can do anything you like to fill your selfish desires (no matter whom it hurts).
The kooky image of potatoes as cannibals may be funny, but I can’t imagine anyone is laughing at the Direct TV series of commercials that present human beings as string puppets who trip over furniture and get caught in ceiling fans.
To sell the fact that Direct TV—a satellite television service—can operate without wires, these commercials start by depicting a normal-looking character complaining about wires in the entertainment system or expressing delight that he has Direct TV and therefore can go wireless. At this point in the several versions of the spot I have seen, we are introduced to another member of the family who is a string puppet. As the normal character stammers about how wireless is okay for people but not when it comes to TV, the string puppet bounces around, hands and fingers flapping, shoulders hunching together and legs and knees dangling, until it trips or gets hung up in the fan or something that is supposed to be funny happens. But it’s only funny if one enjoys the cruel humor of slapstick and if one forgets that the stringed puppet is supposed to be part of the family—in other words a real human being with a challenging disability.
Direct TV has a long history of commercials that make fun of its audience, such as the idiot who fails to inherit a mansion, yacht and major stock portfolio but cries for glee because his rich deceased relative has willed him the Direct TV package. But the string people in these new Direct TV spots are not buffoons, not stupid, not venial, not pompous or supercilious. No, the trait that the spot exploits for humor is that they are disabled.
The commercial tries to extract humor out of mocking people with disabilities. No wonder everyone with whom I have watched this spot has turned away with a disgusted expression.
Nothing connects these two commercials except the bad taste which led to their conception and broadcast. The Direct TV commercial has no political or social subtext to it—it’s a juvenile effort to make a joke at the expense of people with physical challenges. The Mr. Potato Head cannibalism commercial, however, seems to offer a fable about the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, or in this case—those who eat and those who are eaten. The fabulist is interested in selling products and making consumers feel good about the process of consumption, even when it is transgressive. Some may call it an overturning of traditional morality. I call it business as usual in a post-industrial consumer society.