From Moses to Mean Joe Greene: our changing cultural vocabulary

It seems as if it were only yesterday that America first saw the heart-rendering TV commercial in which Mean Joe Greene, a professional football player from the 1970s, throws a jersey to a young boy who offered him a Coke. The commercial, first introduced in 1979, makes all the lists of Top 10 or Top 25 American TV commercials of all time.

A recent TV spot parodies the Mean Joe commercial of decades ago. In the new spot, Joe throws his jersey to a housewife, played to soccer-and-bake-sale-mom perfection by sometimes raunchy comic actress Amy Sedaris. The camera angle exaggerates the difference in size between the characters much more than the original spot did. The housewife tosses a bottle of Downy laundry detergent to Mean Joe, looking sharp and very buff for a guy in his mid-60s. When Mean Joe lobs his jersey to her, she smells it, makes a disgusted face and throws it right back to him.

A great spoof.

TV commercials have parodied TV shows, movies and other art forms for decades. And parody or travesty sometimes enters into the occasional revival of an old ad concept like the resurrections of Mr. Clean, Joe Isuzu and Charlie the Tuna, which are all cases of a TV commercial making fun of itself.

But this laundry soap commercial may mark the first time we’ve seen a television commercial that pays homage to a commercial for a different product.

What does it say about our cultural vocabulary when to understand and appreciate a television commercial, you need to know about a 30-year-old television commercial for something else?

Cultural vocabulary comprises the quotes and images of literature, the visual arts, entertainment, current events and other cultural phenomena that people need to know to understand the cultural references that abound in the mass media, the popular arts and general conversation. Our cultural vocabulary consists of many artifacts:

  • Real and fictional people, such as Adam & Eve, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Pascal and Don Quixote.
  • Events, e.g., Hannibal crossing the Alps, the Battle of Waterloo, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon.
  • Phrases, e.g., quotes from poems, books, movies and songs, anything from “No can do” and “Let’s get it on” to “To be or not to be,” from “Four score and seven years ago” to “I have a dream.”
  • Inanimate objects, e.g., the Bible, the Holy Grail or a Super Bowl ring.

Archetypes, e.g., the henpecked husband, the genius who is inept with women, the good prostitute, the cop who can’t follow orders, the stupid or buffoonish strongman, the evil businessman, the evil stepmother, the bumbling leader and the tragic young lovers. These archetypes are often embodied in people or characters who enter the cultural vocabulary: Archie Bunker, James Bond, Hercules, Stepin Fetchit, for example.

Over the next week, I’m going to take a break from political reporting and analyze some aspects of the concept of cultural vocabulary, including its relationship to cultural literacy, the concept of commercial culture, how the cultural vocabulary develops and what I call the cannibalization of cultural icons.

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