Television commercials enter our cultural pantheon next to Shakespeare and Lincoln

It seems as if it were only yesterday that I first saw the new TV commercial starring Mean Joe Greene, a professional football player from the 1970s. The commercial, for a laundry detergent, parodies a TV spot that Mean Joe did in 1979 that makes all the lists of top 10 or Top 25 American TV commercials of all time.

In the new spot, it’s a housewife, played to soccer-and-bake-sale-mom-next-door 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 the detergent to Mean Joe, dressed in uniform and looking very sharp and buff—for a guy in his mid-60’s.  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 spoofed TV shows, movies and other art forms for decades. And parody sometimes enters into the revival of an old ad concept like Mr. Clean, Joe Isuzu or Charlie the Tuna, which are all cases of a TV commercial imitating itself.

This laundry soap commercial marks the first time, however, that I remember seeing a television commercial that mocks another television commercial for a different product.  (If I’m wrong, please tweet me about it.)

What does it say about our culture when to understand and appreciate a television commercial, you need to know about another television commercial? One that’s 30 years old!

Mass culture chews up images and concepts quickly—be it fictional characters like Robin Hood, Mr. Spock or Jason Bourne; historical figures such as the short Napoleon or Washington crossing the Delaware; sayings like “where’s the beef?” or “I’ll be back”; real incidents like the Spitzer scandal; fictional ones like movie plots; or new products, especially strange ones. Situation comedies, comedy sketches, TV commercials, spoof movies, newspaper headlines, catalogue captions, advertising slogans, postmodern art and book titles are just some of the communication forms that cannibalize cultural references.

Cannibalization of cultural iconography occurs in many ways: Over time, we expropriate and distort the content of a cultural icon, as when Robin Hood becomes an anti-tax conservative or Martin Luther King comes to represent general service to the community. We make references to cultural icons, as when James Joyce structures Ulysses after Homer’s epic or when a secondary character in the “American Pie” movies calls himself the “Sherminator.” We morph them, as when the Terminator and Joe Isuzu become good guys. We take them out of context and thereby change their meaning, as Andy Warhol did with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.

The surest sign that an event, person, character or saying has permanently entered the public collective consciousness is that it has undergone a large number of these and other processes of cultural expropriation over years. It’s one thing for Johnny Carson to make fun of the Mean Joe Greene soft drink commercial in 1982. It’s quite another to recycle the concept as a homage-cum-parody 30 years later to sell suds to housewives whose ages range from 30-65.

What would they say, those like Harold Bloom who put together lists of the great literature and other cultural artifacts with which every culturally literate person should be familiar? At first glance, you might think that they would probably frown dyspeptically at the symbolism of a TV commercial becoming as much a part of our cultural heritage as Huckleberry Finn or the founding of Jamestown.

To do so would be to stake out new ground in the culture wars. For centuries, the argument has been between high and low culture, between Latin versus the vernacular, painting versus pottery, Beethoven versus folk songs and the Beach Boys. But a television commercial is something different from both high culture and low culture. It represents commercial culture, and the cultural dictators of all ages, especially the conservative ones, have tended to warmly embrace commercial culture. The Aeneid, a piece of propaganda purchased by the Roman Emperor Augustus, makes all the lists of the cultural essentials. We see poster advertisements by Toulouse-Lautrec, the Russian Constructivists, Depero and others hanging in art museums all over the world. Why not a TV ad?

Rather than speculate on whether the Mean Joe Greene laundry soap commercial marks a watershed in what defines cultural literacy, let’s have a little fun by imagining commercials in which the following well-known fictional ad characters pitched these other products. I’m not going to sketch out the commercials, only the characters and products.  I think everyone can use their imagination:

So imagine if these four characters—Mikey who will try anything; the slimy Joe Isuzu; that little old lady shouting “Where’s the beef?” and Madge the wise and practical manicurist…

…were  in their typical TV spot environments, but selling any of the following products—hospital systems; fast food; Wal-Mart; potato chips; financial planning; beer; or prescription drugs, say for depression or erectile dysfunction.

I especially like Madge recommending a beer and Mikey trying Cymbalta. Joe Isuzu shilling a hospital isn’t bad either.

One thought on “Television commercials enter our cultural pantheon next to Shakespeare and Lincoln

  1. Great comment about the Aeneid. It’s a point that deserves attention. At least on some level, a surprising amount of our great literature and art is propaganda. In a way, maybe we’re really not all that far off from how art was produced in centuries past. Instead of a single patron, most creatives are funded by a company or crowd-sourced. Many still have to pay their bills by delivering what other people want. And in the broad sense of the word, most literature could be called personal or ideological propaganda.
    Also, Madge pushing beer: nice.

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