Consumerism’s Empty Bubble Bursting Too – UPDATED

This week at First Things I’m talking baseball again but only peripherally. I’m actually talking about the depressing and annoying little playlets Madison Avenue writes for American consumers — the emasculated men, the unbearable women, the know-it-all children.

The only good thing about watching your baseball team get eliminated in the post-season is that, after launching a frustrated shoe at the television, one is excused from having to endure repeated viewings of the detestable little playlets written by Madison Avenue cynics who—perhaps due to the bad economy—have decided to eschew psychotherapy in favor of working out their relationship issues and general neurosis on the rest of us.

According to Madison Avenue, heterosexual relationships in America contain one browbeaten, idiotic or insincere member (usually male) and one completely overbearing member (usually female).

My focus is on two commercials in particular — and I bet you can guess what one of them is — but the piece ultimately wonders if Madison Avenue is incapable of writing healthy relationships aimed at demographics below the 50-years-old-and-over mark because they can’t identify any, and the tension is reflecting the times.

More importantly, I wonder about the emptiness of a society that has grown and built on the idea that buying more stuff can fill the aching void where love is supposed to be.

Madison Avenue has no idea what love has to do with relationships or families, or natural desire. Even worse, it believes the rest of us don’t, either, and that things—lots and lots of things—can suffice, can provide reasonable facsimiles of love. We will love our new shoes or our new iSomething, we are told; we will love, love, love this new air freshener. These things will make us happy. As long as we are not looking to be loved back.

An astonishing percentage of our economy is dependent upon our willingness to substitute things for love, and to just keep buying.

Yesterday, I wrote somewhere in social media that corporatism has damaged capitalism and perverted our political processes. But our willingness to be excessive consumers has played a hand in expanding the emptiness all around. And since love is scarce (it’s not, but too many no longer understand what it is), that emptiness is about to be filled with the energy of hate and envy we see being played out in our headlines and encouraged by elected leadership.

Purely by coincidence, Tim Muldoon is sounding a similar gong this morning — he too is looking at Madison Avenue and relationships, but from the angle of sex and desire.

Ours is a media-saturated world in which our desires are constantly being manipulated. It is no surprise, then, that so much advertising relies on sex, because there is no other element of human experience that can arouse such powerful desire. We know this from experience, but neuroscience is shedding even more light on the mechanisms of this manipulation. The high from getting turned on can be more addictive than cocaine, and when coupled with a product, that feeling can be turned toward the product itself [...] The takeaway here is that our brains can’t be satisfied with products instead of people, because products simply can’t provoke the same kind of constant response over time that people can. The constant ramping-up of sex drive is leading many to addiction (especially men), unable to exit the cul-de-sac of sex in order to engage in a real relationship with a person. And it’s becoming epidemic.

Our guts already tell us that this is true, but Muldoon lays it out in such a way that it packs quite a punch, so do read it all.

It’s nothing but coincidence that Muldoon and I are both writing on Madison Avenue this week. I see its tension and inability to understand love; Tim notes that it understands sex and desire all too well. Either way, it’s all to our detriment!

ALSO: Jim Pethokoukis: Shall we blame democracy for a weak economy?

The Shadow of a Jackboot

UPDATE: Instapundit — a real man — links!. Thanks, Glenn!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Rhinestone Suderman

    But, seriously, who has the spare cash to be a mindless consumer, these days?

    What I’m seeing around me (granted, in working class neighborhoods, be they white collar or blue collar) is a great deal of reserve, not much spending, a mildly restrained, and depressed air—not one of inordinate spending, and consumerism.

    Only a fool, of course, would take lessons on life, love or anything else from Madison Avenue, which is why most mass entertainment these days should be boycotted, or at least taken with a grain of salt—if not the entire “When it rains, it Pours!” container! It may be time to revive those old Christian teachings about the dangers of “The World”, spending one’s time wisely, choosing one’s friends carefully and remembering that “The Idle Mind is the Devil’s Workshop”, and he’s only to eager to get to work there; and one of his tools is T.V. . . .

  • SteveM

    Hmmm… Good observations Elizabeth. To reinforce your points, there are two other ridiculous man-as-quivering-doofus commercials airing right now.

    One is a State Farm commercial. The doofus man gets in an accident and wails inconsolably on the phone to his former State Farm agent because he switched insurance providers. “I miss you Jessica!!!” Weird.

    The other is a Miller Lite commercial in which a young doofus collapses in tears while his “friends” look on because he’ll be separated from his girl friend for weekend. “Man Up!” Even weirder.

    Yeah, I wonder who on Madison Avenue comes up with the weirdness…

  • Regina

    The whole man-as-doofus advertising meme has bothered me for some time. The worst I’ve seen in some time is the PC-Matic commercial – the guy comes off as a complete dunce and the female is a snarky witch. If I ever thought of buying what they’re selling, the commercial ensured that I’ll never consider it.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Man-as-doofus is a meme beloved of mass entertainment at the moment.

    Another good reason for boycotting most of it.

    (The feminization of society has, in my opinion, been going on since the 60′s, and is a subject too large to be tackled in one, single article. This feminization includes the denigration of males since, if eunuchs are the new ideal, actual men must be shunned. The idealization of the harmles Man-boy—the guy who, into his teens and 20′s, dresses as a kid, rides skatesboards, spends all his time playing video games and still lives with his parents, is tiresome, too.)

  • Mary Beth Sancomb-Moran

    My personal pet peeve is the ad for yogurt, where the woman is on the phone saying that she has lost weight by eating all of these wonderful yogurts. The husband, meanwhile, is searching through the refrigerator looking for what sounds like dessert. She turns to him and says, “Babe, what are you doing?” and he looks sheepish.

    Why is this man not “allowed” to look in his own fridge? Does he need her permission? Is he six years old?


  • Rhinestone Suderman

    To be honest, all of T.V. is my own, personal, pet peeve; The endless Kardashian saga, the “reality” shows, the never-ending Kardashian story, the “real” housewives of Laguna/the O.C./beverly Hills/New York/North Dakota; the endless, silly competitions, such as “Cupcake Wars”, survivor spin-offs; the searching for a new home shows, the interminable epic of the Kardashians (how comes people who are supposedly so wealthy dress so trashy?) the unfunny comedies, and, yes, the anti-male shows, and advertisements.

    Turn the T.V. off, and you won’t have to see any of it. And, no, I don’t want to hear that HBO, or somebody, has this really, really wonderful show, about transgendered morticians who work as C.I.A. agents on the side, and it’s wonderfully well written, and so edgey! Etc., etc., etc.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    By the way, does anybody remember when the History Channel actually showed historical stuff, as opposed to shows about obese pawnbrokers, and strange people collecting strange stuff for their strange little hole-in-the-wall shops? “Here, I’ve got a shrunken head I’d like to sell you! It’s genuine! Ooooh, that is so cool!”

    Of course, In also remembered when the science channel did actual science stuff, as opposed to endless “How it’s Made” episodes: “Today, on “How it’s Made: rubber duckies, widgets, Kardashian style lingerie and staple guns!” And when the sy-fy Channel—um, probably best not to mention that, come to think of it. . .

  • pen1

    finally got rid of DirecTV – don’t miss it. We’ve been using the TV to watch movies for some time now.

  • Manny

    “The only good thing about watching your baseball team get eliminated in the post-season is that, after launching a frustrated shoe at the television, one is excused from having to endure repeated viewings of the detestable little playlets written by Madison Avenue cynics…”

    My team was eliminated by the All Star game. I must be totally free from advertising manipulation. I knew there was something positive in rooting for a loser! :-P

    I’ve heard the advertising manipulation argument for much of my life and frankly call me a skeptic. Does anyone run out to buy a new car if they don’t need one and chose the Toyota because it had the best looking chick in the comercial? What advertisement does is keep their name on your mind so if you are in the market to buy a car you will not forget to evaluate their product. It’s to remind you they exist when you are considering what to buy. I’ve seen tons of Chevy comercials in my life time and I have never bought a chevy yet.

  • Kris, in New England

    What I don’t like in ads these days (well, let’s be honest and say I don’t like advertising at all…) is that in the man-as-doofus commercials the women are depicted as – horrifying b!tches. Like the commercial that goes with the image above – the woman in that is just about the perfect illustration of a harridan as I’ve ever seen. Shrill, condescending, impatient and cruel.

    When did the ad-people decide to sell us this picture of women as harpies?

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    They decided it at the same time they decided to sell us the picture of men as emasculated, helpless slobs, and big babies.

  • Roz Smith

    GEICO has recently juxtaposed their rather prissy creation of the metro sexual caveman against real men doing often dangerous work with the caveman playing the fool. This is directly opposite to the caveman’s original role as a sympathetic character with a message to take care when using stereotypes. I though the commercial that had the cappuccino sipping cavemen showing up to crew on The Time Bandit crab boat from Deadliest Catch was hilarious. I found the one with Washington Redskin Brian Orakpo coming through with his offer to get the Geico caveman on to the football field as a cheerleader less effective because it was more mean spirited.

  • MarkC

    The most common ploy I see in advertising is the “train wreck” – make a promotion or jingle so annoying, strange, or outlandish as to make it “stick” in the mind of the viewer – no matter how insulting and cringe inducing. Look no further than the State Farm and Progressive (Flo) campaigns.

    Personally, I make it a point NOT to buy a product which annoys or insults my intelligence in their campaign. I too bless the day I discovered recorded TV ..

  • Greta

    We ended our support of cable or satalite TV long ago. We got our system hooked up so we can watch movies without commercials. This past weekend we were at a friends house and they had the baseball game on and every other commercial seemed to be about some new program that showed white guys as idiots. It is not all men, just the white ones. If you see a guy on TV that is not being made to look like a fool, he is usually African American. No wonder so many young men are confused about their gender and what they are supposed to be when they grow up. And does every sitcom now have to have a resident gay person? Whats with that? You would think 50% of the population was gay. After we left an on our way home, we were thankful that we had none of this wandering around our home.

  • Greta

    On Obama blaming democracy and everything else for the bad economy, I just read this interesting heritage document today. It talks about the war on poverty started by LBJ and how much has been spent and how much has that spending has increased under Obama.

    I find it interesting that despite the huge spending for across the board programs that are means tested at both federal and state levels (often federaly mandated), and despite the fact that 46% of the people pay zero income tax, that we are seeing a call for a massive increase in this spending to what Obama has already started.

    I also saw a funny piece on another blog about the jobs council meeting today with Obama. At one point, they stated to Obama that he needed to do something about the people he has put in place everywhere who do not seem to care if jobs are lost, only that their regulations get expanded. Obama’s eyes seemed to glaze over. He understands what he is doing and does not plan to stop. He plans to raise mobs to try to steal the next election by intimidation and threats of violence if the rich are not stripped of their wealth.

  • grumpy pelican

    Thank you for these thoughts. It’s painful to watch these little vignettes whenever you turn the television. I do wonder what sorts of effects they have on any impressionable minds watching them but I guess I wonder even more about the people who pay for them in an effort to sell their products. I’ve given up wondering about the people who create them. I guess somebody has determined that they are effective but, when I’m feeling contrary, I’ll make a mental note to avoid those products for which the ads are just too degrading.

  • Skookumchuk

    “Turn the T.V. off, and you won’t have to see any of it.”

    It’s worked for me for about 15 years now. I’m a bit of a stranger in my own country, but that’s OK.

  • RWS

    Real men don’t watch television.

    Real men read Instapundit.

  • PacRim Jim

    I’m sick of anti-consumerism lectures from China, Europe, and everywhere else that profited from exporting to the U.S.

  • Ashen

    Paging Whiskey. Mr. Whiskey to the comments section please.

  • Ashen

    It seems like social engineering to me. Program the public to accept fags, lesbians, as normal and as parental material (gag). Also, notice you won’t see too many black woman/white man couples in commercials or on tv. I’ve seen more black man/white woman couples on tv and in print since oblama was elected. The white man is always the loser. Which is completely opposite reality.

  • Archaeopteryx

    I wonder if that would be “RWS” as in “SINOXID” (non-corrosive) primers? As in GECO brand ammunition?
    Or just a coincidence.
    Real men not only read Instapundit.
    Real men (and women, all REAL Americans actually) don’t watch the game on TV.
    They go down to the range and pop some caps. Or, if there is not the time available, they head out to the garage and do some reloading.

  • Willy

    This article made me realize why I like Keith Stone. He is the antithesis of the emasculated male. Uneducated and unrefined, he’s still able to manipulate the hearts of women.

  • John Clark

    That AT&T commercial – “I should have married John Clark” – is currently being flamed everywhere, even on AT&T’s own forums.

    My greatest confusion about the commercial is the casting. The Thurberesque matron and the sniveling guy in the glasses seems more like Mother/Son than Wife/Husband.

    It seems inauthentic and creepy…

  • epobirs

    One of the most dismaying yet ongoing themes in TV and radio advertising is the ad in which the user has been driven insane by the product. One I really hate is for a fixit web site called doublemyspeed(dot)com. This is one of a couple dozen sites that are all actually the same service under different names. In the ad for his one a man has been rendered incapable of any speech other than endlessly repeating the name of the site. By the the end of the ad he is joined by numerous other zombies.

    I’d rather do a complete rebuild of my computer than have that brain damage inflicted.

    Watch and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Viewed with the preservation of sanity in mind, a major portion of advertising is actually telling you to avoid the product as it is equivalent to swallowing a fistful of LSD.

  • epobirs

    Greta, the exception to that rule is if the black character is interacting with a woman. Then he is every bit the doofus while the woman sets him right.

  • Fritz

    I don’t own a tv set. I used to think Madison Ave was the culprit that drags taste and culture into ther gutter. Not so. It’s what the masses want. Go look around, the metrosexual geek confused about everything not just his sexual identity is everywhere. And these days he must be insane to even think of marrying or starting a family. I mean this very seriously. The system has set up traps for him from school where his gender (and race, as it checks mostly the white male) is condemned and ridiculed, to “family” (that’s what they call divorce) courts, where his constitutional rights have disappeared, to the economy, where jobs requiring physical strength and skill are gone. Wimin are arrogant and obnoxious in real life not just in commercials, and they should be, it’s their world. They carry it on their shoulders, and the metro male has no complaint. As long as wimin are willing to use him as a sex implement and nothing more, he is content. All Madison Ave does is speed up the process, spreading it far and wide via tv. But most tv programming is poisonous garbage anyway. If I wuz prez I’d cut tv broadcasting to two hours a day and charge by the minute. No, by the second.

  • Keep The Faith

    TV is used very little in my home, except where sports are concerned. I find it frustating that our family has to endure lame, often weird, commercials during sporting events. Why show a commercial for a ‘Housewives of…” show during the baseball playoffs? My kids don’t need to see scantily clad women doing odd things during a commercial. And then there is the Disney channel for young to middle teens… The whole broadcast is a continuous commercial for Disney and it’s shows. I hate it… And make my daughter turn it off.

  • teapartydoc

    My sons say that the beer commercials are basically saying: “People who buy our product are stupid, and show a lack of concern for others.”

  • Amy

    The commercials and shows will keep airing if people remain silent. Pick up the phone and call corporate headquarters for these products and shows. Send an e-mail. Vent…but do it with tact.

  • Kerry

    Antidotes to the ‘three day beard’ neuters here:

    And here, the very best:

    Note the “A commitment to something greater than themselves.”

  • BobB

    I’d like to defend the Miller “man up” ads. I see them as blow-back to the feminisation of men. Unmanly behaviors are shunned and through the efforts of good friends they are purged. What they say to me is that a real man can go out with the guys for a weekend, wear jeans that fit, take a fish off the hook, not scream like a two year old on a roller coaster, make decisions without consulting his mother, does not get lower back tattoos, and of course cares about the taste of the beer he drinks. They are not portraying all men as dolts. They are returning shame to its rightful place.

    However, I’ll still choose a heavy beer in less quantity than their product.

  • P. Aaron

    It’s not just MADAve, Hollywood’s leading men have been for over a decade not ‘men’ but males who refuse to grow up: Jack Black, Will Ferrel types long living their frat-days. Gone are the Cary Grant, Heston, Jimmy Stewart men thrust into comedic and dramatic situations. Harrison Ford, in the latest Indiana Jones acts like a 20-something rather than a card carrying member of the AARP.

    Being bored with both, Ad Men & Movie-makers are targeting the adolescents. How else do they appeal to their disposable income?

  • Sara

    I’ve been muting commercials on tv since the ’80s. They have become a foreign universe–I don’t hear the music, the whining, anything. I don’t buy anything I’ve seen advertised and during the ads I have brief moments of quiet.

  • RWS


    Just coincidence……the only reloading I do is for a Maynard carbine. All Pyrodex and no primers.

  • KenG

    This is my first visit to The Anchoress, via Instapundit. Thank you all for posting a very interesting (and uplifting) discussion. The subject isn’t uplifting, of course, but it’s nice to know that I have company in my disgust for what television is promoting as our new social norms. We generally only watch sports and movies on our video system, but of course, you can’t be fully free of TV unless you live in a cave somewhere.

    As some of the commenters above posted, watching television, you’d think that 50% of the population is black, or at the very least, it’s 1/3 black. There are virtually no Mexicans, nor Asians to be seen. The population would also appear to be about 50% gay. Intermarriage, as someone noted, is also uni-directional (black men with white women, but never the other way around). Men do not have body hair, nor facial hair. The adults are about half as intelligent as the children are, and, of course, the white men are the only acceptable remaining focus for degrading humor.

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned, however, is that other than sports programming, almost all of this marketing is aimed at women, who control most household buying power and do most of the consuming of products advertised on TV. What does it say that women in our society are content to bask in front of a TV for hours that immerses them in such a skewed version of society?

  • Peter in Mpls.

    Doltish fathers are also the rage these days in advertising. We’ve gone from “Father Knows Best” to “Daddy Doesn’t know a Damn Thing”.

    But probably the sorriest thing I find, especially while watching sports television, is all the adds for male impotence pills. For God sakes, in the face of all the male incompetence we see in advertising, men can’t even get it up anymore. It takes a lot of the verility out of the sporting match that’s going on.

    And then, to make matters worse, there’s all those disclaimers in the impotence commercials. I’m waiting for the Cialis commercial in which the woman, when it’s her turn to do her section of the disclaimers, to pop up in front of the man from the bottom of the screen with her hair all mussed and say “finally Jim.”

  • Tennwriter

    iI agree with the ‘men are shown as stupid’ complaint directed at TV. However I see the Greenhouse Gal as a step in the right direction. The guy is not stupid there. He’s treated very poorly even as he acts decently. The next step in the right direction is a commercial with a woman acting poorly and the too polite guy losing his cool and telling her off. Eventually we work our way back to more healthy relationships on TV.

    I did like ‘No Ordinary Family’ with its interactions between the adults with neither side being always right, and both having their different but useful ways of dealing with things.

    I will admit that the Greenhouse Gal commercial does not make me want to buy their product, but then I don’t buy cell phones anyways so I’m not really their customer type.

  • Peter in Mpls.

    I’m not sure how you bloggers pull off writing so fast and so correctly. My last senctence should read ” I’m waiting for the Cialis commercial in which the woman, when it’s her turn to do ther section of the disclaimers, pops up in front of the man from the bottom of the screen with her hair all mussed and says, “Finally Jim.”

    Nothing like correcting myself to ruin the effect.

    [I sympathize! -admin]

  • Lea

    I’d like to defend the Miller “man up” ads. I see them as blow-back to the feminisation of men.

    I agree. I actually like those and the expression of the normal men at the silly one is generally pretty priceless.

    Most of the ads that make men look ridiculous also make the women look terrible, so i don’t think that’s a win for anyone.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Honestly, I think the real next step is to turn off the T.V. altogehter or, if you must watch it, refuse to take any cues on life, love, men, women or anything else from television commercials.

    Really, who needs this “Men as idiots, women as heartless shrews” propaganda, 24/7? Watch too much of it and, yes, it’s going to skew your view of the real world.

  • Doc

    I’m so glad I don’t have TV reception. Radio commercials and commercials on movies are bad enough.

  • Maureen

    I watched Thor on DVD this past weekend – the scene that I loved the best (well aside for the no shirt scene!) was when Thor swaggered down the street of a small town to confront the mechanical monster. He knew that he was going to be killed, but he still swaggered towards the monster because he needed to protect others.

    The only men that swagger today are police, military and superheros – it is a matter of knowing that you can (as in having the skills and ability) and will (as in having the moral conviction that what you are doing is right) to challenge a wrong even if you may be killed, but you still do it. I wish more men (and women) would swagger. It would be nice to see a few politicians and corporate leaders swagger – not out of some outsized sense of their own ‘specialness’, but because they can and will do something that will benefit others.

  • maths tricks

    Tina: Thank you for your efforts to blog. I relate on all points. I would like to add, though, that Target, Walmart, Kmart, Petsmart, Lowes, Costco and HomeDepot Stores, have been called “big-box killers” for decades because they have killed the neighboring specialty stores that used to sell American items. Big Box Killer Stores have also received millions of dollars in Tax Financing or Tax Benefits (at least in Missouri) which have hurt our communities and our education system. So, our plea needs to be for Americans to stop shopping at those places until the stores, like you, buy American made products and until those stores stop accepting tax benefits that they do not need. What we all need is for our country to innovate and create. By doing so, we will get back to work and provide Americans with quality products that, yes, may cost more, but they will last!Until then, our group believes that it is simply “uncool” to continue to shop the Big Box Killers or any store that buys from countries that do not respect our laws for the environment or our laws for fair treatment of workers. Until then, we hope that American won’t buy what they don’t absolutely need. And find the managers in these stores and have a dialogue with them to explain what is happening. Take action by not buying until the managers understand that we want Quality American Products! Of course the “managers” of these stores (I challenge you to find the owner) always acknowledge the problem of not having anything “made in America” and then throw it back by saying…”Americans don’t make anything anymore.” Well, I say…”AMERICA..WAKE UP and MAKE PRODUCTS or INNOVATE.” Get busy making quality items that will last and re-open up the mom & pop stores in places that are empty and desperate for renters. Once we all wake up to the devastation that has occurred in our manufacturing and clothing and textile industry and in the technology industry, once we WAKE UP, then maybe we can return to being proud to be an American. At this point, I am embarrassed to have taken so long to wake up. P.S. I have found American made products on line (yeah), including fabric so that I can employ a local seamstress to make unique clothes. It is a blast! (A lot more fun and productive than shopping at “uncool” stores.

  • John Clark

    Hey, it could be worse.

    A Japanese cell phone company has a series of family themed commercials where the father is, literally, a DOG.

    Actually, the ads are kinda cute and have a cult following outside Japan. The Dad is a white Hokkaido dog, named “Otosan,” and he is very stern and traditional…

  • Micha Elyi

    Two facts: (1) most TV-watchers are female and (2) females control 85% of consumer spending.

    What else about TV advertisers pandering to female fantasies and bigotries do you need to know?

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Maureen, yes, I find it interesting that the only movies that still laud male heroes appear to the be superhero movies. That’s probably one of the reasons I like them so much.

    (Yes, I thought Thor was very good; I also enjoyed Green Lantern, and really enjoyed Captain America, which celebrates both masculinity and patriotism.)

  • Todd

    “(T)he piece ultimately wonders if Madison Avenue is incapable of writing healthy relationships aimed at demographics below the 50-years-old-and-over mark because they can’t identify any, and the tension is reflecting the times.”

    I think you miss the point.

    tv commercials exist to sell product, not to edify us.

    People in healthy relationships tend not to impulse buy, they consult on acquiring phone service, but advertisers are acutely aware they prefer less healthy people purchasing what can be sold–not what is needed.

    Ad people are not stupid. Their purpose is to alienate our affections in a focused way. The gardener lady is intended to be unlikable: the phone sellers want you to disregard your spouse and they will lure you with a free something so they can net a bigger profit. Sure, she’s a piece of work, but the effect is sure–align a snipey person with a good principle of healthy marriages: couples consulting about commitments like a two-year phone plan.

    They want their viewers to identify with the downtrodden. That most of them are white men is entirely intentional–it intensifies the effect, creates dissonance with the media’s manufactured reasoning, and lures other downtrodden people to follow those brave henpecked men into the stores, mall, and car dealerships.

    The result? Even if you haven’t bought something lately, you’ve bought into the principle. Mission accomplished.