Gilty As Charged (That’s a pun, not a Bushspelling)

I watch commercials. Sometimes. I dislike the narrative disruption they bring when I’m watching a TV show or movie (though I almost never watch movies that are edited altered or interrupted anyway), but I do enjoy the wit and style of the really good ads. At times, they’re better than the show they’re disrupting (I’m sure there were a few examples of this during the last season of Heroes).

Bad ads are generally just bad, hardly worth a cringe, made to scan past on the ol’ DVR.

Recently, though, there are some ads that I consider abominations. They hurt me inside when I see them because of what they say about at least a segment of humanity. John McCain’s ads fall into this category, and, upon reflection, I guess a lot of political ads in the past have as well, but you expect Rovian tactics from Rovian politicians, and it’s easy to dismiss them.

But the ads I’m really addressing today are the two new ads for American Express’s small business gold card. These ads are chilling in their lack of humanity, their embrace of business class values so goose-stepping and mean they’re on an ethical plane with kicking puppies.

The first has two Americans, a man and a woman, having a business dinner with a group of Germans. Things seem to be going well, the Germans seem to like the ideas of their Yank fellows…then the American guy cheerfully offers to pay. He produces a credit card decorated with the image of a generic Flash-style superhero, in other words a customized card like the ones advertised of late on the far more engaging and funny Capital One commercials. In other words, a card that says something about him as an individual.

The Germans go cold. Falling rudely into their native tongue, one asks “What kind of card is this? and her comrade jokes “It’s a kindergarten card.” They rise and leave, rather dismissively. It is clear to everyone but the hapless individual who was cheerfully going to buy them all dinner that the deal is now dead. Who wants to do business with a man with a superhero on his credit card?

The American woman, more wise than her partner, and obviously embarrassed for and by him, says “Let me get this,” and lays her glittering American Express gold card down. Because that’s what we all want and need, right? To be defined by clear-cut, regimented, shiny symbols of status, not our own humanity, not our own individual personalities and gifts we bring to the table.

The second ad depicts a man hurrying up to a ticketing counter at an airport trying to make a business flight that leaves in, I think, about forty minutes. The woman at the counter assures him there’s no problem, he’ll make it…then he produces his credit card. Which shows…

…Oh my god…

Kittens. How very silly. How unprofessional. How lacking in status.

The woman looks askance. “This is a…business flight, yes?” she says, or something to that effect. He says yes. She is cold now, and casts a baleful eye past the traveler, to two sinister figures, clearly meant to be TSA agents. They catch her signal and quietly flank the man….and take him away. Show yourself as a person, rather than a thing of high monetary value, and we’ll turn you over to the fascists.

Holy crap.

These ads are full of so much subtext, anti-individualism, xenophobia, an elitism based on sheer material wealth placed above anything more organic or human…I wonder at their effectiveness. Are they actually reaching their targeted demographic in a positive way, or are they turning off a large segment with their snotty bludgeoning of individuality? I’d like to think most people would find this stuff repellent, but after watching my country’s politics closely the past decade I’ve realized I have a tendency, at times, to give my fellow citizens more credit, in the more valuable non-geltish sense, than is due.

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