Sunday, February 11, 2007

Snickers, the SuperBowl and TEH GAY

Since I'm banned from commenting further on this post at Joe the Troll's (which I pretty much consider a permanent ban--I don't have a lot of time for censorious bloggers), I'll share my thoughts here on his post concerning a Snickers commercial that was pulled from its scheduled broadcast during the SuperBowl.

Since the Ridley Scott-directed Apple Macintosh ad premiered during the 1984 SuperBowl, the NFL championship has been a showcase for creative and/or expensive advertising campaigns. This year's broadcast was to feature a Snickers ad, in which two mechanics, sharing a Snickers bar by consuming it from each end, accidentally "kiss" when their lips meet at the middle. They're both taken aback, and one of them cries: "Quick, let's do something manly!"--whereupon they proceed to rip out clumps of their own chest hair. Several versions of the ad were in fact produced with "alternate endings:" one in which another man enters the garage and enquires "Is there room for three on this Love Boat?;" a second in which the mechanics drink motor oil and anti-freeze; and a third in which one of the mechanics swings an over-sized wrench into the stomach of his colleague, who reciprocates by slamming his head with the car hood.

The four different versions were posted on the Snickers website, asking visitors to vote on their favourite, with the winning version to air during the Daytona 500 (how apt :) ). (The ads have since vanished from the site.) Snickers also featured the reactions of some of the players who squared off in the recent SuperBowl (these too have vanished--though you can still see some of them on YouTube here and here), ranging from amusement to obvious discomfort and disgust.

The Snickers campaign was immediately condemned by several gay rights organisations, including GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign, for sending "a dangerous message to the public condoning violence against gay Americans." Another group expressing outrage at the ads is the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named after a Wyoming student victim of a brutal gay bashing which saw him robbed, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. The Foundation's executive director Judy Shepard (Matthew's mother) declared: "This campaign encourages the same type of hate that led to the death of my son Matthew. It essentially gives 'permission' to our society to verbally or physically harass individuals who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual." According to Masterfoods (the Mars subsidiary that made the decision to pull the ad), market research had revealed that the ad's target audience was not responding well either--though they did not specify whether this was because the audience shared the position of GLAAD, et al., or because it disapproved of the suggestive depiction of male homoeroticism on a TV commercial.

What do I think of the Snickers campaign? Well, I agree with Joe that the reactions of GLAAD et. al and of those members of the public surveyed by Masterfoods were a tad over-the-top. I think the ad is laughing at the insecurities of the mechanics more than it is inciting violence and harrassment against GLBTIs--if they were truly comfortable with their sexual identity, they wouldn't need to "prove" themselves via cartoonish and excessive displays of manliness. I don't see it as an anti-gay ad necessarily, although I can see where those who do have objections to it are coming from, and I guess this is where Joe and I part ways.

Joe's position, essentially, is that organisations such as GLAAD undermine the whole enterprise of gay and lesbian equality by giving attention to what he sees is a trivial issue such as an ad for Snickers at the Superbowl:

Is not wanting to be gay when you’re not gay suddenly an act of prejudicial hatred? Is it “anti-gay” of me, as a straight man, to not want to kiss another man? And exactly how does this commercial foster violence against gays? The only “violence” in the commercial was self-inflicted.
This passage highlights a couple of problems I have with Joe's position. First, leaving aside the question of how it is possible to "be gay when you're not gay," it isn't simply the fact that the men depicted in the ad might not want to kiss other men; rather it is the fact that they react so violently (whether towards themselves or towards each other), and that they see male intimacy as something so beyond the pale of "normal" masculinity that they must engage in cartoonishly hypermasculine behaviour in order to reassure each other of their "manliness," that GLAAD & co. object to. Second, in remarking that "the only violence in the commercial was self-inflicted," Joe demonstrates an unwillingness to read the ad on anything more than a superficial, literal level. (Not that I think the ad actually promotes violence, but that's beside the point here.) Either the ad wears it's anti-gay sentiments on its sleeve--flashing GOD HATES FAGS!! across the screen in neon--or no such anti-gay messages exist. That's a false dichotomy.

Other differences with Joe stem from his view that organisations such as GLAAD have to choose their battles, and in this case, "picking the wrong battles can be a great loss to your cause." That may be so, but why would combating what they perceive to be negative representations of homosexuality--or even incitements to homophobia-- in the mass-media be the wrong battle for gay rights organisations to fight? This whole line of argument reminds me of the famous "NABA defence:" for every wrong for which someone is seeking redress, there is always a more egregious wrong transpiring somewhere else which that person could be paying more attention to instead of focusing on the present wrong. The assumption is that the gay rights movement is only capable of fighting one battle at a time, which is patently ridiculous.

Finally, Joe declares that he fully opposes "ANY organization in their quest to take away anyone’s right of free speech to assuage their tender feelings," and emphasises that "The US Constitution does not guarantee the right to go through life unoffended to ANYONE." Again, I think he's talking nonsense. The only entity that could conceivably take away the right to free speech is the government, and nobody's right to free speech is diminished just because some groups and individuals complain about an ad. Masterfoods made a corporate decision in pulling the Snickers ads--there were no lawyers or police involved--and were probably influenced by more than one demographic (i.e. concerned Christian consumers as well as concerned homosexual consumers of their product--as the reactions of the NFL players suggest). And while it is certainly the case that nobody has the right not to be offended, this does not mean that nobody has the right to be offended and to say so when they are (a point which Joe later conceded). This simply isn't a freedom of speech issue.

I'll leave the last word to Nicklas Johnson from
Picture this: you're watching the Superbowl and an ad comes on. Two redneck men are going through a buffet line. One of them loads up his plate with fried chicken. The other looks at him, then the plate, and they both jump back. The other exclaims, "quick, do something white!" and they don KKK outfits and set a cross on fire. Horrific and racist, right? Even if the guys were meant to be dumb?