My good friend Mark Strathie has been kind enough to provide The Culture Doc with an excellent contribution on the complexities of American commercial culture, and the problematic temptation of seeing ourselves outside of the claws of advertising.
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and I’m watching countless Friends re-runs on Netflix. When I start getting hungry, I realise sooner or later I’m going to have to move myself from the couch. I can’t face starting to prepare a meal in the kitchen; it’s a lazy Sunday after all. Takeaway it is then. But what to order? I decide to go all Joey Tribbiani style. I arrive back to my flat with a 4-pack (that’s right, I’m a lightweight) of twist top beer just in time to catch the pizza delivery guy with my two large pizzas. I’m back on the couch watching Friends, food and drink in hand, before you have time to yell ‘the power of advertising’.
As a gluten-free, vegan, liberal, spiritually-enlightened individual, I considered myself immune to the powers of Hollywood advertising and its brainwashing media. I was wrong; and maybe that’s not a bad thing. I’m not a big drinker, almost a teetotaller actually – I never had any alcohol for the whole of 2018. I considered it unhealthy, a waste of money and would especially never buy any to drink at home. Yet a little exposure to some product placement and American culture from Friends while my guard was down was enough to destroy all the defences from the media’s marketing machine that I worked so hard to build up? Not quite. But it did help me take a step back.
Hearing that ‘tsss’ when you twist open a nice cold bottle of exotic craft beer (Budweiser, you should try it) and toss away the cap to tidy up another day is so satisfying. All the more because I didn’t waste half an hour hunting for a bottle opener beforehand. Pair that with a slice of “Hot Pepper Passion” from my local, independent pizzeria (Papa John’s, heard of them?) and you have a winning combination for your lazy Sunday that helps you mentally recharge for the week ahead. Without that I would have ended up spending hours in the kitchen carefully preparing a nutrient-rich dinner, stayed sober, got a good night’s sleep, felt fantastic and made it to my early Monday morning yoga class before work. See, that would have been horrible.
In all honesty, at times I really enjoyed being a ‘consumer’. I had went to an almost monk-like extreme to avoid falling victim to any sort of media persuasion, but I was looking at things too seriously. On that Sunday I needed something to help me relax and give me a break from cooking for one night, but I had what marketing gurus call ‘limited buying beliefs’, meaning that I didn’t think I could have, in this case, beer and pizza. A positive aspect of advertising is that it can break through these limited buying beliefs and help you realise what you need and that it is possible for you to buy what you want. Maybe American film and TV wasn’t as bad as I thought…
The next day at work I’m talking about beer with my friends and my colleague tells me his beverage of choice is Corona with lime because ‘that’s what Vin Diesel drinks in Fast & Furious’. Again, normally I would have thought, ‘what a weak-minded fool falling for product placement like that’, but after the previous night’s escapades I decided to give it more thought. Last night, my pizza and beer combo flew me right across to New York City to hang out with my buddies Joey, Chandler and Ross. It put me in a relaxed, chilling-with-friends mood and made me feel NYC-cool – all this intrinsically linked to the products. If I happened to be watching Vin Diesel on screen talking about mi familia and getting psyched up the night before a crazy street race, I probably would have forgone the Budweiser and picked up Corona instead – well, after hunting for my bottle opener. I might have even been persuaded to pick up a lime and go to the extra effort of slicing that for my beer. Numerous American films and TV shows do a fantastic job of selling an image behind a product, something that everyone can go out and buy to feel connected to their favourite characters on screen. We all want to be a great roommate from Friends or the toughest, fastest driver from Fast & Furious, and using the same products as them is akin to channelling their positive personality traits of loyalty, courage, etc. Of course it is only a psychological affect but a nonetheless beneficial one. So then, is it really so bad to buy into this advertising and emulate our heroes on screen?
Everything has its limits and of course marketing can be used in exploitative ways, for example excessive drinking being glamorised in movies such as American Pie, The Hangover and especially Casino Royale – where the ‘hero’ James Bond is a fully-fledged alcoholic. The same examples can be drawn from the countless American films that showcase eating fast food as a normal, everyday way of life; companies exploiting customers’ earnings and health for their own monetary gain. It sounds like something out of Conspiracy Theory, I know, but it’s important to keep your eyes open, your mind alert and use your own logic to assess what is being shown to you. We can still easily enjoy the films produced by Hollywood but remember that what they choose to portray as ‘cool’ and acceptable does not always have your best interests, in terms of health and wellbeing, in mind.
So of course I ordered my pizzas with Papa John’s new vegan cheese ‘Sheese’ and it is something I only indulge in once every month or two. I also limited myself to just 1 beer that Sunday night. Some things we still need to decide for ourselves.