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Mayday! All hands on deck! The night of the long knives is here! At least, that's how it sounded last week when the Federal Trade Commission accused the entertainment industry of - brace yourselves - marketing violence to America's young people.

This is news? Methinks somebody at the FTC just woke up alongside Rip Van Winkle. Anyone who's been awake during the past three decades knows that TV, movie, and music producers have been pumping out audio and visual sludge for years, and consumers of all ages wade through it daily.

President Clinton had an interesting admonition for the offenders: "You can't make a mockery of a system that you say has integrity." All he needed was a laugh track. In case he hasn't realized it, the president vacated the moral high ground a few years back and is no longer credible as a lecturer on family values.

A spokesman for George W. Bush said Mr. Bush "believes the entertainment industry has to take personal responsibility for the products it provides to our children. And parents also have a role to play." I wonder if Bush knows how many parents are now playing the role of George Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life" - wondering darkly if our existence really matters to anybody.

As usual, the participants in this latest media flap are sparring on the tip of an iceberg. Yes, marketing violence to kids is deplorable, but even if we shut down Hollywood there would still be plenty of trouble along Main Street.

I often find myself thinking about that scene where Jimmy Stewart runs into Bedford Falls after he's been unborn, and finds it transformed into coarse, mean-spirited Pottersville, the downtown blocks lined with bars, pawn shops, and dance halls advertising "Girls! Girls! Girls!" In many ways, America now resembles a giant Pottersville. Every time my daughter and I pass through the supermarket checkout, we stand by racks of magazines emblazoned with headlines like "Sex: The #1 secret to making it better than ever," and other variants.

This is the dark side of a free-market economy. Trouble creeps in when people, especially children, start to believe that moneymaking happens with no cultural strings attached. Smirnoff Vodka uses a famous picture of Che Guevara in an ad campaign and then shrugs when Cubans are outraged. Nike clearly thought Olympic TV viewers would be amused by their commercial showing a female runner being chased out of her house by a chainsaw killer. Kudos to NBC for yanking that ad after viewers protested - but their gesture reminded me of someone trying to sweep back the tide with a broom.

A new Halloween item I just noticed on store shelves is "Rat Trap," a battery-powered rodent with its snout caught in the metal snapper. The description on the box says, "Screaming rat with struggling action." How delightful that we can now display animal suffering on the front porch for the trick-or-treaters. I suspect a lot of buyers would say, "What's wrong? It's not a real rat." Right, it's just entertainment.

The best assessment of the subject came from Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association, whose response to the FTC report included this: "We are not dealing with Euclid's geometry where the equations are pristine and explicit." Actually, it doesn't take a math genius to figure out our current social equation, just a little knowledge about fractions. For too many Americans, the only number that matters anymore is the lowest common denominator.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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