After hearing me complain about commercials once, a friend of mine asked, “So would you rather that commercials didn’t have any stereotypes at all?” Another added, “That’s how they’re funny.” And I just shrugged. “I would rather that, yes. Humor doesn’t have to rely on broad generalizations, and a lot of what passes for it on commercials isn’t funny to me anyway.”
We begin with a State Farm insurance commercial, transcribed below in case you don’t want to watch it.
(The scene opens on a nondescript middle-class white man man in his pajamas. He is downstairs in his house, the lights turned out around him as he speaks into his telephone. The words “state of unrest” flash at the bottom of the screen.)
Man: Yeah, I’m married. Does it matter? You’d do that for me? Really? Yeah, I’d like that.
This is sort of reverse titillation. It’s intentionally setting up the scene to be something “sexy,” but we know it won’t be sexy at all; it’s also setting up the idea that the typical man might be prone to extramarital relations. While a lot of fictional men (and women) partake in those, statistics I’m finding show that maybe 22% of married men have cheated (those count even just one event of infidelity). That isn’t a good statistic, no, but it’s by no means true that every man cheats.
(His wife, also nondescript, middle-class, and white, comes down the stairs and switches the light on.)
Woman: Who are you talking to?
But then his wife appears. Not only are they, surprise surprise, a white couple (apparently only about 15% of marriages in the U.S. are interracial, but I’ve noticed this trend on commercials where the couples are going to be of the same race pretty much always) but the wife is portrayed right off the bat as being snappy and suspicious. She speaks in an immediately aggressive voice; she is accusing him immediately. Though I wouldn’t blame her for being a bit suspicious, this set-up is indicative of one of the trademark commercial advertising stereotypes: the dichotomy of lovable idiot and the shrew.
(The man turns around, looking harmlessly confused, covering the phone with his hand.)
Man: Uh, it’s Jake, from State Farm. (then back to the phone) Sounds like a really good deal.
(The woman comes up behind him and reaches for the phone.)
Woman: Jake, from State Farm at three in the morning?
And she is completely right to be suspicious. I mean, I understand calling State Farm at three in the morning if you’re having an insurance emergency, but the man clearly is not. He replies like he doesn’t understand why she doesn’t get it, like he doesn’t see why this is weird.
Woman: (into the phone) Who is this?
Man: It’s Jake, from State farm.
Woman: (sarcastically) What are you wearing, “Jake from State Farm”?
(The shot switches to an all-white office portioned into cubicles. There are accents of red throughout, a la the State Farm logo. Jake, a doughy and white salesman, is on the phone; behind him is another salesman, partially obscured, who appears to be Asian.)
Jake: Uh… khakis?
Okay, so even though it makes very little sense, the man isn’t lying. This is just a story about one white guy talking to another white guy about insurance in the middle of the night, heaven forbid that Jake from State Farm be the Asian salesman.
(Back to the couple, and the woman turns to her husband, covering the phone.)
Woman: She sounds hideous.
Man: Well, she’s a guy, so.
(And then the actual informative bits play in white letters on a red screen.)
Okay. So she’s grabbed the phone. She’s spoken to Jake from State Farm. Her husband seems to be too stupid to lie, given his guileless expression and shrugging. And she still thinks that Jake is… what? A phone sex operator? They never explicitly say. (Hint around it all you want, but god forbid it actually gets discussed, right?) So she was right to be suspicious, but by this point, she should really be willing to at least consider the fact that it’s not what she thought. But because she is a Commercial Advertising Harpy, she will do no such thing!
The idiocy of men, played for laughs. The temper of women, played for laughs. And I’m sure there are some men out there who are stupid, yes. There are some women who get angry easily. Just watching this one advertisement you might think “oh, but it’s just one advertisement.” Except for the part where these stereotypes get played over and over, even today. And it’s doing nobody any good.
–your fangirl heroine.