I would hardly claim to be a media critic, and I don’t write much about the media on this blog. But because my NFL football watching has been repeatedly disturbed by this series of commercials, I feel the need to vent a bit.
I’m not the only one to have noticed the meanness of the current series of Best Buy commercials, which pit consumer-mad mothers against Santa Claus. A Washington Post blog asks, “Are ads getting meaner?” and lines up several ads in support of an argument that the answer might be “yes.” And you can follow a thread on the Best Buy Community feedback forum that is labeled “worst commercial ever,” making pretty clear how some folks feel about these ads.
In case you haven’t seen any of these commercials (and count yourself lucky if you have not), they feature women, always women, realizing how much stuff they will be able to buy at Best Buy that year, and then fantasizing about how they will rub it in Santa’s face that they have out-gifted him. One woman gulps down all of Santa’s milk, oozing hostility at him across her living room. Another woman meets Santa on the roof and tries to out “ho, ho, ho” him, and then kicks the lit up Santa off the roof, just in case he didn’t get the point.
At first glance when you describe a woman trying to out “ho, ho” Santa, it sounds funny. And maybe if that were it, just someone trying to out-laugh Santa Claus, it would be okay. But these women are hostile; they’re out for blood. And the question that goes unanswered in these commercials is, what exactly do these women have against Santa Claus? What did he do to them that makes them so eager to humiliate the old man? Maybe you could make an argument that these women are challenging a patriarchal figure, usurping the male authority that Santa Claus represents. But I just find the commercials to be really mean and sad in what they say about our sickly consumerist society.
The best answer to why the women are out to get Santa Claus appears to be because they want to be the ones to give their families the most possible stuff. They want to win the gift-giving death match. They want to hold Santa down until he taps out and passes their house by on Christmas Eve, I guess. And all I can say to that is, really?
I think our commercials have gotten meaner, and oddly so around the holidays. I think of last year’s series of cell phone commercials with people using all their abundant minutes and texting capability to abuse each other; the holiday one featured a man making fun of his neighbor’s Christmas lights and his family’s Christmas cards. Thankfully, those have not reappeared, as I felt compelled every time I saw the commercial with my daughter to say out loud, “I don’t like to see people being mean to each other.” There’s something especially disturbing about seeing meanness nakedly wedded to consumerism in the Best Buy ads.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how this year I’ve checked out of the buying frenzy that is Christmas. Partly because I hate malls. But also because it seems that much of the holidays have become about buying love and happiness. Our frantic trips through the malls are about buying gifts for others, yes. But it seems we’re buying out of guilt and a frenzied need to be loved. If I get my spouse or child the perfect gift, they will love me forever. I will have achieved the most perfect holiday ever realized….by buying the right thing.
Of course, this is exactly the purpose of modern-day advertising, as Raymond Williams argued 30 years ago in his essay, “Advertising: The Magic System.” Once upon a time, advertising actually told you about the qualities of the product being sold. Buy this bleach because it works better than the other one. But then men like Don Draper discovered that you could sell things even more effectively if you convinced people that the products had magical properties. This bra will make you irresistible to men. This lipstick will make you unique. This car will make you rich and powerful. All this stuff from Best Buy will make you better than Santa Claus. It will make your holiday perfect, and apparently, as a woman, it will make you the best mom ever. The advertisers who came up with these commercials seem to believe that fathers and men are less concerned with these things.
But of course, bras and lipstick and cars and electronics are not magical. Any happiness they provide is temporary and fleeting compared to the things that you cannot buy and sell. Like family. And good friends. And a place in a strong community. A feeling of belonging and contentment that comes not from what you own, but from how you are connected to other human beings. I can see why Best Buy is tempting, because even the hassle of lining up outside the store on Black Friday and fighting off all the other people who are trying to out-do Santa Claus is easier than the hard work of building strong relationships with other human beings. Who wouldn’t go for the false magic of the credit card over the real magic of sitting down and listening to someone?
I have several friends around town who recently saw It’s A Wonderful Life for the first time. They saw this movie for the first time because my little local movie theater shows old Christmas classics every year for the whopping price of $3 admission. That’s the kind of town I live in. It is Bedford Falls. Every year when it snows for the first time, and the Christmas lights are all up, I am struck by the urge to run down the streets of Madison yelling, “Merry Christmas, Madison! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Madison Coffee and Tea! Merry Christmas, Ohio Theatre!”
That’s my great fortune. I live in a town where I believe many of us can still understand Jimmy Stewart’s joy running down the streets of Bedford Falls. Many of us can understand that that is what joy at Christmas should look like. And the Best Buy commercials are annoying intrusions from a sadder and less fortunate other world which we choose not to live in.