The Chris & Cliff Paul ads for State Farm are unsettling.
I could narrate the nightmarish historical grotesques that flash through my mind when I see these commercials, but the result would inevitably recapitulate the same mixture of the ridiculous and the obscene. Anyone ought to be able to do it themselves. I’ll just ask in what kind of society would it be possible to separate identical twins at birth, and bring them together at some later date just to see how they react to each other? In what kind of society, or social system, would it be possible for such a long-term experiment on two human beings to be carried out?
Who decided that the two youngest victims of this crime against humanity would retain the same last names? It must be the company, which, unfortunately, apparently intends not only to keep showing these ads in heavy rotation, but to produce new ones in the same series. So we’ll have further quaint reiterations of this concept of a Mengelian Zwillingsversuch conceived at the State Concentration Plantation, developing in a town just like yours.
I find the following Sprint ad, which I’ve seen in two near-identical versions (the only difference being between the two different things “Mommy” finds for “Daddy” to do), to be much more amusing. I would even judge it to be rather perfectly executed, except…
…I cannot help but also find it striking what “type” or actually “types” of actress “Mommy” is not.The creators of the ad, arguably correctly, seem to have decided that one type of Mommy would have been too risqué, the other obvious choice too negatively stereotypical, but they cannot help but highlight in the effectively safer third choice on which they settled.
A cursory web search confirms that the ad’s suggestion of “interracial” sex has elicited some comment, but the symbolic echo of the old, apparently not yet fully retired Black Man/White Woman propaganda trope and pulp and porn counter-trope is suppressed by the shift to a third ethnicity or skintone.
We find ourselves involved with the less over-coded figure of an Asian-American woman played by Pinky Jones. The development plays both against and with stereotypical expectations when our seemingly randy Mommy is shown having her physically transformed husband perform purely practical chores: very much not the “things” we presume she had in mind upon noticing that he has been, as the ill-fitting pajamas and those particular chores emphasize and re-emphasize, re-sized as the nearly seven-feet tall athlete Kevin Durant. During the set-up section, the boy is the one who first notes “the change,” though all three characters treat the event as merely unusual, rather than incredible. Mommy wastes no time with amazement: Her gaze immediately turns into a leer. “He looks fine to me,” Mommy says, sharply. When the son, clearly pre-pubescent mentally as well as physically, expresses incredulity – not at the change in Daddy, but at Mommy’s reaction – she is not interested in discussing anything.
It might be, if not unacceptable, then on the border of unacceptability, to concede that casting an African American woman in the same role would likely have played too obviously or on the nose into one racially charged cliché, especially on the set-up side. Unacceptable or not, that seems to have been the calculation, and, strictly in aesthetic terms, no less justifiable than casting an Asian-American to play an Asian-American character, or an African-American man, not a European-American, to play Django or Ray Charles: The televisual media wear their racialized codes right on their surfaces, and there’s no getting around it in telling any noticeably and honestly American story, even and especially at TV commercial length.
In short, the effect ought to be offensive, since it is everywhere the entire opposite of “color-blind,” and yet I doubt it actually is taken as offensive to much of anyone mature enough to get the joke, yet open enough to popular culture to be watching TV, especially NBA basketball. Of course, the TV commercial does not explore all of the formal possibilities and ideological tolerances that a comprehensive artistic rather than merely commercial exercise might address, or even come close to doing so, but a set of common, mostly un-sayable and unacceptable, interrelated jokes are being told here in carefully orchestrated and crisply performed deadpan counter-images, allusions, absences, and half-absences. I find the overall result both crude and subtle, archly calculated yet natural, challenging yet homey all at the same time: altogether a rather impressive feat of artful communication – and thus quite appropriate for a cell-phone ad.