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That Snickers Ad, What is Homophobia, and Can't You People Take a Joke? - Mo's Journal
February 8th, 2007
11:20 am

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That Snickers Ad, What is Homophobia, and Can't You People Take a Joke?
This has come up in a couple of venues, and I thought I’d try to consolidate my views on it here. Apologies to those seeing some of this twice and thanks to those who helped me clarify my feelings.

As I don’t watch TV generally and certainly don’t watch the Super Bowl, I had no idea there was a controversy about a Snickers ad on the Super Bowl until after the fact. You can see the ad, and read about the controversy here, which is where I first saw it and read about it. I’m told it’s also available on Youtube. In short, the ad shows two mechanics eating the same Snickers bar while working on a car. Their mouths meet as they get to the middle of it (a la Lady and the Tramp) and they realize they “accidentally kissed.” At that point they freak out and jump away from each other and exhort each other to “do something manly.” They then open their shirts and tear out some chest hair. The end of the ad directs viewers to a site called www.afterthekiss.com, which has since been taken down. On that site, three alternate endings were given for the commercial, and viewers were asked to vote for which one they liked best, with a note saying that the commercial would be shown with the winning ending at some upcoming sporting event on TV (they specified which one, I just don’t remember). There were also clips of players on both of the Super Bowl teams watching the commercial and reacting to it.

After protest from some gay and lesbian advocacy groups (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and the Human Rights Campaign were notable examples) the company withdrew the ad and took down the website.

Discussion in the venues I’ve been frequenting has centered on two questions:

1. Is the commercial homophobic, or is it mocking homophobia?
2. If it is homophobic, is it bad enough to have provoked the reaction it got?


I do see it as a homophobic ad. I don't think it's enough to say that I "know it when I see it" so I'll explain why.

I understand the argument that it makes fun of homophobia – after all, the viewer is supposed to laugh at the men in the commercial for freaking out about having accidentally kissed each other – but I think the net effect of the ad is to reinforce homophobic attitudes. I think the context of directing the viewer to the alternate endings and the players’ reactions made that even clearer.

The ad (in its various versions) equated heterosexuality with masculinity and suggested both that fear of being perceived gay and violence as a response to that fear are normal behaviors. I also think the addition of the football players' comments on the website made it very clear that the audience they're trying to appeal to is a homophobic one. After all, if you advertise at the Super Bowl (which is the most expensive time/place on TV to advertise all year, I believe) you are advertising to a market of football fans, a market of people who admire football players. If you not only give an ad that shows disgust at the possibility of being mistakenly thought gay but then supplement it with clips of these admired people expressing disgust that the actors had to simulate a kiss for the commercial, you're making a pretty strong statement.

It doesn't always work, but a good test as a kind of first try to determine homophobia is to think how the same material would be viewed if depicting a different oppressed group. Analogies are always imperfect, but here are a couple of attempts:

1. Two white men are placed in a situation where they worried that they'd be mistaken for black (perhaps over the phone because of things they said, not thinking that they were characteristic of African Americans; perhaps because of what they're wearing and the concern is that viewed from the back someone might think they're black) and then in a very excessive way tried to distance themselves from that perception by behaving in an outrageously "white" way. This humorous commercial is then followed up by showing a bunch of very successful white men admired by the target audience expressing disgust that someone might have to "act black" for the commercial.

2. (Thanks to KAG for this one) The scenario is the same as the actual commercial, only the cow-orkers eating the Snickers bar are a white man and a black woman. As soon as he realizes he accidentally kissed her he freaks out and makes strong declarations about never being attracted to black women and immediately looks to prove that in some outlandish way.

I think it’s pretty clear that in both cases the commercial would be considered racist and unacceptable. Homophobia is so much more socially acceptable in USAmerican society than outward expressions of racism are, that sometimes we don’t even notice it in situations where we certainly would notice racism.

Another way to analyze this is to recognize that the commercial is meant to be humorous and to ask ourselves: where does the humor come from? We are meant to be laughing at the men in the commercial, who are portrayed as buffoons. I think we can agree that the humor comes from their extreme behavior reacting to an accidental kiss. So, they've done something that they worry for a minute might suggest they're gay and they go overboard in their behavior reacting to it. The humor arises from a shared understanding and belief that they aren't gay and also that it would be a bad thing to be gay. Otherwise it's not funny. If they accidentally did something that suggested a neutral or positive characteristic that didn't apply to them (Hey, does this make me look tall? Did I sound smart?) then there wouldn't be humorous potential in showing them exaggeratedly frightened of that impression.

If you don't buy into the idea that they ought to be disturbed at the idea of being gay, you don't get any humor out of the exaggerated reaction. You might get humor out of a negative reaction at all, if the audience has a shared belief that the characteristic is neutral or positive, but that's not what they're going for here. The particular humor of the exaggerated reaction comes about because of a shared belief that being gay is bad but accidentally touching lips over a Snickers bar doesn't make you gay.

If we look at the alternate endings, we see variations on a homophobic theme. One ending adds the element of someone who actually is gay seeing them kiss and mistaking the two men for gay and therefore wanting to have sex with them both. The signaling that he’s gay by the use of feminine mannerisms alludes to and reinforces the stereotype of gay men as swishy or girly, and the suggestion of a threesome plays on cultural assumptions that if a man is gay he wants to have sex with every other man available to him and of gay men as always interested in group sex. Two other endings suggest that violence is a humorous response to men kissing. One shows the men committing suicide by drinking poison and the other shows them violently attacking each other. The humor comes from the fact that they are violent towards themselves and towards each other even though they're not really gay, suggesting it's normal to be violent towards real gay people, but funny because it's ridiculous to behave violently towards someone who is not really gay.

That the ad was intended to be homophobic, or at least that it was understood by the advertisers that it would be viewed as such, is substantiated by some information on the GLAAD website. They state that the advertising company had originally asked GLAAD to review the ad and give a reaction to it prior to launch, but then withdrew the request without showing the ad.

Okay, so it’s homophobic (or at least mofic thinks it is, as do some gay rights organizations). Is it bad enough to complain about? Can’t we just take a joke? Don’t we risk being accused of being humorless if we complain about things like this?

I do think it’s bad enough to complain about. Is it up there with bans on same-sex marriage or legal employment discrimination or the Right Wing crazies saying we’re child molestors? No, it’s not. But humor is often used as a tool to keep the oppressed in their (our) place and it’s worth commenting on when that happens. I think it’s a huge advance in this country that race jokes are generally not considered appropriate in polite company. I’d be overjoyed to see the same thing happen with fag jokes.

And yes, we do risk being accused of being humorless if we say that humor that attacks us isn’t funny. Here, from the GLAAD site, is what Judy Shepard has to say about this ad campaign:

“I am outraged that Mars, the NFL and these players would promote such an anti-gay message. This campaign encourages the same type of hate that led to the death of my son Matthew. It essentially gives ‘permission’ to our society to verbally or physically harass individuals who are gay, lesbian or bisexual,” said Judy Shepard, Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “In particular, I am dismayed that these players, who are role models to our young people, would participate in perpetuating such discrimination and prejudice.”

I’m sure lots of people think she just can’t take a joke, but I do feel those jokes are on a continuum with the death of her son, so I applaud her for speaking out. As Masterfoods, USA (manufacturers of Snickers) said in their press release announcing the withdrawal of the ad, humor is highly subjective. We all find different things funny. Not finding hostile humor funny does inevitably result in at least some folks telling you you’re humorless (as all of us who have experience with second wave feminism know). And there’s also the concept of insider humor, where jokes that might seem hostile if told by someone outside a group are used to strengthen ties within the group. Still, I don’t think we should let those elements stop us from commenting on hostile humor that truly does contribute to hostility in our society.



(Note to self: I should do a whole separate entry on types and functions of humor).

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
[User Picture]
From:executrix
Date:February 8th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure if you'd watch Friday Night Lights even if you *watched* TV but it's interesting that last night's episode was about the after-effects of racist statements by the team's assistant coach during an interview. The Television Without Pity thread on the episode ranges from "what's so racist about what he said?" to "wow, the black players and the local black community wildly under-reacted to that."

In many instances, the source of humor is precisely the power to offend--but I'm more comfortable with the excluded laughing at the dominant than vice versa.
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2007 05:23 pm (UTC)
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What is Friday Night Lights? The TWP discussion sounds familiar, certainly.
[User Picture]
From:executrix
Date:February 8th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
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It's about Texas high school football.
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2007 06:57 pm (UTC)
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I would agree that's something I'm unlikely to watch, even if I decide to watch tv again (I miss TV).
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From:melty_girl
Date:February 9th, 2007 09:24 am (UTC)
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I thought that Friday Night Lights was something that wouldn't interest me either, but because critics were raving about the writing, direction and acting so much, I decided to watch—and boy am I glad I did. It's fantastic. It's one of the new handheld shot shows, has a really loose, realistic style, with satisfying human drama/romance elements but also multitudes of interesting observations about gender, race and sexuality. It's got the most honest look at a quadriplegic's experience that I've ever seen on TV, including sexuality. Rent the DVD when it comes out.

I'm sad that anyone could miss how homophobic this Snickers ad is, but I'm also very happy that there's a big flap over it. Could this staple joke finally be on its way out of favor after almost 100 years of ubiquity in Hollywood? If I never see another two TV sitcom guys jump back from each other after having an affectionate moment, it will be too soon.
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:February 9th, 2007 02:47 pm (UTC)
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Wow, that does sound like a good show. My problem with TV is there are lots of things that sound good, but I really don't have time for them. It seems like such a commitment. If I watch a movie, all I'm committing myself to is a couple of hours - a tv show is an ongoing thing. On a big TV week, I watch two hours of tv - most weeks I watch none, or maybe 15 minutes of news while doing something else. If I watched tv regularly, I'd have to give up something else, like fanfic.
[User Picture]
From:melty_girl
Date:February 9th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I hear ya!
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From:skyline3way
Date:February 8th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
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I must say I was shocked that it made it on the air, but I suppose they mistakenly thought their intended demographic would be entirely hetero males with a like mindset. Oops.

OT: I love your icon. Might I borrow it?
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC)
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It's not really mine. I think they're free for the taking. It's a Mina de Malfois icon (as is the one on this comment). I think I got it at mdmfans Do you follow Mina? She makes fun of slashers with The Cult of the Gay Unicorn, to great comic effect. So I chose that icon for this post in an effort to show that yes, I do have a sense of humor, even about groups I belong to.
From:thelastgoodname
Date:February 8th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC)
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When I saw the commercial (live, during the Super Bowl), I expected from the beginning that the two guys would realize they were kissing, pause somewhat surprised for a moment, and then go back to kissing because Snickers tastes that good; it was mostly because of the way the guy with the Snickers was looking at the guy with the Snickers, before he dove in. And then, when they took off their shirts, I figured they would end up naked and beating their chests, and then realize that getting naked in a garage with another man is a lot more homosocial than sharing a Snickers.

Alas, I was wrong.

Something you might not realize: the Super Bowl is not actually oriented toward football fans. Very few of the people who watch the Super Bowl also watch the rest of the season. Super Bowl ads, rather than being illustrations of what football fans in particular might find funny, are more likely to show what ad execs think America at large finds funny. Of course, this makes this ad much, much worse. I can't recall any particularly homophobic ads broadcast during this year's NFL regular season games.
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From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the info on Super Bowl ads. And actually, when I saw them pulling their shirts open, I thought they were going to strip and have sex! Perhaps I spend too much time in slash venues :-).
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From:beck_liz
Date:February 8th, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
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Not having watched the Super Bowl, all I saw of that ad was a brief clip of them accidentally kissing and jerking away in surprise, so in my mind, I sort of equated it to Disney's Lady and the Tramp eating a spaghetti noodle and then jerking away in surprise. Um. Obviously not. I had no idea they went all homophobic with it at the end, and the proposed endings are even worse. Good grief. Thank you for writing about this.
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2007 10:07 pm (UTC)
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Not everyone agrees that the commercial is homophobic (everyone agrees that the characters in it are). See http://www.chezlark.com/?p=965 for a well-written alternate view. I think he's wrong, but I do think a lot of people agree with him.
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From:realpestilence
Date:February 9th, 2007 02:28 am (UTC)
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I didn't see the commercial, I was working...and I don't have a tv. I find most of what's on tv is pure crap, and haven't watched more than the occasional NASCAR race with my brother and dad for about 5 years now. I don't miss it at all.

*But* from the descriptions, whatever their intent might have been-homophobic mockery or playful comraderie, what have you-it seems clear they were urging the audience to laugh at the idea of these men kissing/touching each other. Pure and simple-the idea of these two "manly men" touching each other in a certain way, even accidently, is supposed to be laughable and repugnant to some people, even if the intent was to invite the rest of the viewers to laugh at *them* for being upset at the idea.



I hope that's clear. I kind of tangled myself up, there.



Anyway, I think you're honest enough to be fair in judging what you saw; so if you were upset by it, then there's likely something to be upset by.
Considering what impact visuals have on the herd, it *is* important to monitor the kinds of statements that are allowed to hit the mainstream culture. If you can't flip it around and say the same thing about another group without sounded bigoted, guess what? You're committing *some* kind of -ism.



Pesti
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:February 9th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
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I hope that's clear. I kind of tangled myself up, there.

It's kind of a tangled issue. I do respect those who don't see it as homophobic. I just disagree.
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