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).