Do ads run your life?
I hope not.
This week, the director of the national We End Violence program gave a fascinating presentation at Buena Vista University, about the role of masculinity in pop culture.
We'll be covering that event in depth in Tuesday's issue, but ever since I've been pondering one passing statement made by the director of the program that night.
A person would be hard pressed to try to defend a lot of TV and magazine commercials he flashes on a screen on stage, ridiculously sexist things in which men are portrayed as mindless, brooding beasts ruled by their hormones and women as doting accessories to be seduced with alcohol, a nice car and a trendy deodorant.
They're awful. That I get. But the premise that bothers me is that our behavior is dictated by advertising. That we are so brainwashed that we can't help ourselves.
"It's not a question of whether they have gotten into your head, but how," the speaker insisted.
He showed clips of movies in which a common theme is young men plotting to get women drunk, or passed out, in order to have sex with them. There are plenty.
He asked how many of the male students in the audience have seen that happen in their real-life social circles. Few raised their hands.
"F****** liars!" the speaker, who is also a college professor in San Diego, spit back at them. "You have seen it. You've probably done it."
I haven't been able to get it out of my head.
I want to think that we as people - and especially smart young people attending a respected private university - have enough awareness not to be manipulated into wrongdoing by a sophomoric comedy movie, a rap video with the performer mauling groupies, a violent video game or a fantasy-fueled advertisement.
Seriously, don't we have brains?
Goodness help us if we are at the mercy of Madison Avenue when it comes to our moral compass.
We would be doomed to spend ourselves into a hole for a lifetime chasing cars, clothes, high-end toys and lifestyles that we really don't need or would even want if left to our own devices. We would never have enough things. We would never be thin enough, or popular enough with the opposite sex.
If we were ruled by superficial advertising and pop media, men would only exist as a means for women to get expensive diamond jewelry gifts, and women would only exist for be used for gratification and image.
It bothers me to admit that this sounds all too familiar. I have to agree with the speaker that some people live and think just this way. Yes, I have seen people who just have to have whatever latest luxury item they've just seen on TV whether they can afford it or not. And yes I have seen people act like a Jonah Hill comedy character out to get women drunk at a bar or party in order to take advantage of them and then brag about their conquest. And not all of them have been young people. Have you seen this too?
Commercials work, we know, or they wouldn't be selling for $6 million for 30 seconds during the Super Bowl. And not all of them are meaningless - Helen Mirren's drunk driving tirade in a commercial during the game, albeit sponsored by an alcohol company that contributes to the problem, was worthy. At least it is, compared to mindless pablum like the "Puppymonkeybaby" campaign. We lose brain cells just seeing that, and we should wonder what the marketing experts think we are... 4-year-olds?
Sexist ads do sell products to people who long to live the exciting, seductive lives portrayed, research shows it. And movies, songs and games sell no matter how awful the message portrayed, so we know they are resonating with some.
But I'm going to believe that most of us are smart enough to realize when and how we are being manipulated.
I'm going to believe we are not buying an expensive Buick because an attractive actor is pitching it in an attractive ad. That we're not forced into being drunks because our favorite magazine is full of glossy ads telling us that is how we should live.
I'm going to believe we can watch a movie, laugh at the gags, recognize the parts that are sexist or racist or plain hateful and know we don't want to live that way, and nobody has the power over us to make us.
I think maybe we're smart enough to perceive that those Arnold Schwarzenneger video game ads in which he plays the macho, gleefully hawkish commander ordering "a dozen choppers when one chopper would do," air in heavy rotation during political debates where some candidates play the same role in calling for scorched-earth aggression.
There are no accidents when it comes to what we are fed by marketing. When an ad airs, during what show on which channel, in what magazine, the age and gender it is intended to hook, are all carefully plotted.
This week, watch those commercials and other pop media a little closer. Ask yourself what they are really trying to sell you, what the message behind those pictures really is, and how they are trying to manipulate you.
Personally, I don't like people messing with my head. I make a point of not buying the crap that is endlessly peddled in loud commercials. If you really needed it, I figure, they wouldn't have to spend millions convincing you.
Don't let movies, TV, music videos or ad agencies tell you how to live. You have a brain for that.