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Must They? Madison Avenue Knows No Bounds

This essay originally appeared in The Hook.


How did certain topics go from utterly unmentionable to uttered incessantly? Impotence, constipation, poorly endowed men, and comfortable tampons are not only out of the closet, they’re agitating for a place at the table. I’m no Patty Puritanical but is nothing private?

Shouldn’t we blush about anything? All right– I might be a little more prudish than say, Madonna (I did once try to keep my coat on at the dermatologist’s), but haven’t we gone just a wee bit overboard? From a dancing condom to people bending over in tight pants to demonstrate absorbent toilet paper, ads are now so explicit they should be rated. (Where have you gone, Tipper Gore?)

There’s the ever-running Viagra commercial featuring Joe, some heretofore sad-sack paper-pusher, strutting through the office a new man. Co-workers ask if his new swagger is the result of a haircut, a stepped-up workout regimen, or a vacation, but he keeps the source of his new-found confidence classified. But viewers know! Joe had an erection!

Which brings me to the ad showing two men regaling their distressed dates with a joint concept for a better beer commercial: women mud wrestlers! Which leads this female spectator to ask, Aren’t men’s secret fantasies supposed to be… secret? Even Disney has gotten into the act with a commercial featuring Cinderella doing this come-hither wave at some paunchy guy– until the bemused wife returns with ice cream cones. (The only thing less believable than this scenario is hubby’s comment, “That was fast!” No food-gathering happens quickly at Disney World’s long queues.)

And what’s up with those yogurt commercials with middle-aged couples into role-playing employer-domestic trysts? What is that about? In one of them, the wife– in French maid’s uniform– is spoon-feeding her “boss,” much to the mortification of their teenaged daughter. Who comes up with this stuff? And why are so many of these people in marketing?

Granted, everything I learned about the advertising business was gleaned from Bewitched and Thirty-Something, but I figure a promotional campaign is at least a two-tiered process. First a creative staff comes up with the pitch, then it’s reviewed by some high-ranking corporate official (“Great concept, Stevens!”) followed by the commercial going into production. Meaning a lot of employees along the way could say, “Whoa! Gross! Back to the drawing board!”

I suppose in this post-Monica/Sex in the City/Real World era, a lot of stuff that was once only shared between intimates (and their best friends) is now out there.

Fortunately for the voyeurs, a whole crew of people have become addicted to exhibitionism. While I confess I’ve sampled a season or two of the reality shows, my children will attest to the fact that I’m able to exit the room in a blur of manufactured busyness when the night vision cameras invite us into the beds and baths of strangers.

Which is a good lead-in to the subject of family viewing. Could there be many more embarrassing moments than watching an actress feign an Herbal Essences Orgasm with one’s teenagers? Do advertisers think television viewing is a solitary activity? Don’t they know this is Quality Time? Must they insist on torturing us with subjects we’ve broached once and long since put to bed?

My husband– a doctor– and my 18-year-old son get totally flipped out by tampon commercials. Change the channel! they cry in unison when some earnest woman extols the pleasant fit of her feminine product. Likewise, my daughters and I simulate catatonia whenever the ad shilling an all natural product for male arousal comes on. (It’s the one with words lifting slowly on the screen-presumably after dosing.) This particular spot seems to get even more action than Viagra Joe.

A recent addition to commercials-crying-out-for-intervention is a beer ad featuring a woman wearing her former boyfriend’s very large t-shirt. She joins her new beau on the couch. “He must have been big,” observes boyfriend number two. “Huge,” concurs girlfriend before examining the replacement’s hand and commenting on its petiteness. At which point I need to ask, Are the advertisers nuts? Don’t they know they’ve just alienated a high percentage of beer-buying public who purchase size S gloves– and have spent entire lifetimes arguing that there’s no correlation?

Even in real life, I know people who think nothing of sharing their most intimate information– gynecologic details and colonoscopy experiences– at cocktail parties. Please pass me the cheese puffs, and do tell all about your intractable yeast infection.

I used to attribute the divulging of this data to my living with someone who went to medical school– I figured these acquaintances (erroneously) assumed I might have some insight into the their condition. Over the years, though, I’ve realized they just talk about this stuff to anyone. Anywhere. Anytime. It’s a grown-up version of I’ll show you mine.

Which, come to think of it, is probably why all those commercials have muscled their way onto the airwaves. There’s a market.

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