The gleam of torture tools. Flashlights in an ominous corridor. A SWAT team breaking down the door on unsuspecting party people. Is this the beginning of a horror-porn film? A war drama? A drug-bust flick? Check this out:
When I first saw this spot for Bud Light a few weeks back, the discord between its images, which I would usually read as scary, and its message of "let's all have a good time" surprised me. If the mild shock they produced was designed to get my attention, it worked.
Of course, the "fear factor" awakened by such images is softened by the fact that they all refer to types of pop culture entertainment. There are probably lots of video games that enable you to join a SWAT team for fun. Then there's the allusion to James Bond flicks -- and, more distantly, torture films like Hostel and Saw.
Yet, nevertheless, I couldn't help but associate the apartment break-in and torture threats with some of the very darkest imagery that's come out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This had me interpreting the inherent cultural symbolism in the spot in all sorts of ways.
Bud Brings the War Home?
My first reaction was to read this commercial as allegory. Because of our on-going economic maladies, the war seems to have faded into the background of the media landscape. Here, I thought, like the return of the repressed, it bursts symbolically onto the scene again -- just when people are trying to relax.
I also wondered why its creators (DDB Chicago) felt at home enough with such images to use them, without the worry of turning off viewers with negative associations.
One answer might be that we've all become so familiar with such imagery by now that it seems nearly normal. This may be an indication of a general acceptance of a war that began back in 2001.
As Slavoj Zizek has remarked, it is at the moment when "certain features, attitudes and norms of life" transform from debatable to "neutral" -- even part of our "common sense", that you know a particular ideology has really taken root. (p. 20-21)
But still, there are limits. Near the time when the Bud Light commercial first started to air, another depiction of SWAT team activity appeared in a popular medium.
The British/Sri Lankan hip hop star, M.I.A. released a 9 minute video titled "Born Free", which showed (scored to a machine-gun beat) a group of soldiers not that much different from the ones in the Bud commercial, breaking into people's houses and carting them away in vans (see it here).
The video was banned from YouTube for its violence and nudity. I've read that an image viewers found particularly disturbing was the one at right, in which a very young person is about to be executed. (The image itself is an allusion to an earlier one -- the iconic execution of a Vietcong, whose shock value helped speed the end of the Vietnam War.) As might be expected, the video caused a mini-scandal.
Of course, the Bud Light commercial never steps over the line that separates "real" from "play" violence. It also avoids "bad vibes" by implying (no doubt unintentionally) that you don't need to worry about what its own warlike images suggest.
Distraction as a Patriotic Duty
One of the things that seems implicit to me in the Bud commercial is the idea that it's OK to get distracted. Think of the story it tells...
The soldiers are on an important mission to save the Bond-like character from torture. But an apparently even more pressing duty is that they allow themselves to chill out -- and enjoy a Bud Light, a few pizza puffs and a cool party.
So perhaps the cure for the crisis the TV spot sets up is, in one sense, consumption. Doesn't the soldier asking the bad guy for ice inadvertently put an end to James Bond's suffering?
And, as we've all learned, not only is distracting ourselves with consumption an effective way to take one's mind's off things, but it's also good for the country. After all, who doesn't remember being asked to shop after 9/11 to fight terror -- by restoring faith in an ailing economy?
All of which leads me to yet another reading of this spot. Perhaps as in a dream, the surface ("manifest") content is there partly to hide what the dreamer is actually concerned with. The commercial is about trouble, all right, but not James Bond's -- or even, symbolically, our own in Afghanistan.
It may be the economy after all that's causing the dis-ease I sense here. And the cure? Drink up!