The TV commercial that I love to hate is back.
You may have seen it (although I’m probably the last person without DVR). It’s Daddy’s Career Day at elementary school, and an unshaven, unkempt cable guy awkwardly starts to tell the class the basics of what he does. Quickly, a chubby-cheeked, cherub-faced little girl challenges him with a loaded question, then points out with a wry face that he’s wrong — her mother says AT&T can do what he’s just said can’t be done. The rest of the class looks ready to jump in. The teacher does, mocking him about some other feature that cable doesn’t offer. Finally, the beaten cable guy says, “Who wants to hear from a fireman?” The teacher quickly raises her hand and says, “I do,” encouraging her enthusiastic charges to do the same. “Yea!” they scream as the cable guy sheepishly slinks off, yielding the floor to the smirking fireman.
It’s just TV advertising, just big AT&T vs. big cable (presumably Comcast). It’s just a vignette, a slice of life, a more engaging, memorable way to highlight AT&T’s advantages over their competitor than laying it out through direct narrative. But I cringe at every moment and detail of this commercial. Why?
There’s nothing overly controversial in the concept, copy, or execution, 60 seconds that no one’s going to chat about at the water cooler.
Does the behavior sound familiar, though? It should. It’s no more and no less than bullying. No one likes the cable guy — he’s unattractive and inarticulate, and he represents the clearly unpopular cable company, while AT&T is the cool kid in school. Not only do the children belittle him, but they’re aided and abetted by their teacher, the adult authority who of all people should be quick to take responsibility for stopping bullying before it takes root. Instead, she smirks and gives the man the equivalent of the old-fashioned hook pulling him offstage.
Haven’t we learned anything since Columbine turned the spotlight on bullying and the potential consequences? Since each incident of school violence and each teen suicide that flashes that spotlight again? Every time something happens, hundreds of people express their horror and their aversion on news sites that cross international boundaries.
Yet there it is, still winked at in a commercial. I squirm each time I see it, perhaps because many times and in many places I’ve been the cable guy facing a bully or even a room full of bullies. Despite all the awareness campaigns and all the impotent outrage over every senseless death and injury, bullying is deeply embedded in our culture — it’s in our schools, businesses, and workplaces, even in our churches.
And on our TVs. If we don’t have DVR.