Whither Economic Realism in Fictitious Media? Or: The Other Jeffersonian America

We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.

— Madonna

Does advertising actually work? Take The New Yorker, one of my favorite magazines, whose pages I linger over every other week or so. I cannot tell you a single product ever advertised therein. Nor would I ever ask for a prescription drug due to having seen it on television. I don’t smoke, or drink Coca Cola or Pepsi. Sure, advertising works on kids, as evidenced by the Nike sneakers of my youth (as a Magic Johnson fan!), but I always doubted whether advertising had much of an impact on my adult life, until recently, when I began to reflect on The Tab That Ate America, as James “branded” it.

So. Americans spend tons of dough, on credit cards, and save nothing, ever. It’s as if everyone imagines they’re a lot richer than they actually are. And why might this be so? One reason, I posit, is that most Hollywood films portray characters whose houses and possessions could only be had on 6 figures a year, even though the characters are playful twentysomethings working in creative fields, or wedding singers, or own an independent children’s bookstore. Another is that Monica Geller and Rachel Greene inhabit an enormous Manhattan apartment on the salaries of a chef and a coffee shop waitress, Seventh Heaven portrays a guy on a minister’s salary comfortably raising seven kids in a huge house, and The OC, Gossip Girl and Beverly Hills 90210 are the most widely watched portrayals of high school life for successive generations.

Whatever happened to All in the Family? It went off the air, and the Jeffersons took their dry cleaning profits to the Upper East Side, where they bought a deluxe apartment in the sky. Three’s Company, Night Court and Family Ties were game portrayals of the working man, sure, but then the Cosbys were normal — perniciously so in just this one case! — and you could only be lower middle class in cartoons like The Simpsons, and even then you got all the beer, donuts and noticeably improved animation technology you wanted.

So okay, some shows are aspirational, or else play on the schadenfreude/train wreck impulse of tweaking the rich (the genius of The Real Housewives of OC is that it is the former for some people and the latter for others). And the rich are able to fascinate, and always will be. But surely the fact that today’s shows are at root vehicles to sell consumer products, and thus targeted at the increasingly sought after rich consumer, is partly responsible for the fact that 95 percent of fictional portrayals of American life create the illusion that people with your job are a hell of a lot richer than they actually are.

I’m unemployed, so I’m gonna witthold certain compelling examples in an effort to sell an essay on this topic somewhere that’ll pay me for it. And you know where that won’t be? A glossy magazine! They are guilty as anyone at targeting content that appeals to a demographic most of which cannot afford the products advertised on the same pages. Especially wedding magazines — damn you Sarah Gray Miller. Even the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, an advertising vehicle concerned so little with actual swimsuit fashion that it often takes to body painting “swimsuits” on the models, nevertheless opts, when it does feature actual garments, to present two pieces that go for like $875 (surong not included!). What middle income guy can get away with buying that for their girlfriend or wife, to use a double entendre.

Is there something to this? Is advertising ruining our capacity to assess what constitutes a normal life by affecting, infiltrating and infecting our films, TV shows and magazines? If so, can we hire De Beers marketers to drum up demand for diamonds in China, pass a law by which the United States government nationalizes our nation’s bling, and sell off our least defensible, least useful luxury items to get us out of hock, as if China were our pawn shop (which, Jim Fallows, is there anything to that analogy?)?

The dubious appearance of double question marks is causing me to end this post immediately.

UPDATE: And music too.