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September 9, 2009
In Advertising, and in General, We are No Longer Capable of Being Appalled

Remember appalling? Remember when being intrusive or disruptive was a bad thing? Whether it was a terrible TV commercial or a gruesome homicide, we used to grimace at the offensive, raise hell about it if necessary. We were capable of being aghast.

Now words like “appalling” and “aghast” are nearly superlatives: “I was appalled by that beheading video on You Tube. I’ll send you the link!” If we’re not there yet as a society we’re close. Certainly those words have become archaic reminders of our very recent past. Old ladies get appalled. Nobody else.

Why? You’ve heard the reason before. We have become inured by the proliferation of content. What mass media started the digital age is finishing. In order to stand out (be it advertisement, film, book, commentary, even acts of criminality), one now has to continuously up the ante.

Examples: Burger King relies on a sinister, plastic golem for a pitchman, his permanent smile as unsettling as Sardonicus. Horror, once the odd niche, has become immensely popular in mainstream culture, even as the content has gotten darker. The term “torture porn” says it all. And what about porn? It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Chester the Molester is richer than Bill Gates. He is your neighbor.

Speaking of the “F” word, it’s on everyone’s tongue. Heroes and villains use it willy-nilly in movies…in real life. For me the tipping point was overhearing a trio of well-to-do teen-aged girls dropping F-bombs all over Starbucks. That, my friends, used to be appalling. But these girls were only aping their role models. Have you seen any of the countless reality shows targeting young women? The actresses are as vulgar as the actors, their countless, glaring bleeps only highlighting the point. I guess that’s what makes it real. You’ve come a long way baby!

Is anyone appalled? I’m transfixed.

While not a fan of “torture porn” and the like, I adore the horror genre, in particular the zombie film. George Romero appalled the world with his truly terrifying film, Night of the Living Dead. I do not regret him crossing the line, which he most certainly did. I applaud his courage for rendering the movie the way he did, pulling no punches.

As a young man, I remember Eddie Murphy shocking America with Raw. It was scary funny. Now, however, Murphy’s dark blue rants would be right at home in an Judd Apatow film. Indeed, the last two comedies I saw, The Hangover and Funny People were completely obscene and, I might add, hilarious. That my wife agrees with this assessment tells you all you need to know about mainstreaming vulgarity. Ironically, Eddie Murphy is now most often seen in tame family fare like Dr. Dolittle or Shrek. Eddie, baby. WTF?

Regrettably, I use the “F” word far too often. As the father of three little girls, I wish I could stop. After all, It won’t be long before they’re the same age as the profane trio I eavesdropped on at Starbucks.

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Chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide Chicago, Steffan Postaer is responsible for its overall creative leadership and quality of the creative product. He’s received several prestigious awards, including a Kelly Award, Best of Show, Gold and Silver awards at the One Show, the Addys and a Cannes Gold Lion. Steffan has a novel about god and advertising and posts regularly on his blog, Gods of Advertising. Follow him on Twitter.

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