Americans claim to be a culturally sensitive bunch, but there are times when, well, we can’t help ourselves. Not, for instance, when a stubbly Russian billionaire is eating gilded grapes, kissing a tiny giraffe on the lips and saying, “Opulence, I has it.” If you’ve watched television at all recently, you probably know that I’m talking about a DirecTV ad that began running last summer. It was funny, in a charmingly xenophobic kind of way. “It’s precisely how I’d spend my money,” TV blog Warming Glow snarked in July, “if I were obscenely wealthy.”
It’d be easy to dismiss the clip as a one-off gem of malapropy goodness. But there’s more. DirecTV also released a spot featuring a heavily accented cab driver who says of New York: “Great city. You must respect.” Miller Lite’s “European man thong ad” – you know, the one that ends with an oiled up guy, who’s presumably of Mediterranean descent, slapping his ass and yelling, “Look! We are same! Brothair!” – has become ubiquitous. So has Peggy, Discover’s current mascot. He lives in the Balkans or maybe Siberia. I’m not sure.
Peggy, in all his bearded glory, represents the last frontier of ethnic stereotypes. I guess in America you can still get away with making fun of an eccentric European. I wouldn’t say this qualifies as a trend, but it’s odd that there are several ads that exploit a similar foreigners-are-weird joke. The Peggy campaign, for example, showcases “a broader use of humor than we’ve done for them in the past,” Kevin Ragland of The Martin Agency, which created the commercials, told Adweek in August. “Tapping into the frustrations that exist with other cards’ customer service in a funny way allows us to emphasize the difference getting good service can make.”
That statement raises a few questions. One, what are the alleged frustrations Ragland is talking about? And two, are the Peggy ads actually funny? The first answer is obvious: you can’t understand what other credit cards’ non-English speaking customer service reps are saying, and they can’t understand you. The second answer is a bit more complicated.
A commenter on the Adweek story, I think, is at least partially correct: “These ads, while mildly entertaining, are bullshit. … ‘Peggy’ is no more than portraying an African-American using blackface or an Asian using someone who just walked out of a tanning salon and popping a dot on their forehead. I am saddened that those on Madison Ave. don’t have the intelligence to look past stereotypes to create a buzz and promote their product.” Yes, the joke is offensive. But that’s only part of the reason why it’s not funny. Ultimately, the gag falls flat because it’s lazy.
The Martin Agency’s web site claims that “Peggy delights in putting his customers on hold, on confusing them with wordplay.” Wordplay? To me it just seems like broken English. Making fun of someone with a funny accent isn’t original. Plus, Peggy isn’t endearing like John Hodgman as PC in the Mac commercials; he lives with his mom, in a shack on what looks like Hoth. He’s a clumsy symbol of frustration, and one-note at that. Not only is he offensive, he’s boring.
Same goes for the Miller Lite ad, in which a blonde bartender informs the protagonist that his “European man thong” isn’t stylish, at least “not in this country.” A deep voice also reminds the guy to “MAN UP.” Get it? Real men don’t wear Speedos. Thus, Europeans aren’t real men. Again, it’s dull shtick. Kind of like this Progressive ad. In it, a husband gets made fun of for holding his wife’s purse, which we’re told is really a “European shoulder bag.” These days, man purse jokes don’t exactly push the envelope.
Which brings me back to the Mikhail Prokhorov-like Russian billionaire in the DirecTV spot. If you’re going to be insensitive, at least go all out. I mean, watch this thing a few times. There are dogs playing poker. There are models everywhere. And there are several memorable lines, including, “When DirecTV tell me five months free for most premium televisions package, I jump in it.” (To the chagrin of my wife, it’s the first malapropism I’ve repeated over and over since Christopher mentioned “Law and Order: The SUV” on an episode of The Sopranos a few years back.) At least the DirecTV ad feels inspired. Xenophobic, sure. But inspired.
It’s what made Ricky Gervais so good on the Golden Globes the other night. It wasn’t that he was profane – he was a little – it’s that he had the stones to make fun of such thin-skinned celebrities. He went all out. Crossing the line is usually acceptable if, you know, you’re actually funny. Sacha Baron Cohen, for one, continues to pull it off. Unlike Peggy, Borat has some social value. I remember when the movie came out in 2006, NHL forward Nik Antropov, who’s from Kazakhstan, was asked what he thought. “It’s funny. Everybody’s opinion is different,” Antropov told The Toronto Star. “It’s against the Kazakh people. But he’s a comedian and you have to look at his side. He has to make his money.”
The right idea, he has it.
(Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in Deadspin and The Atlantic. Contact him at asiegel05[at]gmail[dot]com.)