Culture Notes


Issue: "Welfare Reform on Trial," May 3, 1997

The limits of hype

When radio sleaze-jock Howard Stern made a movie about his life, print and broadcast journalists hyped it big-time. The R-rated Private Parts was advertised on television practically non-stop. The critics loved it. Mr. Stern was the hot talk-show guest; his heavy-metal visage graced the covers of the nation's magazines; and stories about him filled the nation's newspapers. And yet, now that the numbers are in, it appears that the film bombed. After a strong opening weekend, the movie plummeted. Despite predictions that it would make as much as $100 million, so far it has grossed about $40 million. What with the share that goes to theater owners, a movie needs to bring in at least double its cost to make a profit. The movie cost over $20 million, and the studios spent another $11 million-over half the cost of the movie itself-in marketing. But it didn't work. Though the saga of how Mr. Stern broke the broadcasting taboos against sex talk and vulgarity on the air had great appeal to the nation's journalists, it was apparently not so fascinating to rank-and-file Americans. &quotExpectations were just too high," admitted one media expert with revealing condescension. &quotThe question is: Will farmers in Twin Falls, Idaho, wash up and go to town to see him? The answer is no."

Laughing at liberals

If TV commercials are a cultural index, since they have to be in tune with consumer attitudes to sell products, the public may be finding politically correct sensitivities to be getting a little ridiculous. A new trend in commercials is to lampoon liberal pieties. Snickers makes fun of multi-culturalism in its ad about the locker-room prayer. The coach introduces the preacher to give the pre-game invocation, whereupon he is followed by a long line of representatives of every other religious group, from Native American shamans to Buddhist monks, who have to give prayers of their own. The team, faced with a long wait, resorts to Snickers bars. The wearying insistence on &quotacknowledging pluralism" whenever religion is mentioned in public is turned into a joke. Nike lampoons the sensitivity training and self-help groups of pop psychology, which have become ubiquitous in schools and even in businesses. A roomful of great athletes all known for their speed, including base-stealer Kenny Lofton and Olympic record-setter Michael Johnson, sit in a circle getting in touch with their feelings. The &quotfacilitator" moves them to the break-through insight that will help them feel better about themselves: &quotIt's OK to be fast." From now on, participants in company-mandated psychological seminars who think of this will have a hard time keeping a straight face during &quotsharing exercises." Most devastating are the Miller Lite satires on the animal-rights movement. In a dead-on imitation of environmentalist documentaries, complete with earnestly sensitive voice-overs, the ads expose the abuse of volleyballs. On American beaches everywhere, deflated and battered balls are pictured, victims of violent and uncaring spikers. &quotStop the insanity!" we are urged in a familiar hectoring voice. &quotSave the volleyballs!" A new ad by Motel 6 plays with the Clinton administration fundraising scandal. A room in the budget motel chain is compared with the Lincoln bedroom. The announcer concludes with the observation that Motel 6 guests can get &quota room with a little less wear and tear on it" for a lot less than $100,000. It is too early to tell whether this trend will continue or whether it will be silenced as bad taste. Nevertheless, the classical satirists knew that humor can be a powerful force for moral and social reform, since ridiculing vice makes it less attractive. When we laugh at bad ideas, it is, by definition, hard to take them seriously.

Mea culpa

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Pat Boone has apparently mended fences with his fans and with Trinity Broadcasting Network for recording a tongue-in-cheek collection of hard-rock songs and dressing up in leather, spikes, and fake tatoos at the American Music Awards. A two-hour town-meeting-style call-in show on TBN allowed Mr. Boone to make his case that a Christian can sing rock 'n' roll and dress funny while still being a good role model. He also vowed to &quotstick to his musical roots" from now on. The network asked viewers whether they thought Mr. Boone's program Gospel America, which had been cancelled due to the controversy, should go back on the air. So far, the calls have been running 2-1 in Mr. Boone's favor.


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