Why FOX's anti-critic ad for 'Dads' only makes a bad thing worse
Or why 'Reprehensible? This is FOX, baby!' isn't so good for branding
A car company -- Let's call it Faux -- has a problem. Their really expensive new automobile, a flashy red SUV, has a problem. It's not an especially good car. It has limited horsepower, a feeble turning radius and its speaker system makes any music you decide to play sound like Hootie & The Blowfish. Oh and some joker decided to make the bumpers out of molded TNT, so minor fender-benders can lead to explosions, which is less than ideal.
Faux knows about these problems, but car was designed by the same guy whose last vehicle, a gas-guzzling pickup truck, has been packing the freeways for months, so they're determined to stand by the car, no matter its flaws. So some genius decides to get out ahead of the criticism.
A new advertisement is released. "Critics of our new car say... 'It's Wildly Dangerous' - Car & Driver." Cut to a soccer mom. "Dangerous? But it's red!" she smiles, piling her kids into the car. "Critics of our new car say, 'It'd be reprehensible to let a loved one drive this thing' - The Huffington Post." Cut to a guy in a cowboy hat. "Reprehensible? It's just Faux!" he says, packing his beer cooler into the spacious, TNT-sculpted trunk.
"Don't listen to the critics! Buy our new car... PLEASE," the ad closes.
It doesn't matter that the commercial refutes accusations of danger with affirmations of redness and charges of reprehensibility with a contention that reprehensibility is a key part of the Faux brand identity. The underlying message is, "Perhaps our car will kill you, but that's still better than listening to critics. Buy!"
While this is a really sophisticatedly veiled analogy I'm making here, I bet some of you will be able to see through my ruse to realize that I'm talking about this promo wherein FOX pits fans against critics.
And you may even have been able to parse the babble of the analogy to understand why I'm a bit irked at the promotional tactic. Or maybe what irks me isn't exactly what you're expecting.
There were lots of qualitative judgements that FOX could have included amongst its blurbs. More than a few of my colleagues have called "Dad" the worst new show of the season and I'd gladly have allowed FOX to use my blurb "It's a grating, unfunny mess." To accusations of general badness, it's totally legitimate to respond with civilians protesting the opposite. The opposite of "worst" is "best." The opposite of "unfunny" is "hilarious." This is basic "Sesame Street" stuff here, but I'm repeating it for the sake of the FOX marketing team.
The reason the FOX ad pisses me off isn't because it tells people to ignore critics. Who cares? Listen to me. Ignore me. No review I've ever written has precluded the ability to have a totally different response. You like what you like. The reason it pisses me off is because of its false equivocations. I have to return to "Sesame Street" stuff here: The opposite of "offensive" is not "funny." The opposite of "reprehensible" is not "hilarious." FOX didn't highlight the myriad critics who said that "Dads" is just awful. They chose to highlight the critics who have said that there are things that are problematic about "Dads" that go beyond its quality. FOX isn't celebrating the hilarity of rule-breaking comedy. It's celebrating genuine ignorance.
Don't believe me? Check out the first person FOX highlights.
"I don't see how you could be offended by this," she says. It's not one person who has been offended by "Dads." It's not two people. It's a lot of people. It's a lot of smart people. And a lot of those smart people have already written extensively on why "Dads" is offensive. To disagree with the contention that "Dads" is offensive is to have a different opinion and that different opinion can and should be expressed. But if you are literally incapable of seeing how somebody, somebody who isn't you, could be offended by some of the jokes in "Dads" then you are both ignorant and, this is somewhat worse probably, you are genuinely insensitive to the world around you. I will gladly defend the person who says, "I get why some people might be offended by this, but here is the reason it isn't offensive to me..." no matter how strongly I might disagree. That person is having a conversation, a debate. The person who says "I don't see how you could be offended by this," is closing the door to the viability of a sentiment has been documented and expanded upon. The disagreer is stating an opinion. The denier is planting their head in the ground. I'll always happily chatter with a disagreer. I have no use for a denier, but FOX has a promotional use.
I understand that a 30-second ad isn't a good forum for meaningful disagreement, so it's worth looking at the ad's only real disagreer. That'd be the guy who is faced with the critical charge that "Dads" is reprehensible. "Reprehensible? This is FOX, baby!" He laughs. FOX proudly parades this man in front of the camera even though I have a strong suspicion he isn't actually a viewer of FOX television shows. I sense this is a man who thinks FOX still airs "Married with Children." Alas, "Married with Children" exists no longer and FOX isn't an especially controversial network. It's hard to be controversial when 30 percent of your Monday-through-Friday is reality singing competitions. I guess "Glee" and "The Following" have created a minor stir, but how much validity does FOX want to give any criticisms to those shows? "Dads" is, in fact, in the midst of a two-hour comedy block that's pretty much controversy-free. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"? "New Girl"? "Mindy Project"? I don't recall any real condemnations of any of those shows on moral grounds. "Reprehensible? This is FOX, baby!" Really? It's the FOX of 20 years ago. It might be the FOX of "I Hate My Teenage Daughter" and "Brothers." But I feel like letting the FOX marketing department know that "Reprehensible: This is FOX, baby!" is not a piece of branding that applies to the network they're promoting and it probably isn't a piece of branding they want to stick.
You'll note that while FOX is willing to promote certain claims about its show, the network ignores the critics calling the show "racist" or even "lazy and hackneyed," because "Racist: This is FOX, baby!" just doesn't have the same ring to it. FOX is choosing to accentuate the criticisms that can be repurposed as compliments, that the network believes that in 12 months or 20 years might be used to prove that "Dads" was simply ahead of its time or too edgy for critics to process. "Racist" somehow just doesn't have that connotation. Neither does "flat" or "lazy" or "relying heavily on stereotypes." FOX is willing to milk the criticisms that make it look like "Dads" could be ahead of the curve, rather than the ones where a curve doesn't apply. I'll go out on a limb to say that the treatment of Asians in the "Dads" pilot is never going to look good and it will never look as if "Dads" was courageously breaking from stodgy norms in letting the world know that the Chinese are a schoolgirl-fetishizing culture of men with small penises who grow up to throw math books at their children. To the first woman in the "Dads" ad who doesn't know how people could be offended by the show... You don't see how somebody might be offended by that? Oh. You probably think Mickey Rooney's work in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is hilarious as well.
See, this goes both ways. I think that "Dads" is both bad and offensive. If you want to tell me, "It's funny!" I will absolutely accept that as a difference of opinion on the "bad" front. On the "offensive" front, I'm sorry, but I don't think "It's not offensive because it's funny" is a valid response. I'm happy to accept, "It's not offensive and it's funny because..." with an explanation of how the humor undercuts the racism I think I'm seeing. However. If I say something is offensive, but don't offer any explanation for the offense that I'm taking, then I'm being just as bad. Show your work. Fortunately, I've given a fairly simple and clean explanation for why I think "Dads" is offensive. And every one of the criticisms FOX marketing pulled for that ad was accompanied by an explanation, an explanation that FOX marginalized.
I actually don't think that "Dads" is especially reprehensible and not because I accept a certain amount of reprehensibility as being integral to the FOX brand. I expect a certain shock factor in reprehensibility. You have to be taking the offensive material to a new place, staking your own original ground within the unappealing terrain. "Dads" isn't doing that. The show is making jokes about how Jews are cheap, about how "Shiite" sounds like feces, about how Asians are shifty and distrustful. If you'd trafficked in those particular stereotypes a century ago, you still wouldn't have been in the racist or Anti-Semitic vanguard. I guess you could say that reheating those representations for a sitcom in 2013 is vaguely reprehensible and urge "Dads" to try harder if it wants to be freshly racist enough. I'd prefer that "Dads" work harder to be freshly comedic, but that's just me.
By straying away from marginalizing the endless TV-based criticisms and concentrating on marginalizing the sociology-based criticisms, FOX is making a choice. It's the same choice that the automobile company Faux made in my really stupid analogy a thousand words ago. FOX could have made an ad that days, "Critics didn't laugh, but viewers will!" I wouldn't have done a blog post on that ad. Instead, they went with, "Critics think the show is offensive, but you'll laugh, so let's kill the substantive discussion." Fortunately, unlike Faux's TNT-encrusted automobile, "Dads" isn't going to kill you, only your brain cells. And I find FOX's attempts to shut down a debate they asked for by putting "Dads" on the air more reprehensible than anything in the show.
And that ad? It's ultimately not anti-critic.
It's anti-buzz, which surely is the one thing FOX doesn't want, having ordered "Dads" only so that it would stir exactly the babble I'm contributing to here.
And FOX, is that really what you want FOX to be?
"Dads" premieres tomorrow night on FOX. You'll make up your own mind.