The Zeitgeist Ad

Way back in 2015, the marketing team for General Electric released this terrible commercial:

The ad really does not make me think GE is a good company or entice me to work for them. But it stuck with me, and I have come to realize that it inadvertently captured some core challenges of our society. Below is a transcript. I’ve taken the liberty of naming the characters.

Grizzled Dad, holding sledgehammer: I’m proud of you, son. GE! Manufacturing. Well, that’s why I dug this out for you; it’s your Grandpappy’s hammer, and he would have wanted you to have it.

Milquetoast Mom: It meant a lot to him.

New Hire: Yes, GE makes powerful machines, but I’ll be writing the code that will allow those machines to share information with each other. I’ll be changing the way the world–

Grizzled Dad, incredulous: You can’t pick it up, can you?

All stare at each other uncomfortably.

Grizzled Dad: Go ahead. You can’t lift the hammer.

Milquetoast Mom, condescending: It’s okay, though, you’re going to change the world!

When I think about the intervening time from 2015 to now — rampant anti-intellectualism, rejection of institutions and expertise, rising embrace of violence, a slew of right-wing pontificators about masculinity — this aggravating and insulting little commercial becomes a meditation on generational divides, the shift in the US (and wider European-American) economy from products to services, the complexity of technology in our society, gender roles, and the glorification of physical strength and bullying.

You have the New Hire — presumably also a new college grad and, in 2015, a Millennial — who is just doing what he’s been told to do: get educated, learn to code, and seek a promising job opportunity. He’s found something that uses his skills and has become passionate about the application. (Not to mention the fact that his starting salary was almost certainly six figures.) He’s comfortable with himself and his choices: he’s relaxed, well-dressed, and not only familiar with his own new role but eager and able to explain it to others. He’s even diplomatic! His gentle correction of his father is a validating “yes, and” rather than a confrontational “well, actually.”

Then you have the Grizzled Dad. As the father of a new graduate in 2015, he could be Gen X, but he’s portrayed as older, so my read is Boomer. He’s proud. We don’t know what he does (or did) for a career, but we know he’s proud of his father — specifically his father’s physical strength. He’s thinking of an idealized past when the expectation was that the man of the house would go out and work to provide for his family, and that man needed nothing but his own body to do that successfully. (Very successfully, I might ad: look at the background living room. A two-story house, everything precisely positioned, painting on the wall, polished antique furniture, full china cabinet, decorative muntins in the window, hats and coats arranged for going out. This couple is well off.)

We also see clearly that he doesn’t understand what GE wants his son to do, and he doesn’t respect it. Rather than adopting a perspective that maintains the connection to the New Grad’s grandfather and recognizes how each of the three generations of this family have built upon the success of their predecessors, rather than asking for any details about the new job or expressing any interest in New Grad’s career opportunities, and rather than taking any pride in the fact that GE values the New Grad’s expertise and skills, the Grizzled Dad cuts him off and openly belittles him. The barb he slings at his own son demonstrates the only thing that the Grizzled Dad does seem to respect: physical strength. The world may have changed, become more complex, and become a place where new and different skills are valued — and his reaction is to simplify everything down to the increasingly irrelevant question: “can you lift the hammer?” Even his son’s “yes, and” correction — presented in the kind of validating way that younger Americans would be encouraged to use, a few years later, as allies and “upstanders” in talking with family members — simply can’t share space in the Grizzled Dad’s value system: physical strength matters, respect elders. No room for other things.

If the viewer is meant to see through the eyes of the New Grad, this is insulting. For this commercial to work as humor, the viewer must take the Grizzled Dad’s perspective. We are meant to side with a bully. (Who is making fun not only of his son, but also of GE, in fact. It’s a bad advertisement.)

Finally, we have the Milquetoast Mom, who I named that because she’s dressed in the same colors as the background walls and furniture. Her minor role is to quietly validate her husband and then fade into the background again. Until, that is, she joins in the belittling of her son, and when I examine her wording compared to what her son said earlier, it’s clear that she doesn’t understand or want to understand either. (Her version of this is passive-aggressive instead of the outright antagonism of her husband, though.)

This commercial popped unbidden into my mind after I read Christine Emba’s long essay in the Washington Post about men, their shifting role in our modern culture, and the right-wing tendency to prescribe violence and misogyny in order to fill any gaps. The producers and writers of this ad had put their finger on something similar. They realized that the cultural, technological, and — most of all — economic changes of the last few decades were a driver of inter-generational tension. They also realized that the older generation might — could? would? — react with antagonism. Bullying. Physical strength. The year after this commercial first aired, Donald Trump figured out he could build a winning Presidential campaign out of the idea “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” and that the answers to questions like “what’s ‘it?'” or “what should we do about it?” didn’t really matter to his appeal. Then he ran an entire Presidential administration on the idea that being a bully was serving his constituents, and ended his term with violence. It worked well for those who value physical strength above all else.

But it’s okay, honey, you’re going to change the world! We’ll just be sitting here among all the trinkets we bought instead of investing in your generation, thinking about your disappointingly skinny arms.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a better resolution to all this than the one the commercial offers: smile and nod, knowing that the Grizzled Dad’s opinions will soon be just as irrelevant as his father’s hammer, hoping that the right-wing politics of the last seven years are a last gasp of tired ideologies, and wait for my generation to finally gain a critical mass in positions of influence.

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