Dear Madison Ave: As Long As TV Commercials Keep Getting More Gratuitously Vulgar, Ethics Alarms Will Keep Objecting To Them. I’m Sure You Are Trembling In Fear.

It is tragically clear now that Madison Avenue has decided there is a cultural consensus that it is incredibly funny to imply vulgar words and make sexual allusions in TV commercials. Objections to this as juvenile, culturally degrading and gratuitous from this quarter have no effect, accept to attract the usual “lighten up” comments from applauding vulgarians. Well, I don’t care. Ethics Alarms will keep pointing out what wrong anyway. You want a President who boasts about the size of his penis during a debate? THIS is how you get a President who boasts about the size of his penis during a debate. You want a President who uses  a menstrual reference to  attack a female journalist? This is how you get that too.

The only satisfaction, I suppose, is the same uncivil vulgarians who most object to the results of this cultural pollution are also the ones sending the “lighten up” comments.

Since August of last year, the Kraft Heinz Company’s newest frozen meals brand, Devour, has been advertising its products with a TV ad in which a boss catches  his employee becoming sexually aroused by his lunch,  to  which he applies a sexy spank with his fork. The ad’s tagline: “Food You Want to Fork.”


Kraft says the ad is aimed at men aged 25-35, so I guess that’s okay then. Everyone knows that demographic is made up of assholes—is that the theory?—and the best way to please them is to make the kind of juvenile sexual innuendo that we had in naughty songs like “Shaving Cream” about when I was 12. It’s so hilarious when people use a word that sounds like a dirty word in a context where it is obviously intentional, but don’t really say the word, because, see, its, like, not polite.  Got it. My sides are splitting.

I’m too busy and too terrible a typist to keep making the same point in different words, so here is what Ethics Alarms said in response to Heineken’s gay-themed vulgar ad about “flipping another man’s meat”:

There is no justification for polluting television and the culture with such ick, and it is irresponsible and disrespectful to TV audiences to do it…the useful and natural filter we used to have on language has been shot full of holes by too many high profile boors to mention, although the fact that one Presidential candidate is one of them doesn’t help.

On the general topic of giving up any efforts to keep public discourse within civil boundaries, a January 2016 post concluded,

Does everybody want to live in a society where everyone from executives, pundits and actors to nannies, athletes and bank tellers are routinely spewing cunt, fuck, suck and motherfucker like Samuel L. Jackson on a bad day? That’s where we’re heading, That’s where we’re heading, if enough people don’t have the guts and common sense to say, and fast,”Oh, stop it. Learn to speak like an adult.”

When I teach the Six Pillars of Character, I often note that each contains one element that is the foundation of the rest. With the first pillar, “Trustworthiness,” the cornerstone, is “integrity.” The cornerstone of Respect is civility. A society that conditions its members to be civil, polite and dignified in public settings has a firm grasp on the concept of respect for others and the Golden Rule. A commitment to  civility make people less likely to think that going to the theater or getting on an airplane wearing flip-flops and a tank top without having showered for a week is appropriate behavior.

It also makes them less likely to humiliate a 69-year old man who wants nothing more than to stay in the airplane seat he reserved, paid for, and is sitting in.

Television and the web are the greatest drivers of our cultural values, and those who control the content there are selling out our values for profit. Meanwhile, our alleged role models are capitulating by joining in the “fun.” President Obama signaled his approval by repeatedly using the word “bucket” in a televised event in a context where it was obvious that this was code for “fuck it.” First black President, first President to use fuck on TV.

But, heck, Kraft is saying “fuck” on TV every day, just as Heineken suggested mutual gay genital-fondling, Wonderful Pistachios uses “nuts” as a sexual innuendo, uses “booking” to code “fucking,” and K-Mart thinks it’s funny to use “ship” to suggest “shit,” because who doesn’t want to think about shit? We make our own culture in the end, and if we want to live in a cultural pig sty, then that’s where we will live. Apparently no one cares, or not enough of us, anyway.

In 2015,  a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial featured the tags “Women want like to make it last…Men are done in seconds…Typical.”  I wrote,

“Who decided that gratuitous sexual innuendo is inherently hilarious and appropriate in every context, at every moment? Well, no one yet. Again, it is the boors in ad agencies and clods in corporate boardrooms who are pushing us down this uncivil, impolite, needlessly sleazy path.  We can remind them that there are limits dictated by taste and decorum, or we can just shrug it off, part of the irreversible ratchet process called “defining deviancy down.”

Two years later, Volkswagen has Dean Martin crooning about “The Birds and the Bees” (Dean’s version above is better, a joy)  while we see a VW bouncing up and down as the couples who own it engage in vigorous sexual intercourse.


I guess the battle is over.

I’ll still stand on this, from two years ago, when it was first deemed acceptable to use “fucking” in TV ads. I always admired those old men I’d see sitting on park benches in the Boston Common, wearing a hat, a tie and a suit on a summer day. Why did they do it? To show respect for the rest of us, our environment, our eyes, our values–that’s why they did it. They were right, too.

The manners of society appear to be heading south at an accelerating rate, with our up and coming generations being increasingly sent the message from the culture, celebrities and even elected officials, that manners and civility in public conduct and speech is for snobs, nerds, dorks, and goons. It’s cool to be vulgar! …Ethics dictates that one communicates with respect for anyone within hearing distance, and unless ugly words serve a material purpose, using them is not the mark of a good citizen, a good neighbor, or a trustworthy human being. Nor is spouting vulgarity witty, and unless you are 11, and employing obvious code words that sound like curses, epithets and obscenities isn’t especially funny either, since we pretty much exhausted the possibilities at summer camp. I have no idea why anyone would want to recast the culture as a place where professionals curse like sailors and the words “fuck” and “cocksucker” are as likely to issue from a debutante’s lips as those of a hip hop artist, but that seems to be the objective now.

Mission accomplished!



39 thoughts on “Dear Madison Ave: As Long As TV Commercials Keep Getting More Gratuitously Vulgar, Ethics Alarms Will Keep Objecting To Them. I’m Sure You Are Trembling In Fear.

  1. If my grandmother were alive today, she would twist some ears, slap some faces, and use soap in filthy months to clean them up. I would not even say the “s” word in front of her.

      • I never heard a swear word coming from any of my Grandparents. I’m sure they used them from time to time but, to my knowledge, never in the presence of the Grandchildren.

        My grandchildren never hear swear words from me either.

      • How is that better? it’s like saying “Jiminey Cricket!” instead of “Jesus Christ” or any number of other childish pseudonyms we come up with.

        Vulgar is in the ear of the beholder.

        • That’s simply not true. If I were to train myself to, say, yell “curses, foiled again!” whenever I stub my toe, it would be very different to the people around me than if I were to yell the F word. I would certainly be yelling in anger and pain, but the effect on everyone who hears is very different.

          Vulgarity varies from person to person, but it would be silly to argue that there aren’t words that are universally considered vulgar in certain cultures, regardless of their usage. When someone chooses to use a harsh word, they’re most often using it because of the feelings it conveys.

        • Nonsense. And the point of civility is to HAVE respect for the beholder, not the speaker. You proved my point.

          Religious taboos are a different category: “darn” doesn’t “mean” damn, it substitutes for it. “Dagnabbit” is not profanity, nor is “Jeepers Creepers.” These and other euphemisms were designed to avoid offending Christians, not to senak something by them, heh, heh, snort, snort.

    • We have led different lives!
      My grandmother used the mild 5 (no taking the Lord’s name in vain or the f word!) regularly. Her gloves matched her hat and her shoes, but she could really roll out “son-of-a-bitch.” Ranchers have a different view of swearing. It’s the only way you can effectively express yourself when working with cattle.

  2. First, Mr. Marshall, THANK YOU for saying this. I find almost no one in my circle who either believes this to be the case, or can articulate the issues with something other than, “it offends me so don’t do it.”

    Secondly, I have a question that I will try to preface with some context.

    I have grown up in, and worked in the blue collar industry my whole life, except for one summer internship. The majority of people I have encountered in the blue collar world use these words as common vernacular, and find the vulgar jokes to be funny. They are amused by the use of bucket in the context you mentioned above, though to be honest, they tend to find it awful tame. They don’t clean up their language even around kids, which makes kids think that vulgarity is the way to go. I have even caught myself speaking similarly because the attitude is infectious. Just as a single example which I feel is of signature significance, I walked in on a coworker speaking to his subordinates about the bolts on a valve. He was saying, “I want those things screwed down tighter than a nun’s **** (I will neither speak nor type that word).” He and those who worked for him spoke this way at all times usually peppering their speech with terms as or more vulgar than the above. Should five minutes have gone by without such vulgarity being spewed, it would have had to be mentioned in the almanac. Some of my fellow engineers watched their mouth around me (the token woman), but all of the blue collar guys (and gals) spoke as though one should never be offended by this speech, even in meetings with the higher ups (who accepted the speech as normal). Vulgar jokes were common in any downtime as well. If a joke did not involve sex, it wasn’t considered funny.

    Media depictions of the culture above, especially in movies though now even in ads as you discussed as well as books, claim to show things as they are, so they pepper the sentences with cussing (though I’ve rarely seen a movie that actually has people cussing even half as much as my coworkers) and vulgar jokes.

    In addition, many of the millennials, of whom I am often embarrassed to be part of, have taken the blue collar vulgar speech and jokes, and moved it to the white collar world, which is also now being portrayed in the media as such.

    My question therefore, is: do you believe that the depictions in the media cause the behavior, normalize this behavior enabling its spread, or do you believe that they simply indicate its prevalence?

    • Both. It’s a vicious cycle.

      It is also a class issue, and the Left wants to obliterate class, so it encourages vulgar language and bad syntax and grammar. “Privileged” people talking like dockworkers is like that college student who shaved off her hair last week.

      Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?
      This verbal class distinction, by now,
      Should be antique. If you spoke as she does, sir,
      Instead of the way you do,
      Why, you might be selling flowers, too!

      An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
      The moment he talks he makes some other
      Englishman despise him.

      One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.
      Oh, why can’t the English learn to
      set a good example to people whose
      English is painful to your ears?
      The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
      There even are places where English completely
      Well, in America, they haven’t used it for years!

      Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?
      Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks have taught their Greek. In France every Frenchman knows
      his language from “A” to “Zed”

      (The French never care what they do, actually,
      as long as they pronounce it properly…)

      Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning.
      And Hebrews learn it backwards,
      which is absolutely frightening.
      Use proper English you’re regarded as a freak.

      Why can’t the English,
      Why can’t the English learn to speak?

  3. “Shaving Cream?” at 12? By 10 we all knew THAT one. I guess you never heard the one about the guy who came from Italy with a strong accent and confronted first only one piece of toast, then no fork in the table, and finally no sheets on the bed.

    • I did not hear (or read) that one about the Italian until I was in my mid-20s, graduated with a college degree, and in a professional workplace. As I recall, there was a “Draka” Hotel in Detroit involved. The story ends with the Italian guy saying his own version of “Peace to you!,” having had numerous previous misunderstandings with Americans who thought, because of his thick accent, he was cursing at them. (At that time, I chuckled.)

      I agree with Jack’s points, but it is just a truism that in each of us, parts of our “child” are never fully cast away for good. I learned a great deal from my parents about what was vulgar and what was not, through their laughing at others’ jokes and innuendo, whether in person or on radio or TV. It does seem that for more and more young adults, childishness in terms of finding humor in vulgarity is given more and more constant nurturing. The example I happen to think of most immediately was the horrible Super Bowl commercial that showed a horse expelling gas. I wish there was some way for a cultural influence to cause people’s behaviors to turn on a dime in a constructive way. Totalitarianism might work to some extent, for a time, but would bring more harm to everyone, eventually.

      • Fortunately for me, I was raised to not be vulgar in public places, so, even though I could put the story of the Italian, the toast, the fork, the sheets, here, I will not. But, if you really are curious, Jack, might I suggest Google.
        And, now, I suppose I have raised an ethical question: If I publicly point you to something vulgar that you can enjoy in private, is that on a slippery slope to being vulgar in public?

  4. Of course I am not a computer expert, but, perhaps my comments are spammed now and then because I often send them from an IP address that is other than the one for the email address you have for me. That is only a guess. Probably not a good one. My comment in another thread posted. So I’ll see if this one posts, too. I am just trying to help with your spam.

  5. This is probably why I rarely watch TV anyway. Too much propaganda, smut, and lack of values. I don’t have to deal with the vulgarity as much that way, except of course when I’m watching a Trailblazers game, and then I’m the one most likely to swear.

  6. All very true. The real problem is we no longer make our own culture, that has been outsourced to ad agencies and evil dip sticks, pumped into our living rooms by the media maggots.

  7. I don’t know about “Shaving Cream”. It was a “blue record” I believe composed in the 50s. You used to be able to buy this junk in the adult section of a novelty shop. We would giggle about it as adolescents but I never got away with using the S word at school except amongst my male buddies.
    The thing that bothers me most about the jerks that make these commercials is they are corrupting the minds of 9 and 10 year old kids with exposing them to blatant adult sexuality which robs them of their innocence.

    • When I was a kid I had an uncle who had a record called “Battle at Thunderblow” about a farting contest. Kept me in stitches back then.

  8. Now that the “Queen mother of dirty words, the F- – – word” and others have lost their impact by being used so freely, we’re left without a word to use on the very rare occasions an “Oh Fudge” word is needed. Maybe “fudge” will have to do.

  9. The problem with arguing for the principle of courteous language is that you’ll butt up against adolescent pseudo-logic as counter-argument. A teenage-level (now standard college-level) attempt at a logical deconstruction of courteous speech can present itself in several ways:

    -An explanation (not necessarily accurate) of the benign or perhaps censorious origin of various swear words (“did you know that it’s really just an anagram for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge? There’s nothing evil about that word unless you’re a Puritan!”)
    -Informing you that current swear-words were not always taboo in polite society, and that former taboo words are now acceptable (this is an attempt to frame the entire subject as subjective and relative.)
    -Some variation of the idea that words are “just words” and that using profanity destroys their mystique and stigma, and is therefore enabling behavior.
    -A re-imagining of vulgar speech as empowering and clever (“It offends the uptight and the establishment, so I have to keep doing it.”)

    The problem with these arguments is not necessarily that they are all factually wrong, but that they are not relevant to the point. Knowing things about the origin of our generation’s naughty words does not diminish the meaning and context attributed to those words in the here and now. And the significance of words is derived from their temporal and cultural context.

    What follows is my best attempt at a logical explanation of why courteous language is important, simplified enough to be understood by your standard American college sophomore:

    “The details of what is considered ‘foul language’ may differ based on time period and culture, but is still universally based on the one timeless standard, which can be boiled down to ‘Vulgarity = The Way a Drunk, Belligerent Moron Talks When He Has No Control of His Mouth.”

    Drunk, belligerent morons are unpleasant and often dangerous to be around. They frighten small children, beat women, and generally make the world a worse place. Therefore I do not want to pattern my speech and demeanor after theirs. Do you?

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