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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Mesas, Buttes, and Automobiles

There is a particular genre of TV commercials that has been around for decades, and, while they don't turn me off, they have always left me a little amused and quite a bit puzzled, because the logic is so far off that I don't understand their timeworn appeal to ad agencies, auto makers, and presumably to car buyers, too.

In certain areas of the American West there are mesas and their cousins with the smaller areas on top, buttes. I guess for hundreds of years people have tried to find good uses for these picturesque rock formations, other than being immovable and inaccessible objects of beauty. Finally, at probably the exact moment that TV sets became accessible to nearly every American, which I date at just over 50 years ago, New York ad agencies hit on the answer. The mesas and buttes would make great platforms on which to display the latest products of the car manufacturers.

Ever since then the agencies have never looked back, and never mind the questions that are always asked by literal-minded people like me, which are: how many people can afford to get their vehicles lifted by helicopter hundreds of feet up to the top of a butte, and, even if they could, why would they want to, because once there, where could they go?

Recently, instead of giving the poor, badly overused mesas and buttes a rest, someone came up with what I first thought was just a way to push this mode even farther into the ridiculous. But I now think that it is instead a brightly conceived if finally maddening piece of self-satire.

In this commercial a stereotypical-looking suburban businessman dressed in a monkey suit (my term for a business suit) and wearing a helmet is kissed goodbye by his equally stereotypical, beautiful wife, as he leaves for the office. But it turns out that his stereotypical house is not in a suburb. It is instead perched alone high atop a mesa or butte. He runs to the edge and jumps off. But he isn't a suicide victim. Instead he's wearing a parachute, which opens, and he floats down to his sleek, glittering, powerful new car waiting far below. He gets out of the parachute, jumps in the car, and drives off to his job.

In my mind this development instantly provokes a question that is so pressing that it never occurs to one to wonder how it is that an industrial park -- obviously this man's place of employment --has suddenly sprouted in the middle of the canyon and desert lands of Utah or in Arizona's Monument Valley. More importantly the urgency aroused is such that I am sure that the make of the wonderful new machine that the commercial is supposedly touting will never be noticed. I know I haven't.

Instead the overwhelming question that the viewer is left with is: at the end of his work day how is this guy going to get back up to his gorgeous, adoring wife and his comfortable house, high atop the mesa or butte? I worry about such things. Somewhat arrogantly, however, the commercial never even attempts an answer.

Another mesas and buttes commercial that has been around for a while treats the genre in a much superior way, and I think this is precisely because it is so believable, and, in this case, funny.

A bunch of young guys crammed into a SUV -- I can't recall its make either, because pricewise such vehicles are no more an option for me than is driving one atop a mesa or butte -- are heading lickety-split toward a butte that they have dubbed "The Rock." They are bubbling over with enormous enthusiasm and bravado as they anticipate climbing and conquering it.

But after they park at "The Rock's" base, pile out, and look up, their mouths instantly slacken and their eyes grow vague, as the unconquerable reality of the formation looming straight up and high as the clouds becomes apparent to them. But then one of them saves the day. He points out another such butte nearby that is considerably lower and less imposing. "What about that rock over there?" he says. "Yeah! The Rock!" they all say in unison and with great relief, and they jump back into their vehicle and barrel off toward that easier object with all their earlier bravado and verve fully restored.

Now that is a great commercial and a fine contribution to the genre of cars, buttes, and mesas.


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