Bil Browning

Dead Kids Sell Advertising: Commercializing Tragedy

Filed By Bil Browning | December 19, 2012 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living
Tags: Connecticut shooting, Ellen DeGeneres, Newtown, Sandy Hook Elementary, school shooting, The Voice

Many of you took umbrage when I said that the Google Chrome commercial that featured Dan Savage's "It Gets Better Project" was incredibly tacky and tasteless. Dan was particularly offended when I said that it was "making blood money off of teenagers bullied so often that they can't think of any way to make things better than suicide." While Dan and I made up later and talked about the plusses and minuses of the spot, I still find exploiting tragic moments to be absolutely despicable.ellen-exploitation.jpg

After last week's school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I questioned how long it would be before all of the squalling and bawling on Facebook turned back into Christmas commercialism. The outrage would be forgotten soon as people wandered out of the "everyone is posting moral outrage posts about this so I should too!" mentality. Cynical me, I wondered how many of the folks claiming they were "crying" or "physically sick" were actually shedding any actual tears or suffering stomach cramps. Tragedies beget hyperbole.

Since it was a huge story, I gave the media a pass on the nonstop coverage. "If it bleeds, it leads" became a mantra for a reason, but this time it felt a little different. While most outlets ran factually incorrect stories in the beginning as they scrambled for information, I could forgive it because they were actually trying to get hard facts about real news. Lately I've seen the flipside show it's face as blogs and Facebook light up with "heartfelt tributes" and "emotional takeaways" - in other words, the entertainers have replaced the journalists and the tragedy has made it into programming with a product to sell beyond mere facts.

First we had the celebrity judges of The Voice doing a few second "tribute" to the victims complete with placards displaying the names and ages of the deceased. As they warbled out a few bars of "Hallelujah" with contestants crooning in the background, it wasn't the numbers printed on the cards that kept going through my head; it was the $250,000 price tag for a 30 second commercial.

I'd embed it in this post for you to watch, but the video Andy Towle called "devastating" has that option turned off. You can only see it if you go to YouTube (a Google property!), check out some advertisements - including in the video - and see all of their marketing for the show. Devastating, indeed.

Today's heartfelt lovefest comes courtesy of everyone's favorite lesbian, Ellen Degeneres. She dedicated yesterday's show to the victims with a special statement about the tragedy.

"Today we're taping our first show since the events that took place in Connecticut," she said. "My goal for this show every day is to make you happy and make you feel good for an hour. I want it to be a safe zone. I want it to be light and filled with joy. I want you to know that you can watch with your family. It won't be mean or sad. I want it to be uplifting and I want to celebrate all that's good in life. And we're gonna do the show today, but it's gonna be a struggle cause my heart is broken for those families and for all the people in Newtown. We're holding you in our hearts. And today's show is dedicated to you."

I'd like to call bullshit. Ellen's show isn't all light and rainbows. She's tackled cases of LGBT bullying several times - including the suicide epidemic that spawned Savage's video project. If she wants to talk about something, she does.

By offering up that weak mouthing of support, she, in effect, tells us that her dancing won't be as hectic, her smiles won't be real, and her lighthearted jokes at her own expense won't be as funny because children have been murdered all the way across the country from where she sits in her comfortable studio filming small talk with Bruno Mars and Bradley Cooper.

Don't forget the "Bad Holiday Photos" segment! Those kids won't have to worry about wearing Christmas themed matching pajama sets from Old Navy anymore! There'll be no more bad holiday photos for them! Success! Dedication complete. Let's move on to the commercial. (The cost for a 30 second spot on the show in November of 2011 was $40,000.)

As I watch the national conversation turn from Facebook outrage and Twitter mourning to singing contest and talk show tributes, I'm reminded of Rahm Emanuel's infamous quote: "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

You know, like selling pajamas and cars and iPads before the massacred kindergartners are even buried. Who'd have thought that would become a symbol of respect and mourning?

Nothing says "tragedy" like "exploitation." Nothing sells commercial spaces like ratings. And nothing brings in viewers like dead kids.

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