Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Stuck in the middle, alone

Slate’s latest Ad Report Card looks at the Ford commercial that ends with a divorced dad thanking his ex-wife for allowing him to tag along on a family trip, and telling the kids he’ll see them next week—presumably during a visit agreed to in the custody settlement.

I haven’t really considered whether this is a good commercial in terms of persuading people to buy a Ford. But as the child of divorced parents—and the spouse of a child of divorced parents—I nonetheless find it quite notable. For years, television programs and commercials portrayed a narrowly idealized version of the American family: two married parents (often white) and a handful of precocious children.

Advertisers seem just as likely to break convention as the creators of television shows. You’re more likely to see an interracial couple in a commercial than you will in a television program. (I can’t think of a single family-centered comedy or drama whose central characters are an interracial couple.) I seem to recall Ikea had an ad with a gay couple a few years back. Outside of cable, you are unlikely to see a gay couple in a television show unless it’s to provide comic relief. (“Will & Grace” might have been a groundbreaking show had Will and Jack, not Will and Grace, been the ones trying to have a child together.)

A few shows have tried to deal with divorce—“One Day at a Time” comes to mind, but divorce was largely a jumping off point for that show, and not its focus. (I have to confess I’ve not watched “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”) As any child of divorced parents will tell you, the consequences of a failed marriage pretty much last forever, all the way into adulthood. In other words, there's plenty of material to work with.

Yet these experiences seem to rate little mention on television, despite the unfortunate frequency of divorce. When I was little, I often felt like the only kid in the world with divorced parents, even though more of my classmates probably came from "broken" homes than I realized at the time, and I can’t help but think that those feelings of isolation were fueled by the absence of divorce in popular culture.

That isn’t a complaint, mind you. Television programs are meant to entertain, which often means escaping from reality, rather than wallowing in it. And commercials are written to sell products, not provide social commentary. One should not expect anything more. Still, whatever its flaws, I’m glad Ford made this commercial, and I hope it helps kids like me realize they are not alone.


Blogger Sean McDaniel said...

I haven't seen the commercial, but your comments about the ever-lasting effects of divorce on kids reminds me of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons:

An extremely elderly couple is sitting at the desk of a divorce lawyer, with this caption underneath:

"We wanted to wait until all the children were dead."

Sad and funny all at the same time. I have friends who got divorced after all the kids graduated from college, and the split still was devastating. Seems as though there's never a good time for a divorce.

11:28 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

My wife had a friend in college whose parents were getting divorced, and the girl's mother told her that they had only stayed together for so long because they were waiting for her to grow up. So she ended up feeling guilty for having been the reason her parents decided to stay together and be miserable.

12:09 PM

Blogger EdHeath said...

Yeah, it is interesting tht TV has that dynamic, both reflecting a set of images that people want as escapist entertainment and promoting a certain view of the world that people approve of. So we don't see a lot of divorced people on TV except in narrow stereo-typed ranges (cops, lawyers, people with the "incident" in their past - shorthand we all understand). This is also why African Americans still have limited roles on TV, kind of similar to divorced people. Remember when all single parents on TV were widows (or Brian Keith or Bill Bixby)?

11:45 PM


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