In the Name of the Worst Within You…
People laugh at what they regard as unimportant. If, for example, a person has a habit of obsessively biting his finger nails, but otherwise is a rational person, he may poke fun at himself about it (or let others do so) because doing so is a round-about way of reveling in the healthy parts of his personality. It does not mean that he regards his bad habit as acceptable, or inevitable (since “no one is perfect”), but simply that he doesn’t regard consider it to be an essential characteristic. His marginal neurotic tendencies do not define the overall course of his life, and therefore they aren’t “who he is.”
What, then, do people who find this commercial funny regard as unimportant? This commercial highlights a shortcoming in the English language which makes certain words very easily mistaken for one another. Is this commercial a celebration of the fact that such shortcomings are rare (ie: unimportant), or is it something else? There are plenty of other linguistic shortcomings that Kmart could have chosen to dramatize. Why did they choose this one? Would having people mistake “fifty” for “fifteen” have been funny? It would have been just as feasible – people are, for instance, outside of a football stadium talking about where their seats are located, a misunderstanding ensues, and people do what they wouldn’t otherwise do – so why not choose that particular pair of words? Why not save the comedic value of linguistic shortcomings for an advertisement that highlights some other aspect of the company, and simply deliver the message of free shipping from Kmart.com in some other way?
The reason is because the types of misunderstandings that could occur if “fifty” was mistaken as “fifteen” could never be as shocking as mistaking “ship” for “shit.” That one particular instance of similar sounding words can make an innocent, innocuous remark very easily sound like a shocking, vile one. The contrast between what was intended and what was perceived is enormous. More so than probably any other instance in the English language. Nevertheless, it is still just a marginal, inconsequential, unimportant feature of the language, so why should it be any funnier than any other? Why should the comedic value of a linguistic misunderstanding outweigh the unpleasant experience of hearing dignified people speak in an undignified way (something which only “shit” for “ship” – instead of “fifteen” for “fifty” – can accomplish)?
People who find this commercial funny do so not because they regard unsuccessful communication as unimportant, but because they find civility and dignity unimportant. They regard the similarity between “ship” and “shit” – and the diametrical reactions that would ensue as a result of an innocent misunderstanding – as proof of the futility of trying to gain and/or keep anything (ie: that it could all be taken away so easily, by something as small as a mistaken word – or an o-ring). In other words: for such people, it’s not the failures in life that are the flukes, but the successes. Successes are what escape the normal course of things (which is to fail). By focusing on the fact that not only can the shortcomings of the value that is language produce misunderstandings, but that they can produce misunderstandings so completely out of proportion to what caused them – and that they can have consequences as severe as losing one’s dignity (albeit unintentionally) – people who enjoy this commercial are reveling in their hopelessness. Such a massive failure of man’s intended purpose helps them to feel that their own failures, or foregone opportunities, or sufferings under an oppressive political system and/or culutre are not so bad. Seeing this commercial reminds them of the “truth” about reality. A truth that is always there, just underneath our “pretentions” towards values, standards, success, freedom, happiness, dignity.
Kmart has a legitimate value that it is advertising in this commercial, but that is not enough these days. People will not pay attention to a company’s product or service unless it stands out in some way. If it doesn’t actually stand out in some way (ie: it’s more or less identical to what your competitors offer), then the only way to ensure that your message is remembered is to associate it with something unrelated – but profound and reocurring – in the viewer’s psyche. Obviously one’s sense of life is such a thing. Kmart knows that people who are governed by the malevolent universe premise (and who suffer existentially as a result) will regularly look for ways to rationalize their beliefs. It simply hopes that when they do, they will remember that one of the moments in which they were able to escape the negative feelings such beliefs cause is when they watched this commercial, be reminded that Kmart is a retailer, think about how they have this or that material need, and put two and two together that they can satisfy that need at Kmart.
Exploiting the worst within people, instead of tapping into their best. That’s what’s required in today’s over-taxed, over-regulated economy. The long-term doesn’t exist, so companies do whatever they can do make as much as they can, as quickly as they can.