Saturday, August 17, 2013

Budweiser, Zombies, and the Angel of Highway 19

In an age of mediocrity and low expectations, certain cultural phenomena become flash points for the spirit of the times. When I was growing up it was Al Bundy and Beavis and Butt-Head (I didn't have the heart to throw in Homer Simpson, for there is much redeemable about his character). However, at least in the those days, these characters were more or less a satire and a parody of what was wrong with our culture. The problem wasn't so much the characters themselves as the fact that there really wasn't much of a positive alternative. Men were little more than farting, burping, smelly, lusting, overgrown adolescents, or as C.S. Lewis once called them "Men without chests."

What has changed since then is not so much the behavior of the characters as our own attitudes towards them. Once upon a time these characters were considered to be negative satires- now they have more or less become our heroes. A decade or so ago people would watch a show like "Jackass" or "Jerry Springer" and think "Hey, my life isn't so bad after all. At least I am not like some of those losers on that show!" Today, being a loser is incredibly lucrative. Simply hop on YouTube and behold how the "last have become first". Mediocrity and the art of shaming one's self (and/or one's own family) is no longer regarded as something immoral, provided that one can make a buck in the process. Indeed, it is no wonder that zombies have become such a symbol of our social decay, especially when you consider how little real intellectual thought is valued these days.

A few years back (about ten to be exact) there was an advertising campaign that really captured this medley of mediocrity quite well. The name of the campaign was Bud Light's "Real Men of Genius", and the idea behind it was to have a little ironic fun at the expense of men who either do ridiculous things, or invent them. Here are a few of my favorite examples; "Mr. All You Can Eat Buffet Inventor", "Mr. Foot Long Hot Dog Inventor", "Mr. Putt-Putt Golf Course Designer", "Mr. Pickled Pigs Feet Eater", "Mr. Nudist Colony Activity Coordinator", "Giant Taco Salad Inventor", "Mr. Fancy Coffee Shop Pourer", "Mr. Tiny Dog Clothing Manufacturer", "Mr. Reality Show TV Star," and many more (below is a link that features all of the Real Men of Genius spots). Most of these commercials were obviously just for fun, but nevertheless they do highlight the type of "genius" that we tend to regard in our consumerist and self-serving age. And what better way to express this ode to mediocrity than by making a beer commercial advertising a mediocre beer.  

The backstory to these commercials, which actually turns out to be the "front story", is the fact that originally this spot was called "Real American Heroes". Nevertheless, as a consequence of the events that happened on 9/11, Budweiser felt that this would be an insult to the memory of police officers and firefighters who lost their lives on that day- who were, incidentally, the "real American heroes". Perhaps an over-reaction, but better that than the yawn that you would inevitably receive these days if you had the same ethical dilemma. But to give credit where credit is due, Budweiser really did demonstrate the right instinct here (whatever their motivation). First of all, the goal of good satire is to expose a fraudulent way of thinking in such a way that all can recognize it as such. By changing the name of the commercial, Budweiser really did seek to make a distinction between the heroic ideal and the phony version of it. Secondly, by doing this they also demonstrate that there is a clear line between what the world regards as "genius", and the genius that generally accompanies true heroism.

By today's standards, a genius is one who is able to grab your attention, make headlines, gain notoriety, and make lots of money. And they accomplish this, not for anything that will actually elevate humanity, but for something that may actually make you stupider, lazier, and more indifferent simply by coming in contact with it (think Johnny Knoxville of Jackass). The saint and hero are quite the opposite. Much like the now famous priest who was recently in the news after appearing [out of nowhere] to anoint and pray with a young lady trapped in her vehicle, so also the saints of heaven. It is no doubt an interesting paradox to point out that the priest who helped console and bless the girl in the overturned vehicle would just as soon have gone as anonymous and uncredited as an angel- while an angel would no doubt have been content to be mistaken for an ordinary man (or as in this case, an ordinary priest).

Amidst the din of entertaining nonsense that surrounds us, how much more difficult is it then for a man to come to appreciate this kind of holy anonymity? Vocationally speaking, men are generally given two narrow options today. The first option comes to us from films like The Hangover and Road Trip (and practically every sitcom on the air today). According to this orthodoxy, men are little more than stupid, adolescent, morally inconsequential place fillers. The other option comes to us from just about every entertaining action movie, where the male character plays a bit of a lone ranger, who is interesting- not for any thoughts in his head- but for his ability to kill and not be killed. Obviously among the two the latter is preferable, but after a while both characters become rather boring and one-dimensional. Few videos exhibit this laughable machismo better than Lonely Island's "Cool Guys Don't Look At Explosions" (see below). The point is men can either be wimpy little narcissists, or brave (if mindless) hunters, what they cannot be is men of conviction who bravely devote their lives day by day to what is good, true, and beautiful.  

What TV and movies are too often lacking is the man of quiet conviction and courage, the one who is capable, not only of "blowing stuff up", but one whose primary vocation it is to show his strength by elevating others. I, as much as anyone else, like to see a hero either use or de-fuse some sort of gigantic explosive device, but there is more to true heroism than a singular act of bravery. The every day hero accomplishes his feats of strength, not in one fell swoop, but in the long-suffering and endurance that is highly characteristic of any true love or devotion. None of this may seem like a very dramatic thing by Hollywood standards, but from the perspective of heaven, holiness is always dramatic. Why? Precisely because holiness is usually hidden from the eyes of the world. Yet for one moment last week everyone caught a glimpse of that heavenly drama, everyone saw what holiness always looks like through the eyes of God. For we all got to witness that "angel on highway 19", that ordinary priest who managed to capture the attention of the world precisely because he wasn't trying to capture anyone's attention at all.



  1. Interesting read. I used to love those Budweiser commercials... =P

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