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May 28th, 2006
Sun, May. 28th, 2006 01:58 pm

Although I'm back in Berlin now, I wanted to run one more state-of-America entry. No doubt the people who objected to Pompeii at the kiosk -- my mercurial reading of the nation's spiritual health via a selection of its magazine cover straplines -- won't like it, but I wanted to look at a couple of billboard ads spotted in New York City over the last couple of weeks, and just try to parse what they might be saying about American society.

Let's start with the Leo Burnett Stodgy Banker campaign for Washington Mutual. Here we see rich bankers of the old school making provocative statements like "Free Checking? Exactly how does that help the rich get richer?"



What's really remarkable about these ads is the way they play on class stereotypes in order to work up a sense of resentment against the rich. They're remarkably... well, remarkably communist! There's a kind of Weimar Republic satirical aggression to their tone, something that makes me think of Brecht and Weill, John Heartfield and George Grosz. This kind of hostility to the rich is something we don't associate with this country. Could it be that six years of Bush giving tax breaks to the rich has actually, finally stuck in America's craw? Have we reached the tipping point where people finally start to see the evil in the Gini? To wish for a smaller disparity between the rich and the poor? Are these posters (and they're also TV ads) being displayed in red states as well as blue ones like New York? (The ad agency that made them is based in Chicago.)

It's not before time. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, Americans have tolerated inequality in their society because they believe that the US offers high social mobility to those who are talented, have motivation and ability. Anyone can make it if they work hard enough, according to the old mantra. But this is no longer the case. The US now offers less chance of social mobility than Europe, Scandinavia or Canada: "Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. remains a more mobile society than Europe, economists and sociologists say that in recent decades the typical child starting out in poverty in continental Europe (or in Canada) has had a better chance at prosperity." Studies show that France and Germany are now somewhat more socially mobile than either the US or the UK, and Canada and the Nordic countries are much more so. So come to Europe, land of opportunity!

Speaking of Europe, it's fascinating to see the way America portrays German cars.



"Bigger engine. Increased envy," reads the Mercedes ad I spotted in midtown. "German engineering in da haus," rapped the VW ad on 3rd Avenue. The Mercedes ad clearly alludes to Freud's concept of penis envy: "Penis envy in popular culture is understood to mean women's psychological response to their lack of a penis. It is also sometimes ascribed to males in regard to others with a larger penis." A number of not-so-subliminal meanings can be (cock-)teased out of this ad. First of all, men with small-engined cars (and again, as in the social mobility issue, we see a reversal of traditional images of the US and Europe: it used to be European cars that were seen as small-engined) are "unmanned", made into women. Secondly, men with American cars are less manly than men with German cars. They have smaller penises.

This idea carries over into the VW ad: here the "in da haus" copyline fuel-injects the semi-conscious idea that having a German car will give you a penis as big as a black man's. I mean, that's the only reason I can think of for advertising "German engineering" with black phraseology.

We Europeans, apparently, done got it uber alles: da Freud, da phallic cars, da social mobility. Reprazent, liebling!

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