Through the Shades: Walgreens “Dance Team”

Didactic Synapse is proud to present a new feature: Through the Shades. Using the metaphor of the 1988 movie They Live, I’ll be deconstructing popular media to expose the festering putrescence beneath the veneer of consumerist fulfillment.

Walgreens has been running the “Dance Team” commercial in regular rotation recently on Hulu (a paid service which still forces hideous ads down our throats). I don’t really recommend watching it, but here it is anyway:

There are so many things that nauseate me here, but it’s taken me a while to sort through them. Let’s start with…

  • Walgreens’ slogan: “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy”. No one in Walgreens is healthy. That’s why they’re in Walgreens! If my health were good, why would I be standing in line to fill my acid reflux prescription? And no one in Walgreens is happy, either. I live two blocks from a Walgreens, and everyone always has horrible desperation painted on their faces. Whether feeding their nicotine fix, stuffing chocolate into their craven maws (my usual purpose), or purchasing cheap sunglasses to ward off UAV blindness, we’re all stumbling around in a discontented daze under fluorescent misery.

Lest anyone think I’m a total sourpuss, let me confess to some positives in this spot:

  • The dance team is profoundly multicultural. African-American, Asian-American, white-American, all bouncing around with each other and gettin down on stage. Dance Mom is a strong black woman who’s able to problem-solve and “never miss a beat”. She’s adaptive, supportive, and joyous.
  • It’s a fun 30 seconds. The girl on the sidewalk is into it. The music is peppy and the expressions are filled with enthusiasm. These adorable kids are not just having fun; this is the best weekend of their lives so far. They take 6th at the competition, but they couldn’t be happier.
  • Old and new technologies are blended seamlessly. Dance Mom is snapping pictures with her phone (while dancing, which must have resulted in some blurry shots that got deleted), but she gets them developed into 4 x 6 glossies. Tweens and middle-aged folks all get what they want.

Ironically, it is this relentless positivity that sickens me the most. So let’s explore the negatives already.

  • The goal is for us to buy more stuff we don’t need. Like all commercials, this ad works in service to a blind fanatical consumerism, tied bone-deep into an affiliation with joy and happiness. We’re supposed to take those fun, peppy sensations and transfer them into our Walgreens schema. Just as we all get warm fuzzy associations with Disney starting at age zero (to the point where some of us just move into corporate HQ), the goal of modern advertising is not merely to convince us to buy one laundry detergent or athletic shoe. Instead, we’re meant to rearrange our entire psychology to link permanently the fun of these young people with the Walgreens brand. Kids can’t just be dancing to have fun anymore — they must do so for the benefit of a huge corporate ad blitz.
  • The flip side is a gut-level rejection of joy. Those of us who hate being manipulated by this kind of advertising reflexively make angry faces and roll our eyes when it begins. The more pervasive and ubiquitous this advertising is (and it gets more so every day), the more we make these faces and feel our stomachs churn. The danger is that we might eventually associate all instances of cute kids dancing and having fun with corporate manipulation, and then we become sour, bitter, cynical crankypants weirdos. (Or, in my case, more so.)
  • Three trips to Walgreens!? As soon as Sidewalk Girl gets in the minivan, her friend announces her Hair Disaster, which we’ll be generous and accept as a legit problem because they’re going into a competition. (It’s another example of advertising telling young girls that they never look good enough, but let’s give Walgreens the benefit of the doubt on this one.) Dance Mom assures her that it’s not a problem, and proceeds to pull a cache of hair products from her canvas Walgreens bag. (A not-at-all-subtle conflation of the corporate brand with environmental thinking, which is absurd and offensive, since Walgreens tosses every tiny thing we buy into atrocious plastic bags because they’re inexpensive.) Then, the whole team must go en masse and en danser into Walgreens again to buy makeup. (Lipstick? Mascara? Blemish remover?) Then, after the competition, they’ve got to swing back into Walgreens to get the developed pictures (sent from the phone, I imagine?) and buy some bags of snacks for the celebratory ride home. What nonsense.
  • Dancing inside Walgreens. This is the most horrible absurdity in the entire commercial, because suspension of disbelief breaks down completely. (And if it doesn’t break down for you, then your brain has been overtaken by the alien propaganda machine and you need serious help.) The only people dancing inside a Walgreens are people suffering from chronic irritable bowel syndrome who are having trouble waiting to buy diarrhea medicine.

There’s more, but that’s enough complaining for one afternoon. You’re a terrible company, Walgreens, and I urge you to stop running this commercial immediately. Thank you.

Taibbi: The Divide

Matt Taibbi’s new book The Divide is superb. Everyone needs to read it right away. He oscillates from heartbreaking descriptions of people arrested for “blocking pedestrian traffic” (these arrests are purely done to meet police quotas) and enraging explanations of white-collar criminal activity that’s never investigated, let alone punished.

What emerges is a devastating critique of dysfunctional American injustice, especially for those on the top and bottom of our economic system. Toward the end he explains beautifully:

This goes far beyond the oft-quoted liberal cliché about how we now have “two Americas”, one for the rich and one for the poor, with different sets of laws and different levels of punishment (or more to the point, nonpunishment) for each. The rich have always gotten breaks and the poor have always had to swim upstream. The new truth is infinitely darker and more twisted.

The new truth is a sci-fi movie, a dystopia. And in this sci-fi world the issues aren’t justice and injustice, but biology and mortality. We have a giant, meat-grinding bureaucracy that literally alters the physical makeup of its citizens, systematically grinding down the losers in a smaller, meeker, lower race of animal while aggrandizing the winners, making them bigger than life, impervious, super-people.

Again, the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick. And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere.

What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that “second government” — a vast system of increasingly unmangeable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors. These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.

The Didactic Interview: Adam Sherburne

For decades I’ve been a fan of the industrial music group Consoldiated. Their energetic music and political lyrics lit a fire in me at an early age, and I’ve benefited tremendously from their work.

Today I had the honor to spend an hour talking with Adam Sherburne, former front man of Consolidated and coordinator of a group in Portland called Free Music. We discussed music, capitalism, white supremacy, and a dozen other topics. Check it out.

DS Interview: Adam Sherburne

(I forgot to drop the level of my mic before recording, so the audio is a bit crummy. Apologies all around.)

I should have a full SynCast up before too long. Thanks for listening!

Freedom Chemicals

According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries is exempt from DEP inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and doesn’t produce them.

I love that the company responsible for the chemical spill in West Virginia is called “Freedom Industries”. You have the freedom to not drink your tap water, or bathe with it!

… yet on its About Us page, Freedom Industries says:

Freedom Industries is a full service producer of specialty chemicals […]

Didactic SynCast #84: Pegatron and the Cult of Money

It’s only been, what? Four years since the last episode? I hope it was worth the wait!

DS #84: Pegatron and the Cult of Money

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