Et tu, Madison Avenue?
It takes a lot for pop culture to truly shock me these days. But the week delivered an honest-to-goodness jolt in the form of not one but two new commercials featuring an unlikely pitchman: Charlie Sheen.
Given the bad-boy actor has already secured a comeback vehicle in the form of his own FX comedy series bowing this summer, perhaps it should come as no surprise that both DirecTV and Fiat saw fit to employ his services. But it's one thing for a TV show to implicitly condone the contemptible actions of a wayward celebrity by rewarding him or her with work; it's quite another when the employer is a marketer.
The advertising world has always been something of a moral backstop to the excesses of the TV industry. Should a network take things too far as far as its programming was concerned, corporate America could always be counted on to exert a countervailing force by withdrawing its support. An advertiser would get the faintest whiff of consumer backlash, and a finger would get wagged in a naughty network's direction.
I get it. Madison Avenue ultimately has to play the same game as Hollywood: get attention for its content by any means necessary. But there seemed to be a time not too long ago when a blue-chip marketer like DirecTV would avoid anything improper in fear of a boycott.
The DirecTV ad feels the more egregious of the two because Sheen's inclusion in the satcaster's usual cable-bashing absurdist riff feels random and disconnected from the product. As far as Fiat goes, the ad at least makes sense: As Ad Age points out, the car he's shilling is all about getting in touch with your inner rebel.
The litany of Sheen's misdeeds are by no so well-documented that they don't need rehashing here. If anything, his lenghty rap sheet has helped bombard Americans with so much celebrity contretemps that Madison Avenue probably assumes the public has become too jaded to be outraged anymore.
My disgust isn't really about Sheen per se anyway. What sticks in the craw here is my fear they are taking us on a slippery-slope slide that lasts a few too many millimeters. Will the window of time continue to close between a public figure's seemingly unforgivable infraction and the sickening moment when he or she can capitalize on the notoriety it brings them?
TMZ is reporting a former star of MTV's "16 and Pregnant" was just arrested for shoplifting a pregnancy kit from her local Wal-mart...how quickly can First Response produce a commercial featuring their most passionate customer?
Uptight as Madison Avenue might often seem, there's something reassuring about its schoolmarm-ish sense of morality. And though it's been eroding for quite some time, the double blast of Sheen feels like an unwelcome acceleration of that trend, and a bridge too far.