I promise I’m not going to spend the whole week on this. This morning, though, I woke up with a commercial jingle from 1988 stuck in my head, and only YouTube could exorcise it.* During my exhaustive two-minute search, I found the video above. It’s from 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan years, when America was still reeling from the economic malaise of the late seventies. And I daresay it reflects that.
Besides bearing an opening heavily influenced by The Shining, the ad reflects the claustrophobic financial terror of an age. “You owe me ninety-five thousand dollars and I want it now,” says a stern voice from inside the house. The first 23 seconds of the 30-second spot are given to lamentation and demands for payment, and features a child who regrets not buying insurance. Then comes the gem: “There’s a game called Life,” the voice-over says, “that’s really worth living!” Finally, right? This Life commercial encapsulates the disappointment of a generation raised to believe in yesterday’s Life commercial. The kids of the pre-Nixon sixties saw Life/life as an array of opportunities; there was the Poor Farm, sure, but before we heard about that we made $50,000 in the stock market and went to Harvard. Somebody’s making money at the outset of the 1981 Life ad, but it’s not you—all you hear is the demand for payment.
It should also be noted that the 1981 ad includes adults. Where the sixties game of Life is played exclusively by children—to whom the ad is also targeted, if the line “You will learn about life when you play the game of Life” is any indication—the 1981 Life is a family affair. The joke at the beginning of the commercial—it’s not a couple fighting over money; it’s a fun board game!—is surely directed at adults, as is the aforementioned shot of a little boy learning a valuable lesson about insurance coverage. None of the kids is actually winning the game in the 1981 ad. Rather than teasing children with the excitement of a largely unknown adult world, it addresses itself to parents who already know the cruelty of contemporary America, and who should maybe think about exposing their kids to it in a supportive family setting. Which brings us to 1988:
By the end of the Reagan Era, The Game of Life is about something very different from what it was in 1981. There’s the hilariously candid “Find a job! Have money (maybe!)” but there’s also the refrain: “Be a winner at the Game of Life.” These two somewhat conflicting sentiments capture the winner-take-all mentality of the Reagan years, when taxes on the wealthy plummeted, social services were slashed, and the gap between rich and poor grew greater that it had been since the Depression. Between the mansion and the skunk farm, there was a rapidly shrinking middle. The family in the 1988 commercial seems to occupy that middle (hint: if you’re trying to sell a fun board game, don’t show poor people or dowagers in mink stoles playing it,) and their house is a sunny tract home rather than the claustrophobic old Victorian of the 1981 spot. The commercial reflects a Baby Boom generation that has come to think of itself primarily as a cadre of families. Gone is the stock market (with the exception of one brief shot) and the questions about whether to go to college or into business. They’re replaced by a seemingly inevitable progression: find a job, get married, have a baby.** The 1988 Game of Life captures the sense of destiny that accompanies late middle age. The risk-taking uncertainty of childhood and the panicky financial pressure of early adulthood are supplanted by the feeling that it couldn’t have come out any other way.
As Tim pointed out yesterday, it’s hard to find a Game of Life commercial from this decade, because kids in this decade play video games. Hopefully Grand Theft Auto is not a spirit photo of our American zeitgeist, although if you’ve played GTA4—in which you guide a Slavic immigrant through his first weeks in New York City, doing things like buying nicer slacks so you can go on a date—you know it bears some documentary value. Life is a stupid game, but it’s also the only semi-artistic cultural product that we have gone ahead and named “Life.” How we present it to ourselves says something about how we see the other game of the same name. Of course, there is one more product named “Life,” too.
“Let’s give it to Mikey—he hates everything!” Makes no goddamn sense at all.
* People in 18th-century Vienna walked around with Mozart stuck in their heads, but we get to stand in line at the bank humming “I feel like chicken tonight.” I’m sure that doesn’t make us dumber.
** Check out how the brief shot accompanying “find romance!” is of a preteen girl and a forty year-old man. It’s her father in the commercial, but still—there’s something you wouldn’t see in 2009.