From the depths of his fatherhood, Ben al-Fowlkes sent me this Bubble Tape commercial of the early 90s—right at the intersection of Max Headroom and MTV. The Baby Boomers had recently assumed control of broadcast media, but they retained their identity as the first generation in history to see through institutional authority. They still didn’t buy what the man was selling, but their lives had progressed to the point where they were selling it. The generation told not to trust anyone over 30 was now in charge of marketing long gum to children. Naturally, they employed the message that most resonated with them: old people are not cool. As the Boomers grew even more hideously aged in the decades that followed, that idea would mutate into “most people are not cool.” The notion that you could be different from most people by buying something would become the central premise of American advertising.
Obviously, the assertions in the foregoing paragraph are somewhat ironic.1 I wouldn’t need to tell you that if I had some kind of signal right at the beginning that we were speaking in an exaggerated, ironized way: for example, a shot of the word “truth” carved in stone, undercut by a sweet guitar riff.
That’s how this children’s gum commercial starts out. By loudly declaring “it’s the truth,” the ad signals immediately that we’re going to say some things we don’t really mean. “It’s the truth” is what liars say all the time. This is a crucial element of the message that follows, since children don’t really want to turn against their principals and bus drivers.
Kids are mad at their parents all the time because they know it is safe to be so. They make fun of the bus driver because they are confident that no matter what song they sing, she is not going to leave them by the side of the road. While this commercial takes as its premise a kind of existential war between school employees and the children they teach, that conflict is circumscribed within a fun, safe space.
The graphic style reinforces that safe space. If we saw a realistic close up of a bus driver saying “no way, Jose” in a tired voice before reaching for her cigarette and gazing out the window as a fan clicks behind her, this gum commercial would be kind of sad. By reducing the bus driver and principal to animated photographs, the ad presents them as icons—symbols of people, not real individuals. It’s okay to pretend to be against them, because they themselves are pretend.
And look at all the cool things they refuse to do! The principal hates to smile, swim and rap—the three things kids most enjoy.2 As an adult male, he is what the boys viewing this commercial should define themselves against. It’s worth noting that while he is uncool because of what he won’t do—joke around, hop in the pool, appropriate black culture—the adult female in this commercial is uncool because she is gross.
Your bus driver is bad at driving, wears curlers,3 and has an undiagnosed gastrointestinal disorder. Where the principal fails to be one of the guys, the bus driver fails to be attractive. It’s a subtly gendered presentation of what it means to be cool, constructed by negative example. What both these stodgy adults have in common, of course, is that they won’t try Bubble Tape.4
So, like, are you going to have that in common with them too, or are you going to purchase some Bubble Tape right now and stuff the whole roll in your mouth? The message that Bubble Tape is “for you, not them” succinctly captures what is still the go-to trope in American marketing. Society is a mass of faceless types: principals, bus drivers, lawyers, accountants, dentists, moms—you know, dorks. In order to be different from them, you must assert yourself. And what better way to assert yourself than with a mass-marketed product that dorks find threatening?
The question of what kind of people make bubble gum and whether they rap never enters the viewer’s mind, because the viewer is a child. He thinks gum is made by singing dwarves. What’s amazing is that this question doesn’t really enter the adult’s mind, either. We know dimly that advertising tries to manipulate us, but we still agree that most people buy things because they want to fit in. They don’t. Most people are us, and we buy things because we want to stand out. We learned it when we were kids.