There are a lot of awful, vapid, insipid things on TV. It's great, isn't it? TV is a tranquilizer that goes right through your eyes. At almost any bat time on almost any bat channel you can find altered consciousness without having to borrow pills from your friends, buy beer or "clear your mind of conscious thought." For all the knocks TV takes, it calms you down. It never gets enough credit for that.
But there is one awful, vapid, insipid thing on TV that has the opposite effect, the effect of making me rigid with disgust, and that is the "Truth" commercials. This is a ham-handed, absurdist, windbag anti-smoking ad campaign suggesting solidarity within a youth culture that knows the "truth" about tobacco and isn't afraid to stick it to the man, man. And each ad is executed more poorly than that guy whose head caught fire in Florida's electric chair.
One shows two kids calling a tobacco executive about the deaths caused by smoking. If I knew anyone geek enough to pull a stunt like that in high school, I'd start smoking just to make them go insane. Another parodies the opening credits of "The Brady Bunch," with all the family members in their blue boxes smoking cigarettes. Really makes you think, huh? Really makes you think someone slightly less clever than a shoe horn is writing this stuff. It's the reverse of Darwinism: Only the idiots ever seem to come out on top.
Smoke and mirrors
I smoke, but it isn't the self-righteous zealotry of the ads that bothers me. It's the fact they're labeled "Truth" when they are nothing but gimmick.
If they were going to tell the truth about tobacco, they'd show an emphysema wheezer hooked up to an oxygen tank enjoying spasms of fluid-filled coughing, or someone vomiting after chemo, or someone whose lips have been eaten off by cancer. They could even show me with a cigarette hangover, sounding like Mr. Snuffalupagus and swearing to quit. Any of these things would be more truthful.
There are statistics, but little truth in the "Truth" ads. There's nothing but attitude, which passes for truth way too often. Even someone stupid enough to keep smoking can see that.
Simple truth is something people actually may want to see more of on TV, since the Kevorkian episode of "60 Minutes" swept the ratings. Dr. Jack Kevorkian videotaped himself helping a 57-year-old with Lou Gehrig's disease go gently into that good night. A lot of people watched it; a lot of others thought it was crass and sensational. There is supposed to have been a new wave of "reality based" programming, but as far as I can tell, it's comprised of "World's Funniest Animal Attacks" and white-trash couples having domestic disputes on "Cops." And while both may be delightful and amusing, they're only one part reality. Death, on the other hand, is as reality as it gets. We're all going to die, no matter how cute we are. And the broadcast of something like assisted suicide gives people a chance to witness something they have an opinion on but have never actually seen.
Americans have a habit of sanitizing and distancing death, unlike, say, the Irish, who prop corpses up in the living room for a last pint. Our cultural fear makes the inevitable more fearsome. And it makes watching something so intimate and universal, so delicate and common, into something crass and sensational, when really it's everything else on TV that's crass and sensational and no one seems to notice.
The real thing
Actually, real reality-based TV like the Kevorkian video could benefit other media. One current public-service ad, promoting sexual safety, uses flowery animation of a young couple just about to Do It; the girl is wondering whether it's a good idea, with cute illustrations used to illustrate her fears. This should pass by any TV-desensitized teen like a cool breeze. If only they would show a live birth with all the blood and screaming, or someone in the agonizing pain and emotional torment caused by a sexually transmitted disease, you have to wonder whether some teen-agers wouldn't change their habits as fast as they change the channel. Instead of cute messages like "This is your brain on drugs," showing someone choking on their own vomit in an ambulance would take the chic out of heroin chic real fast.
People complain that TV is developmentally retarded, but when it shows something current, important and truthful, they wonder whether airing it is in poor taste as though death were "tasteful." You get the idea that when it comes for them, they'll complain that it didn't have the good manners to wait until "Ally McBeal" was over.
People wonder why kids don't get the message that sex and drugs should be handled with care, but then they never actually give the message, just some pureed, comfort-food version of it. The Pony Express could deliver a message more effectively than the "Truth" people. The Truth is that if you want the truth known, you have to tell it, and simply. To paraphrase Jack Kevorkian, try it. It won't kill you.