While reading a book about the history of the New Yorker magazine (About Town by Ben Yagoda), I encountered an interesting bit of 1930s correspondence between the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, and author E.B. White. Perhaps best known today as the author of Charlotte’s Web, White objected to the magazine’s acceptance of an ad from the Satin Tissue toilet-paper brand. Ross didn’t disagree, calling the notion of publishing an ad for such a product “distasteful” and “sickening.”
I have to wonder how they would view modern ads for the same product category, in which we have one brand claiming to be so effective that users can “go commando,” and another using a cartoon version of the timeless ‘what bears do in the woods” remark to show that their brand leaves nothing behind. Fortunately, nobody has stooped to showing close-ups of exactly what’s left behind, even though it’s a part of daily life (except for some people who might benefit from another product line whose ads frequently border on tasteless). I fear that it’s only a matter of time before we’re treated to a streak. Probably won’t be a brown streak, but we’ll get the point. And we’ll pretend not to notice as we chew our dinner.
We’ve endured the same thing with “feminine hygiene” products, where barriers fell and fell. So far, the closest we’ve seen to reality is a liquid being poured into the products, although it’s nearly always blue instead of a more natural shade. Here again, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we see more than anyone wants to see.
I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to be straightforward. I thought it was a huge step forward (and a sign that women were finally in decision-making roles) when ads started using the phrase “yeast infection” instead of things like “that not-so-fresh feeling.” But that doesn’t mean we have to keep pushing the boundary closer to what’s offensive.
Whether it’s people clearly clutching sphincter muscles with all their energy in commercials for antidiarrheals, large globs of animated mucus creatures, or older people struggling to control their leaky bladders, it all seems to be crass just for the opportunity to be crass. I’m all for advancing art and society, but I don’t think moving toward tastelessness does anyone any favors.