The Nation’’s Grandpa

Photo: Peter Župník
Photo: Peter Župník

I turn on the TV and hear the Večerníček [evening fairytale aired on Czechoslovak TV for decades] signature tune. As the picture of the kindly Grandpa comes into focus I wonder why the visuals seem suspiciously vibrant and expressive, and realize that the sing tune is announcing an advertisement instead of Večerníček. The advert is all about Grandpa’’s little house. A product offered by a certain bank has made its refurbishment possible. This is approximately what would have gone through my head, if I had really noticed that the familiar Večerníček cartoon intro, with which a whole generations grew up, has become part of an advertisement.

However, even before I had a chance to watch the advert and feel genuine surprise, before I managed to spot the billboard derived from the ad, I could not help registering the extremely negative response the advertisement has elicited, which could be summed up as follows: the intro to Večerníček is untouchable, it is a childhood memory, something unique, a sacrilege to touch even; this advert has crossed an imaginary line and that’’s unacceptable. I found this reaction intriguing. I was intrigued by the argument that the Večerníček intro, of all things, may not be employed for utilitarian purposes in an advertisment. After all, everything else has already been used – and abused – by advertisments. I was intrigued by the fact that it was the Večerníček Grandpa who seems to have crossed the sensitivity threshold for some people.

It is, of course, nice to see that something still elicits a response at all. That people are still willing to give expression to their sense of being offended, that something affects their childhood memories. I certainly don’’t wish to mock anyone who has been deeply hurt by this and whose spiritual world has collapsed, based as it was on the ressentiment of a sofa from which they watched Večerníček as little children while scoffing their baby food. I have the greatest possible sympathy for people who feel offended, but I’’m afraid I don’’t understand them at all. If I search my soul I find the advert doesn’’t offend me in any way. To be honest, if the intention was to shock by mixing the seemingly unmixable, the advert’’s creators have failed, at least in my case. Watching adverts and billboards (much as I would like to avoid them, they always manage to creep up on me and in this respect, unfortunately, they are very effective) I have become so inured that it would take much more than a Grandpa to jerk me out of my lethargy. For some time now, the public has had to share public space with advertising agencies and the products they push in their PR campaigns.

I drive along an avenue of trees lined on both sides with fields. Their colours change from month to month, the light changes with every hour and season. Yet I can’’t see any of it because of the billboards flashing past me on the road. The same thing happens along the old wall which I pass every day as I walk to work, as well as on many other walls and roads… Sometimes I don’’t want to see anything anymore. Especially when a billboard advertising removal vans features a graphic depiction of knickers being slipped off a female figure or when an advertisement for an additional storey being built on top of a department store says look upwards and the upwards turns out to be a female crotch. Or when a design studio advertises its services using classically beautiful curves and a closer look reveals them to be freely floating female thighs. It’’s not clear if the woman is still alive or whether she has been cut into pieces so that her body parts could be casually strewn around in this way. And so on, ad infinitum.

Who cares that offensive images of the female body affect more than 50 percent of the population, and indirectly presumably everyone (after all, everyone has or had a mother, a sister, a girlfriend, a wife). But who would admit that? If women speak out in disgust about a particular advert, a multitude of labels for them is immediately at hand. They’’re either frigid feminists or bigoted Catholics or downtrodden housewives who don’’t understand anything and lack a sense of humour.

It’’s actually much easier to internalize the male outlook and withhold nasty comments. As Viera Bačová said in her paper How femininity is created, published in the collection Woman is not a Commodity: Social institutions use theory (cultural guidelines, patterns and norms) to teach women to behave and experience things in a way that is presented to them as appropriate, suitable and proper for a woman. (ASPEKT, 2005, s. 175) It’’s better for women to pretend all this has nothing to do with them, to have risen above things like that. So they laugh obligingly watching a husband deflate his wife on a beach for blabbering too much, and, thus deflated, folding her up the way you fold up a lilo. If we obligingly and devoutly join our menfolk in laughing at sexist jokes, at least they won’’t say we don’’t have a sense of humour and who knows, they might even fancy us? Who cares if it makes us feel as we’’d been flushed down the toilet or truly deflated…

I could go on like this but it’’s pointless. It’’s always the same and it’’s not even shocking to anyone. And why should it be? Any protest would provide the advertising agencies with a value added free promotion, so we prefer to keep mum. We’’ve got used to the objectification and commodification of women. Female bodies sell and are being sold. A car showroom is unimaginable without semi-naked female bodies licking themselves sensuously as they lounge on motorbikes, their shapely curves hugging shiny bonnets of expensive cars and their feline gestures proffering products, usually in places where nobody will take any notice of them because it’s all about the cars and the bikes. And about other commodities, services, products, ad infinitum.

Nobody cares or is interested in the depiction of the female body, least of all women. It’’s better to fence myself off and claim it doesn’’t concern nor offend me. If I say I’’ve risen above it all, nobody in their right mind will dream of identifying me with that woman because… But why, actually? After all, one could always object that it is the women’’s fault because they allow themselves to be depicted in this way, particularly if the money is good, so who cares.

And surprise surprise, all of a sudden, some of us, including women, are outraged that our Grandpa is being taken away. The Slovak nation lacks a forefather so maybe that’s why, somewhere from the nooks and crannies of our unconscious, subconscious or maybe unconsciousness, we have dug up good old Grandpa. For decades he used to put us to sleep wishing us nighty-night and turning on a pretty little star; he had a sweet little puppy too. And good old Grandpa suddenly turns up in advertisements. For, as the director of the relevant bank will have us know, our Večerníček Grandpa has become a celebrity and it’’s quite common for advertisments to feature celebrities.

All of us, whether male or female, have our sacred spheres. For some it is the memory of his or her happy childhood. For many it is Cinderella or perhaps The Princess with the Gold Star [a 1959 Czech film] that embody the certainty of Christmas. The very fact that one of these fairytales is shown on the TV screen at exactly the same time each year proves that the Earth has not swerved from its orbit even though watching our evening news rather suggests that it has completely gone off the orbit.

Since advertisements invaded our space following the end of communism, replacing the red-and-white slogans on peace, building socialism and mankind-ennobling labour, most everything has been featured on billboards and in TV adverts. Meanwhile, the media in this country have become the new religion that rules our day-to-day lives as well as our quasi-transcendental sphere. As [Czech Catholic thinker] Tomáš Halík says in his book Vyzván i nevyzván [Challenged and Unchallenged]: “Media have taken on many aspects of traditional religion: they offer symbols and a reading of the world; they present captivating stories; they influence the way people think and behave; they create networks; offer a communal experience; share common themes. They have also, first and foremost, become the arbiters of truth – only the things people have seen “‚with their own eyes” on TV news are real and important. The media is also where most people’’s emotional lives take place and nobody even tries to conceal it. At Christmas they watch fairytales and on weekdays they watch TV series and soap operas. They live the vicarious lives of fictional characters discussing them at work, at the hairdresser’’s, with their neighbours, perhaps to avoid talking about themselves.

If a group of adherents of this or that religion pipe up from time to time complaining about something that has offended them, they are usually ridiculed by the rest of the world. It’’s obvious they shouldn’’t impose their religious symbols on anyone but more than that, they have to tolerate the rest of the world using them as a joke or to quote them, however inappropriately, for example by placing them in a porn context. It’’s supposed to be a sign of liberal-mindedness although we no longer know what that might mean. On the other hand, religion itself has not exactly renounced advertising either.

Outside a church in Bratislava I sometimes see a billboard proclaiming something about love. The question is – have we really given up all other kinds of communication and are we now supposed to use billboards to communicate with God as well? Has God also turned into a marketing agent? So why should it be surprising if people reject this kind of God? Is this what the custodians of this church wanted to achieve? Probably not: it’’s more likely that they were just naive enough to believe a communication expert. St. Martin’’s Cathedral also sports an advertisement – probably promoting the company charged with renovating the church. The longer the renovation goes on the longer the advertisement stays but if it the renovation goes on for too long, it might not be such a good advertisement but then again, it will have been out there for a long time, which is good for advertising.

And I won’’t even mention all those angels and devils. Do they belong to fairytales or to religion? Most provocative, of course, are the devilish she-angels with ample busoms advertising everything left right and centre. To say nothing of the devil who has turned into a devil courtesy of an erection enhancing drug.

We’’re not expected to protest or turn away in disgust but rather to buy the relevant remedy even if we don’’t need it. The era of total conformism will be ruled by a positive language regimen: only utterances unconditionally supporting the existing structures will be legitimate; all antagonistic, critical, satirical or ironic utterances will be disqualified as being uttered by madmen, extremists and potential terrorists from which society has to be protected by vetting questionnaires, [Czech philosopher] Václav Bělohradský says in his essay From gloria dei to celebritas dei that appeared in the book Společnost nevolnosti [Society of unfreedom] (SLON, 2009, p. 79).

What values do we still hold sacred? And what about the silence, the only response of powerless men and women, those who have no way of interfering with advertising? Does anyone hear this silence? Sometimes it seems quite deafening, even though it is powerless.

And now we have Grandpa of the nation or good old national Grandpa. What can we do about him? For many people he seems to represent the last bastion, one they didn’t even know still existed until a bank pulled it out as a trump card. As a trump card of communication, a trump card of which it is not clear if it’’s meant to shock or just gently tickle the senses by evoking memories of a secure childhood.

On the one hand it’’s touching to know that there are people who say enough is enough, this is going too far, we won’’t let them take good old Grandpa away. On the other hand – isn’’t it a bit too late? Is Grandpa from the Večerníček intro cartoon really the last bastion that has not yet been desecrated? And did he really represent a bastion? And has it really fallen? However deeply I search my conscience and try to banish the cynicism that has served me as a shield enabling me to walk around in a world crammed with advertisements, it seems to me that in this respect Grandpa, whether national or not, is quite retro. And as we know, retro is usually quite harmless.

I have some good news for those who mourn him as if he were the last bastion of the transcendental: Grandpa Večerníček will never again be abused by an advertisement because it would no longer be new and shocking. And that is why we just have to wait until this particular advertising campaign is over and Grandpa can get into his nicely renovated little house and stay there forever. Those for whom he represents an integral part of their childhood can retain a nice memory, enhanced by improved visuals and a new little house. Well, I can only envy Grandpa’’s admirers for we can hardly expect this kind of peaceful and quiet conclusion in the case of other oven-ready advertising products such as female bodies and parts thereof, along with a few other, tried and tested advertising props.

Translation: Julia Sherwood. The original article appeared in the daily Pravda on 7 April 2011.