Why do you remember TV commercials from 40 years ago, but not the name of somebody you met five minutes ago? Who knows? But for some reason this stupid Hai Karate commercial, featuring the dorky glasses-wearing guy fending off an excited young woman, is engrained on my neural synapses as surely and inexorably as, say, the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies.
What did Hai Karate smell like? Why would any guy want to wear after shave? And why would any guy want to use karate on some girl who was interested in a make out session? The commercial left these central questions unanswered, to be carefully pondered by the confused, soon-to-be-teenage boy who was trying to figure out what was cool and what wasn’t.
Throughout the NCAA tournament game broadcasts this past weekend, I kept seeing the same commercial for the 2010 federal Census. You’ve probably seen it, too. It begins with some unshaven, slovenly guy in a bathrobe going out to get his mail. He gets the census form and suddenly the street is crowded with passersby. He walks along, his bathrobe flapping in the breeze, coaches a pregnant woman being wheeled by on a gurney as she is ready to give birth, and eventually meets up with a throng that includes a marching band. The message of the commercial — at one point specifically stated by the schmoe in the robe — is: “Let’s all fill out the census to make sure that we get our fair share of federal funding!”
The commercial really bugged me when I saw it, and as I’ve thought about it since then I’ve slowly realized why. First, the spokesman is a portly slob. He comes out to get his mail in his bathrobe in broad daylight, so he apparently doesn’t have a regular job, and he’s got plenty of time to go waltzing around town. (What is he, a blogger? Hey, wait a minute!) More importantly, however, the whole point of the commercial seems to be that people should fill out the census so they and their neighbors can get more money from Uncle Sam. What a destructive message! The Census has now become all about communities sucking even more cash from the federal till.
I have no doubt that the Census Bureau did some careful testing and was told that this commercial was best calculated to convince people to fill out and return their census forms. If I am right on that, it is pathetic indeed. It is just another indication that we are increasingly becoming a dependency culture, where the first inclination of many people is to appeal to the federal government to take care of them and solve their problems. Like the clod in the commercial, we sit at home in our bathrobes, insisting that getting help from the federal government is our birthright and focused primarily on doing whatever will help us to quickly get a bigger piece of the federal pie to consume. Is this really what we have come to?