Cellphone Commercials Are the New Theater of Tragic Realism.


Has anyone else noticed that cellphone commercials, as a category, are giving us a remarkably stark, uncensored and clear-eyed take on alienation in the American Family?

It goes across brands. One spot shows us a dinnertime dialogue that virtually defines anomie: teenage daughter and slightly younger brother seething with quiet contempt for one another, daughter protesting to parents that brother has chosen her 5 best girlfriends as his “fave five,” parents unable to muster enough energy even to pretend they care. (If it weren’t so funny it could be a commercial for an antidepressant.)

Another has a mother and ten-year old daughter screaming at each other about the daughter’s excessive text-messaging; the daughter runs off, hating her mother with the fire of a thousand suns. They will probably never have real communication from this point forward, and even the possibility of a civil conversation anytime in the next ten years seems unlikely.

Still another spot has a father telling his teenage daughters that with a new calling plan the family can text and send pictures without Mom having to work two jobs to pay for it, and this time it’s the kids’ turn not to care; they’re already texting as much as they want anyway, and the fact that Mom’s second job is a demeaning one involving the wearing of a giant taco costume means squat to them.

Commercials generally show us a fantasy, an idea of who we’d like to be rather than who we are. Or else they exaggerate a problem in order to make us crave a solution. Cellphone commercials, for whatever reasons, have broken the mold. They alone hold up a mirror to show us as we really are: parents hating children, children loathing parents, all meaningful dialogue ceased, all hope lost. Cellphone commercial makers, I salute you! You are our Eugene O’Neills, our new playwrights of the American Family Tragedy!