Friday, April 18, 2014

Sometimes a TV commercial is more entertaining than TV

By Marc Jampole

The latest version of the monster movie, Godzilla, will hit the screens sometime next month.

As a child, I used to love the cheesy Japanese Godzilla movies, but I gave up Godzilla about the same time that I picked up Catcher in the Rye and The Red and the Black.  I never go to monster, horror or sci fi movies, never read the books and channel surf away from a TV station as soon as I realize it’s playing programs of any of these related genres. I didn’t see the 2004 opus about the fantasy giant lizard that destroys Tokyo and I have no intention of seeing the latest retelling of the myth.

But I know it’s coming, thanks to perhaps the most creative and entertaining television commercial in years.

No, the commercial is not for the movie. It’s for the candy bar, Snickers. Mars, the company that manufactures Snickers, has entered into a marketing agreement to be the official candy bar of the movie.

Who knew that Godzilla ate candy?

The commercial starts with a montage of Godzilla having fun with his friends, all active and attractive twentysomething males. Godzilla flirts with a beautiful woman on the beach, it drives an all-terrain vehicle along the sand dunes, it hits a hard smash in a game of ping pong, it dances with a few girls at a house party. Godzilla is clearly the alpha male among his bunch of cool dudes.

The commercial cuts to two of Godzilla’s best buds, who hold the following conversation while gripping plastic cups of beer: First guy: “Godzilla’s actually pretty cool.”  Second guy: “Except when he’s hungry. Suddenly, we cut to scenes of Godzilla destroying a city. Someone unwraps a Snickers and tosses it to the giant lizard, who snatches the candy bar in its enormous jaws and smiles in appreciation. The action now cuts to Godzilla on jet skis, impressing all his buds with his form. We see Godzilla balanced gracefully on the jet skis, moving towards the camera, his left hand curled into a “thumbs up.”

You’d think the sugar high from eating a candy bar on an empty stomach would send the giant lizard into a hyperactive frenzy that would level not just Tokyo, but Yokohama, Osaka, Sapporo, Kobe and Kyoto as well. But not in a TV spot for a food product that its maker is shilling as the perfect way to keep up your energy. 

The final scene of jet-ski Godzilla as the hippest guy around dissolves into the sell lines:  “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry. Snickers satisfies,” followed by a reminder that the new Godzilla will be in the theaters soon.

The idea that Godzilla is a cool chick-magnet is hilarious. Also funny is the paradox of language that the commercial creates: Mars is saying that Godzilla is not himself when he’s hungry, but in fact he is himself when he’s hungry and destroying buildings with paw swipes; he transforms into a softer, nicer, different creature when fed something good and substantial, like Snickers. 
The pleasure derived from this very funny TV spot comes through the reference not just to the fictional character of Godzilla, but to the series of commercials that Mars has been airing for Snickers since 2010.  The series, unified by the slogan “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” shows men turning into different, less attractive people because they’re hungry. By gnawing on a Snickers, the men return to their true selves.  

So for example, a determined and focused football coach turns into Robin Williams doing one his crazy routines in which he imitates three or four characters within a few seconds, throwing off absurd statements in rapid fire succession. A Snickers turns him into a calm and focused coach again. In another spot, a guy at a party trying to connect with some girls turns into an angry, sadistic and out-of-control Joe Pesci (playing on his roles in Casino and Goodfellas).  Once he has a Snickers, he’s a charming guy, but one of the girls is now Don Rickles.  In another spot, a touch football player becomes Betty White. In England, it’s a guy in a locker room transformed into Joan Collins.  

These spots have one target market: young men. All the characters are men in groups. The situations are typically play times, like sports, parties or clubs. The solution to what’s ailing the main character—whether it’s prissiness, overly feminine behavior, confusion, incoherence or anger—comes from a male friend.  The point of view is male, and a little sexist, as several of the scenes objectify women into sex objects and in none are the women anything more than goals for conquest.

The message that the ads are trying to make is particularly pernicious:  that you can curb your hunger and return to normal by eating a candy bar with peanuts. The peanuts are good for you, to be sure, but the sugar sure isn’t. Most people would be better off having a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts or raisins, some raw vegetables or a piece of bread with chickpea spread for a snack. As the commercial suggests, it’s true that Snickers is convenient. You can carry one in your pocket or buy one almost anywhere that young men congregate. But it’s not healthy, which is the inference in returning to oneself or remaining one’s self.

But the fact that the commercial is built on a lie doesn’t prevent us from enjoying it. After all, how often do we enjoy plays or novels that glorify gangsters or, worse yet, kings and queens? (who represent the principle that some people are better than others and deserve more than others by virtue of their birth.)

So by all means, chuckle or snigger when you see Godzilla munching on a chocolate bar. Just don’t believe the message.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Obama fumbles opportunity to improve relations with Iran

By Marc Jampole

The Obama Administration made a big mistake denying a visa to Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi. The United States should be seeking to improve our relations with Iran so that they will cease development of nuclear weapons and help us seek peaceful ways to clean up the messes in Iraq, Syria and Israeli-occupied territories. Easing tensions throughout the Middle East would free U.S. military and economic resources to address the eroding situation in Ukraine.

But beyond these considerations of what Henry Kissinger would call “Realpolitik,” there’s the simple fact that the U.S. government is wrong to interfere in the affairs of another nation.

And for what? Who is Hamid Aboutalebi? Did he engage in acts of terror funded by Mafia-like shakedowns of merchants as Menachem Begin did? Did he work with Nazis during World War II as Anwar Sadat did?

What was the horrible thing that Aboutalebi did?

As a 22-year old, he served as translator for the group of students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year before representatives of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan went behind the back of the duly-elected U.S. government to negotiate the illegal arms-for-hostages deal called the Iran-Contra Affair. All existing evidence points to the conclusion that Aboutalebi wasn’t even one of the core cadre of students who engineered the takeover, but was called in afterwards to provide a technical service—translation. Wikipedia reports that Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who helped to organize and lead the embassy takeover, has said  that Aboutalebi's involvement was peripheral. In Asghararzadeh’s words, “Calling him a hostage-taker is simply wrong.”  

Now put yourself in the shoes of an idealistic and highly educated 22-year-old who has conservative religious beliefs that shape your concept of democracy and representational government. Years before, a foreign power had helped this dictator overthrow your legally elected government. The dictator then installed a decades-long violent reign of terror against all citizens, but especially religious dissidents.  For decades, the foreign power provided financial and military support to prop up this dictator. Now that your country has finally overthrown this anti-religious monster, the foreign country is harboring him and not allowing your country to extradite him. It would be as if a foreign country refused to extradite Hitler to Germany or Israel.  You did not participate in the violent takeover but you are sympathetic to the cause of the hostage-takers. And they are not asking you to carry a gun, pistol whip someone, hold a hostage’s head under water or make them crawl naked through excrement—no, none of the real torture that took place in the Bush II torture gulag. No, all you have to do is use your extensive knowledge to communicate with the other side.

Now, I’m not condoning the 1979 hostage-taking, but I do understand why a group of Iranian young people thought they were justified in storming the U.S. embassy. 

The 444-day hostage ordeal embarrassed the United States and made us a bit of a laughing stock. But it did not harm the United States the way three decades of autocratic rule by Shah Mohammad Rezi Pahlavi ruined Iranian civil life.  In the vast scheme of things, it rates far below the 9/11 attacks, the illegal bombing of Cambodia,  the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians known as the Holodomor or the dropping of the atomic bomb on civilian targets.

We are currently engaged in a process of negotiations to reduce tensions with Iran. When two enemy countries become friends, each side must in a sense, “forgive and forget” the transgressions of the other side. We of course should never forget, nor should we really “forgive” bad behavior. But what we should and often do is to put the bad stuff aside and move on. Israel and Germany are allies. We are allies with Britain, Germany and Japan, all former enemies.  Part of the process of dissolving tensions is to let “bygones be bygones.” The idea is for Iran to deal with us in a friendly manner despite the fact that we helped to suppress the country for three decades and for us to deal with Iran in a friendly manner despite the fact they embarrassed us so many years ago.

But instead of letting the sleeping dog lie, instead of moving on, the United States prefers to put additional strain on our fragile relationship with Iran by making a big deal about something non-violent that Iran’s choice for UN ambassador did more than 30 years ago when he was a young man.

It makes no sense.  

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Editorial: GOP Wrong Again

After the frenzied finish of the first enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration on April 1 triumphantly announced that more than 7.1 million Americans had signed up for private insurance plans through the federally sponsored marketplaces. That surpassed the Congressional Budget Office’s original projection, even with the “disastrous” launch of that sidelined the website in October and much of November. As Eric Boehlert notes on page 10, the corporate media had echoed the Republican line that it would take a miracle for the marketplaces to enroll 7 million but conservatives remain in denial that the federal health reform has hit its stride.

Even before the White House announced the numbers, Sen. John Barasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, on March 30 had accused the administration of “cooking the books,” a conspiracy theory that other Republicans quickly took up. After President Obama claimed the credit in the Rose Garden, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the 7.1 million signups a “slow rolling fiasco” and “a Pyrric victory” and others continued to express doubt about the numbers. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) adopted the GOP line that enrollees don’t count until they’ve paid their first month’s premium. “We don’t know of course exactly what they’ve signed up for, we don’t know how many have paid,” McConnell said. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) agreed in a conference call with reporters, “Clearly we still don’t have information on how many of those individuals have paid their premiums.”

If many new enrollees haven’t paid their first premiums yet, it may be because the insurance companies failed to increase their staff to handle the rush of new business and get out the invoices.

Other Republicans claimed the law also forced the cancellation of millions of policies, so many of the people enrolling in the new marketplaces were simply being forced to buy a different plan. “The bulk of the people who are signing up had insurance to begin with, and they probably had their insurance canceled because of Obamacare, said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), having no numbers to back up his claim, but then again Fox and Friends hosts rarely press their Republican guests. “It is abundantly clear this thing isn’t working,” Cruz added. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, GOP Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) all expressed similar sentiments, Sy Mukherjee noted at

Remember that under the old “let the buyer beware” insurance system to which Republicans would like to return, three quarters of medical bankruptcies happened to people who thought they were covered until they got sick and found they were underinsured.

The Rand Corp. on April 8 poked a big hole in the Republican argument that millions lost insurance when it reported that at least 9.3 million more Americans have health insurance than in September 2013, virtually all as a result of the law. And that’s a net figure, accommodating the less than one million Americans who lost their individual plans because of cancellations. That’s less than 1% of the US population age 18-64, Rand noted.

And most of those people lost their old, low-cost insurance plans because the plans offered junk coverage that left policyholders vulnerable in case of a real health emergency. Among the ACA’s benefits are that it requires insurance companies to stop excluding coverage for “pre-existing conditions”; it requires that policies provide free preventive care; it does away with annual and lifetime caps on coverage; it provides subsidies to help small businesses provide insurance for workers; it provides discounts on prescription medicines for seniors; and it allows people to quit dead-end jobs and start their own businesses with the assurance that they can get affordable coverage.

One of the misconceptions of the Affordable Care Act is that it was based on the individual mandate plan embraced by Republicans in the 1990s, as insurance companies allied with conservatives to successfully sidetrack Hillary Clinton's attempt to reform health care. The difference was that the Heritage Foundation's original plan in 1989 merely proposed that people be forced to buy insurance, without the standards that the Affordable Care Act required for insurance coverage 20 years later.

And in those states where the insurance plans have not proven to be affordable, due to a lack of competition among private insurance companies, states can and should develop their own public options. The law allows states in 2017 to seek “innovation waivers” to try their own paths to universal health coverage, such as statewide single-payer plans. Vermont already is developing a single-payer plan. Under Section 1332, which provides for the waivers, states must cover as many people and offer coverage as comprehensive and affordable as the old system. Qualifying states would receive the same federal funding that would have been available under the ACA.

Republicans have been reluctant to actually produce an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, knowing that anything short of expanding Medicare to cover everybody is going to illustrate the benefits of Obamacare. Ryan admitted as much in an April 4 interview with Bloomberg News’ Al Hunt. Asked if Republicans would maintain the pre-existing conditions regulations, dependent coverage extension, and other rate requirements if they replaced Obamacare, Ryan said, “You dramatically crank up the cost. And you make it hard for people to get affordable health care.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on April 2 unveiled a conservative health care alternative which health analysts said it would cost millions of Americans to lose their existing health care plans and hurt the middle class and working poor.

Jindal’s “Freedom and Empowerment Plan” would repeal Obamacare and treat employer-sponsored coverage and nongroup insurance equally in the tax code. Repeal would cause at least 10 million people who have signed up for insurance through the new marketplaces, Medicaid expansion and the remaining individual market to lose their insurance. The substitute plan would lead many businesses to stop offering coverage altogether, Igor Volsky noted at (April 2).

Volsky noted that the 149 million nonelderly people who obtain coverage through their jobs don’t pay taxes on their benefits. The tax subsidy, which dates back to World War 2, encourages employers to offer health insurance. Jindal proposes to eliminate the tax-exempt status of employer-sponsored plans — treating employer-sponsored benefits as taxable income — and replace it with “a standard deduction for all forms of health insurance,” which would encourage individuals to buy coverage independent of their employer plans.

Volsky noted that sicker and lower-income people would be most disadvantaged by what Jindal is offering. If the ACA’s insurance regulations were fully repealed, individuals who lost their employer-sponsored insurance would turn to the individual market, where insurers would be able once again to cherry-pick the healthiest enrollees or charge more for pre-existing conditions.

And the Republicans’ proposed tax deduction would primarily benefit people in higher tax brackets and would be worth little (or nothing) to the vast majority of uninsured, who are in the 15% tax bracket or less and would reap few, if any, rewards from Jindal’s proposal.

As Americans become more familiar with the benefits of Obamacare and realize that Republicans have been lying about it for five years, and we see working-poor Americans dying because they are shut out of Medicaid by Republican governors and legislators who compose the real death panels, voters need to ask the Republican naysayers why they never lifted a finger when they were in power to help working people get affordable health care. In the meantime, progressives around the country should follow Vermont’s lead in promoting single-payer plans in their states as the next step toward affordable universal care. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014
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Selections from the May 1, 2014 issue

‘Obamacare’ critics, including Kochs, accept subsidies;
Money lines up against minimum wage hike;
Connecticut, Maryland pass $10.10 minimum wage;
On high court, former lobbyist guts campaign reform;
Progressive Dems move to draft Bernie Sanders for president;
Polls show good news for Dems;
Red-state voters want to expand Medicaid;
Earthquakes raise fracking fears;
N.C. regulators in no hurry to clean up coal ash spill;
Mark Udall slams AFP Obamacare pitch to China;
Fox News least accurate on climate change;
Demint: Big government didn't free slaves ... 

Them that’s got shall get

CVS tobacco ban contributes to common good 

Accelerating use of renewable energy

Factory farms are no chicken Shangri-La

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Scrooge, a tea party revision