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The Dark Side of Dave Thomas

By Jade Hays
02/16/02

The recent demise of Dave Thomas caught me off-guard. Maybe I had a bigger investment in Dave's goofy spin on American values that I cared to admit. I remember way back thinking that there was no way in hell this Wendy's commercial thing was going to make it, that this fat white guy was a shmuck, and anyone buying into Dave's crap was doomed to a car-load of indigestion. But Thomas proved me wrong. We didn't have a Wendy's in my home town, so it wasn't until our high-school football team paid a visit to the Pendleton Buckaroos that I had a chance to sample the food and at least give Wendy's credit for giving customers their money's worth. I recall a significant reason we got our asses whipped was because a few of our miserable linemen unaccustomed to the larger portions were ill from stuffing themselves with too much chili, Frosties and triple-patty hamburgers. I remember our first Wendy's meal hurled out on the 50-yard-line at half time by the music of coach Revell haranguing us mercilessly as gluttons and lard-asses. After the game, in some Lynchian twist of plot, we came back to Wendy's to console our loss.

I'm saddened that he's gone. I suppose I believed in Dave. His obituary underlined his generous spirit, his quiet philanthropy and dedication to family. But there is one dark legacy left by Dave's ambition which most of us are quite unaware of. The seemingly harmless popularity of the homespun commercials created a twenty-year trend in advertising that has the potential to devastate the very core of human self-perception. In time, this dry rot of psyche will hollow-out our potential and leave us with just an empty feed bag to fill our souls by. Allow me to explain.

Before Dave Thomas, advertisers had to actually sell their products. If you wanted to sell a hamburger, that hamburger had to be a hamburger fit for royalty. A fast-food chain was required to convince us that their hamburger that was ten times better tasting than the last hamburger you ate. If you made a snow tire, that tire had to withstand the icy rage of Zeus. If you made lawnmowers, then by the end of Sunday nobody should be left standing with toes. Your disposable razor was sharper than a mosquito's penis.

But the genius of Dave changed everything. In his humble, brilliant simplicity, Dave made it okay to be, well, just okay. Rather than waste millions trying to make the dubious argument that a Wendy's hamburger was going to make you a better person, Dave in a very simple way changed the relative context and simply made us all worse. Dave celebrated the mundane, the home-cooked, the ordinary. Dave cherished the absolute rule of the suburban mentality. Instead of laboring to appeal to that sliver of connoisseur that might be hiding in the American palette untwinged, Dave pointed the microscope towards the inescapable buffet of ugliness in all of us. Now, any asshole with a mouth would find a hamburger, a bowl of chili and a milkshake fare for the gods. The logic of it was as steadfast as the inability of most of us to refute it.

If I remember right, around this time a war for the worst was being waged on the airwaves. Nike had come up with their perennial success slogan 'just do it'. Mirroring Dave's desire to adore the hopeless consumer, Nike hyper-leaped America into an aerobic frenzy by simply echoing the first three words of that inner, defeatist mantra that drives most Americans out of the cozy harbor of our beds and into ferocious money-making pit-of our pathetic ritualistic lives: "Just do it (you fat, ugly lazy piece of shit, you'll never fit into your jeans again if you don't at least run around the block for a few minutes--c'mon! Let's go before somebody wakes-up and sees you waddling around like a sea elephant for chrissakes!)"

Again, the strength of this commercial was inversely proportional to the self-esteem of the viewer. Banking on our innate failure, Nike enjoyed its golden years during the 80's when so many losers hit the mats trying to open up the heart valves so hopelessly clogged by carcinogenic meat sandwiches. But this devastation to human potential was nothing like the likes seen in the 90's. Welcome to the colors of Benetton.

Benetton took the democratizing theme of Wendy's and applied it to fashion. Instead of emphasizing the lowest common denominator of cuisine, Benetton created a myopic, universal sense of multi-culturalism. In one deft stroke all genetic and cultural markers were erased: no banjo-plucking inbred crackers, no chinks, no kykes, no injuns, no wetbacks, no niggers, no dykes with dogs, no dagos no sand monkeys. Just the wonderful altruistic human rainbow bouquet of Benetton. Clothes suitable for everybody. In fact, we ARE everybody! Despite the tribal genocide being waged continuously between all sapiens since the primordial dawn, according to Benetton, the are no significant differences to mention. Aren't we all cut from the same bolt of cloth, Benetton seems to query in their apocalyptic cross-pollination gone ape-shit. The marketing genius here was playing on our deepest fears of inadvertently being a racist. If one didn't embrace Benetton you as well admit that you enjoy wearing a pointy white hat and burning crosses on Baptist lawns. Scads of indistinguisable Americans scurried out to buy a shawl of political correctness while a few pennies on the dollar were promised to resuscitate a murderous puppet junta in Guatemala. By the end of the 90's a new breed of advertisement was being developed that would end all human excellence that Dave never could have envisioned. Let's call our new community the Cult of Smug.

So likable were the dead-beat snack-chip-eating channel surfers and the obese keg-emptying weekend warriors of our commercial lexicon that eventually marketing a new product wasn't simply emphasizing Archie Bunker in all of us. Rather, human frailty and athletic short-comings were becoming an asset. You were actually better off being a shithead. Soon the Everyman and Everywoman was around us in full splendor, replete with untapped anti-excellence if only we pointed our super-close-up, super slo-mo lens in the proper direction: assembly workers with three legs, acne-scared phlebotomists, wall-eyed laundromat attendants with prisoner of war tattoos. Wonder-filled adolescents dance inside burlap bags; smoky-eyed fireman rescue puppies from oak trees. In each new spot, another giggling Tibetan was discovered toying with a Nikon camera. African bushman could be seen throwing spears at over new SUVs. At first these depictions were like innocent discoveries. A quiet moment between a mother and a daughter is shared in a New England cobblestone hutch. See a father and young son hold hands. But by the end of the millennium a new level of raw unachievement was reached. Instead of the laughing middle-school teacher and the joyful Irish lassie we begin to see a sort of self-confidence that borders on exhibitionism.

Most common is the geriatric karate enthusiast. With arms akimbo, grandma shows off her white-belt to the camera as the lens 'amateurishly' goes in and out of focus. A super close-up of her pruney visage and determined look, we the viewer are supposed to be scared shitless by these uncommon acts of ferocity and remarkable can-do attitude. Grandma seems to be saying: "I am so goddamn average, that I will kick your f-in ass if you don't believe it." The viewer is inclined to temporarily forget that one swift chop to the thyroid gland would leave grandma writhing in soiled Depends, yet this is the uncanny paradox of the new marketing school. All that matters is that you are self-centered, annoying, and completely oblivious to your station in life. If bowling with your overweight, divorced alcoholic friends is all you got, then by god, you might as well get cocky about it. What else is there in life? Of course the ultimate logic of this point-of-view is that you are not supposed to raise questions about what is being sold to you, be it banking services or a new barbecue, you are simply supposed to relish in your own self-deception to the point of smugness. In this brave new world, the retired and the crippled, the ugly and the jaundiced, are in superior advantage to the beautiful, the rich and the chosen. Not only are you in a better position to be sold something you couldn't possibly need, you are rolling up your sleeves and coming after any sorry sonofabitch that isn't paying homage to your provincial, unquestioning inner-beauty. If you don't get with us egotistical second-rates, we are going stare at this camera forever and pose until you die of embarrassment for humanity.

I don't know if Dave meant for all of this to happen. To be sure, he did us a favor by giving us the beef. I do admire the fact that it is permissible to celebrate mediocrity once in a while. There is too much pressure to succeed in the world as it is. But let me issue a very middle-of-the-road warning [go slo-mo, voice-over narration normal time]: if any one of you old coots think you are going to come after me [start the shadow-boxing sequence; zoom in on zit on end of nose] with your lazy uppercuts and your glassy-eyed grins [see haymaker coming from off-camera left] you better double-up on the Ensure [full-screen view of fist] and triple-up on the beef patty's [zoom-out on fist recoiling] because I am one normal, bored consumer [me smiling, fists at side, waving bye-bye, smug.]

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