I used to hate watching commercials; they extended what should have been a twenty-two minute television show to a full half hour and inundated me with sales pitches for products I neither had an interest in nor needed. Our move from Norfolk to Washington resulted in our upgrading our cable television plan and with it came DVR capabilities. I've never watched a whole lot of television but being able to skip over the commercials was pure heaven (and ironically made my television viewing more efficient). When we first moved overseas and I was introduced to the commercial free American Forces Network (AFN) I thought it would be pure bliss. (Because AFN is operated by the Department of Defense, airing any traditional commercials could be construed as a product endorsement and are therefore not allowed). But then I realized that we didn't really have commercial free television; rather traditional commercials had been replaced with public service announcements which proved to be more annoying than the worst discount furniture advertisement ever was. Plus, no commercials means no Super Bowl commercials, which in my way of thinking, is the sole reason for watching the biggest football game of the year.
So what does a Department of Defense endorsed public service announcement look like? They are all about propaganda. While most of the topics are serious, more often than not, the message is often lost in the bad (intentional? unintentional? I don't know what is worse) acting. It might be a young women portraying no military spouse I have ever seen and who looks better suited for a sports bar or nail salon spot, espousing the benefits of Exchange shopping or it might be a diverse group of soldiers, sailors, and airmen urging young people to enlist. Serious messages about domestic violence and suicide prevention are necessary but dark enough to kill the mood of even the funniest comedy. Sometimes we you can see multi-star Generals and Admirals talking about safety abroad, family values, or command morale. What Right Looks Like, the latest educational campaign pokes fun at the right and wrong way to approach life. Video snippets show us how not to talk to co-workers, interact with our host nation nationals, and other etiquette related behavior then demonstrate what proper behavior looks like. Although varied and humorous or serious or inadvertently both, after a while all of these messages begin to sound and look the same. I never thought I'd find myself longing for an obnoxious salesman yelling at me through the television screen, but I do.
Every once in a while AFN messes up and we do get a glimpse of a real U.S. based commercial. This usually happens during live programming and the glimpse of American commercialism is a treat for sore eyes. During one particular Sunday evening football game this past fall we saw an entire Subway commercial and half of a Honda one before the screen cut to one of our regular PSA spots. Imagine our brief excitement! When operating smoothly, however, we can expect to view a slew of PSAs at twenty and fifty after the hour. I'm realizing that I can discuss SOFAs, the top European travel locations for military (Edelweiss Resort), and the steps we must take to prepare for retirement, but I have no idea what new products Nabisco is selling, the latest American fashion trends, or what movies are opening soon in theaters near you/us. In conversations with my U.S. based friends many cultural references are simply lost on me. I am both geographically and mentally separated from American culture. Some days I miss it while others I don't. I do, however, know "what right looks like."