Fetishsizing the Communication Gap: The AT&T "Vietnam" Commercial
Issue #41, December 1998
The opening shot shows an open-canopied passenger boat gliding up a wide river bound by jungle-covered banks on either side. The music is instantly recognizable as Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Long Time Gone." Inside the boat a young black man is looking out on the water intently, surrounded by casually dressed, rural-looking Vietnamese people of all ages. In the next shot he is lying on his back on the boat looking across the river at the palm-clad shore. His shirt is open and dog-tags loll on his chest, marking him as a military man. "It's been a long time coming..." sings David Crosby. He disembarks the boat onto a dusty shore dotted with bamboo structures and filled with playing children. Against a background of peaceful scenes of rural Vietnamese life, we hear the soldier's voice saying: "My dad was here... he never talked about it much — he said you had to be there. — Well, here I am." While the melody is cresting in the background, the scene cuts to the soldier, indoors, leaning against a public telephone. "Hey old man!" He says. He is holding an AT&T calling card. A graying man answers the phone back in America and says, "Tye! You still in Singapore?" Tye replies, "No, I'm on leave. I'm in Vietnam." The older man replies, "Vietnam" and purses his lips and rolls his eyes upward. Lowering his eyes again he continues, "let's talk, son." Close-up of Tye as he replies, head bowed, "Yeah." David Crosby sings: "And it appears to be a long..." Fade to a black screen pierced by the silver AT&T logo with the underlying slogan: "It's all within your reach."
The AT&T "Vietnam" Commercial:
A Vietnam Veteran Responds
At first this looks like just another expensive American commercial filmed in an exotic location in order to grab the viewer's attention. Music of the 1960s is frequently used in advertising to make those of us who came of age at that time feel bonded to the contemporary culture. The lyrics of David Crosby's song "Long Time Gone" which he re-recorded for this commercial reinforce this bond, as does the underlying back beat which reminds me of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine."
After a few seconds, the landscape becomes recognizably Vietnamese. The National Geographic style photography in the commercial makes the landscape look quite serene. It did always seem to look serene, though it never was. For me it held terror. I find it ironic that the scenery in which the commercial is set includes landscapes that hosted some of the most intense fighting of the war. Navy patrol boats were regularly ambushed from those beautiful river banks as they poled up the rivers as the boat in the commercial does so blithely. And I climbed several hills in Vietnam like the one the man walks up in the commercial. When walking up a hill like that during the war one didn't just pray to live through the day, or the next hour, but through the next few minutes. There were a hundred ways to become maimed or to die hiking (what we called "humping those hills").
It is interesting that the man in the commercial is black. The white Americans who fought in the war had in general no respect for the Asians, typically referring to them in derogatory terms. "Pappa-san," "slopes," "ginks," "gooks," or just "v.c.," and of course treating them like shit. Statements like "We'll bomb them back into the Stone Age (and it won't take long)" and "We had to destroy the village to save it" were often heard among GIs. We did massive population relocations and tried to destroy the forests with defoliants. So who did the white government send to fight the war? Blacks. The ratio of blacks to whites in Vietnam, if I remember, was about one in four or five, while the ratio in the U.S. population as a whole was about one in nine or ten. The blacks, after the Vietnamese, where the most exploited race in the war. When the war was lost, instead of taking responsibility for the greatest U.S. fuck-up of the twentieth century, those in power violated the social contract that had been in place at least since the Peleponnesian wars. The social contract states that those who go and risk life at the behest of the state will be accorded honors in proportion to their risk. But in the United States since the war ended, the soldiers who fought the war have been either forgotten or denigrated in public.
I notice that the commercial shows the traditional conception of the "look" of the country. It doesn't show any neon lights, humming factories, or the colonial cities of Saigon or Hue. Instead it shows the dirt roads, river roads, and small villages of the rural agrarian people. This vision of the Vietnamese countryside echoes the policy maintained by the U.S. government for twenty years after the war of hindering Vietnam's every effort to modernize and become a productive member of the developed world. I feel horribly embarrassed for the vindictive attitude that the U.S. took during those two decades. After twenty years, finally, the U.S. lifted its trade embargo. Since then Nike has set up shop there exploiting the people, and AT&T is now exploiting our cultural amnesia about the war. "Son, let's talk." Damn right! The U.S. government needs to recover its memory of the past thirty years and talk to its citizens about what an onerous error it made by getting involved in the war, and do some healing on the issue. Maybe it would be possible to bring some of those hawks to accountability. Let the Pentagon and the old senators learn a few lessons. But if that's going to happen it needs to happen soon, because like for the father and son in this commercial, it is almost too late. The talking should have been done long ago.
The AT&T "Vietnam" Commercial:
A Vietnam Veteran's Daughter Responds
The AT&T "Vietnam" commercial was filmed on the Mekong river delta by a director of television advertisements who had fought there and won decoration during the war. The commercial is an example of the current trend called "emotional advertising," which seeks to reach markets by using dramatic narratives to appeal to audiences' heartstrings. The commercial turns the communication gap between Vietnam veterans and their children into an object of fetishization that is condescended to, beautified, and sold for profit. To those of us who were raised by parents who carry a burden of memory that is too painful to recall, much less retell, this commercial gives grave offense. This hidden history has given even those of us who are very close with our veteran parents a sense of an unbridgable communication gap between ourselves and them. The AT&T commercial presents this gap as a tragic half-told tale, ripe to be redeemed by the Midas touch of the commercial sphere like a Disney movie of a grisly tale from Brothers Grimm.
I saw this commercial on Sunday of the Fourth of July weekend, and for days afterward I was left with a persistent and lingering sense of having been robbed. I experienced a violation in watching this dramatic depiction of the very private, difficult work my father and I have done to make sense of each others' painful histories. The nature of this violation was twofold. First, the story invoked the history of the Vietnam war generation at the expense of my own generational experience. Second, the story was told for profit. In addition to the ways in which this commercial offended me in particular, I found it also offensive in ways that were not specific to my experience. These ways include the use of African-American actors to portray the father and son, the use of a narrative that is reminiscent of the film Apocalypse Now, and the way the commercial exploits the invisibility of the Vietnam veterans as a group.
As my father points out above, the music in this commercial invokes the history and generational consciousness of the 1960s. The New York Times reports that the market research conducted for this commercial consisted of screening it for Vietnam veterans, and that the commercial is scheduled to be shown on "appropriate" occasions such as Veteran's Day and Memorial Day weekends, when veterans are presumed most likely to be watching television (NYT, July 24, 1998). These facts illustrate that the Young & Rubicam Advertising agency designed the commercial to be aimed at Vietnam veterans and their cohorts. Yet the main character of the commercial's story is not the Vietnam veteran, it is the veteran's son. The people who, when watching the commercial, can expect to identify with this main character are not the Veterans at whom the ad is aimed, but their children. This would be made a little bit clearer if the musical accompaniment was "Smells Like Teen Spirit" rather than "Long Time Gone," but then that would repair the contradiction of using a character of a child of a Vietnam vet to grab the attention (and market share) of the vets themselves and their cohort.
By fetishizing the communication gap between Vietnam veterans and their children, and exploiting this fetish for profit, the AT&T commercial takes revenge on the war itself on behalf of corporate America. As Bill Boisvert points out, Robert MacNamara had left the presidency of the Ford Motor Company to run the defense department and the Vietnam War itself. The United States' disastrous failure in Vietnam was seen by many in business as a disavowal, by the Vietnam generation, of the Fordist business practices with which corporate America had built the first half of the twentieth century. The factory assembly line that had been invented by Henry Ford and made possible the mass production of the automobile was drawn on by military leaders who led American forces to well-regimented battlefield success in World War II. But the Vietnam generation was part of a new world in which that machine factory model of war that had worked so well in Europe in the 1940s was ineffectual in a different kind of war against a different kind of enemy ("The Culture of Business," The Baffler #6). This military failure prompted a backlash against the model of business that had inspired it, and forced businesses management to reinvent itself, a process which continues today.
In the context of this corporate view, the veterans are the people who lost the war for America and brought shame to the traditional model of America's way of doing business. In retaliation, American business has treated the veterans as if they don't exist: sponsoring few memorials and programs, using none of the culture and history-building mechanisms at its well-funded disposal to commemorate or even acknowledge the experience of the veterans. By assimilating the war and using it for profit, the corporate world, as iconized by AT&T, is serving the victor's coup de grace to a generation that had presented corporate hegemony with its fiercest challenge. And this coup de grace takes a most personal and offensive form: AT&T invades the very privacy of the family relationships that have been affected by the war.
That this privacy should be taken away at all is appalling in the first place, but that African-American actors were used makes it even more so. As my father correctly points out, the Vietnam war troops were disproportionately African-American. This was true for a number of reasons, including lower levels of employment in African-American communities that made military service an inviting option, and high rates of reenlistment. It is also the case that the United States military had only been desegregated since 1948, so the Vietnam war was only the second war the United States fought that allowed African-American soldiers the same opportunities for advancement as whites, and military service was a new source of pride in accomplishment that was available to non-white youths. Because African-American soldiers did advance strongly in the ranks, the ratio of non-whites to whites in elite combat units peaked at around one in four in 1966 and 1967 (Milton J. Bates, The Wars We Took to Vietnam, p. 55). This accounts for my father's recollection of the large population of African-American soldiers, as my father fought in the elite Green Berets in 1968. The result of this high population density of African-American soldiers in elite units was that their casualty rates increased proportionately, as they were chronically on the front lines, performing the dirtiest, most difficult fighting to advance the United States' campaign.
The commercial's use of African-American actors to portray the characters echoes the war's tendency to exploit African-Americans by offering them opportunities for "front line" positions. Such positions offered prestige, but at the cost of life and limb. Being in Green Berets, or elite airborne or airmobile units was important, visible work that presented enormous personal risk. The commercial gives these two actors a parallel role in the commercial world. By giving face to the characters of Tye and his father, and telling the characters' story with their voices, they are publicly iconizing a war that for the past twenty-five years has remained largely faceless and voiceless. With their faces they are communicating the emotions that hook the viewer, that do the real work that this commercial is about: getting people to remember the AT&T brand with positive association. This is deeply disturbing because the story told in the commercial would be moving enough without white television executives re-employing African-Americans as, to quote my father, "the most exploited people in the war besides the Vietnamese." It is important to feature non-whites in commercials to decrease the extent to which non-whites are marginalized in American culture, and it is also important to advertisers to command the attention of non-white consumers. But commercials that invoke histories of exploitation are inappropriate in any context.
It is likewise inappropriate to invoke cultural icons that correlate to the negative public image of Vietnam veterans. By paralleling the narrative of the film Apocalypse Now, the AT&T commercial does exactly that. Like Apocalypse Now, the commercial tells the story of a young American military man who arrives in Vietnam and journeys inland by river boat on a quest for a distant, older, military man. As in the movie, the action of the commercial takes place in a rural Vietnamese landscape that is dominated by the Mekong river. First it depicts a journey made by the young man on an open-canopied river boat, and then through the rural landscape of Vietnam. But in the commercial, the man he is in search of is his father, not the mythic Kurtz of Apocalypse Now. As in the film, the action only moves indoors when the younger man makes contact with the object of his quest. When Tye gets on the phone to call his father, the action moves out of the jungle, into a building, and zooms in to a head-shot close-up first of Tye, then of Tye's father on the phone in America. The father is filmed in shadow, his disembodied head appearing in extreme close-up.
The narrative parallels between the commercial and Apocalypse Now are unmistakable, and they are disturbing because they imply a correlation between Vietnam veterans in America and the character of Kurtz played in the film by Marlon Brando. This correlation plays hard on the marginalized status of Vietnam veterans. In the United States, Vietnam war veterans are marginalized enough without dropping them into television commercials for long-distance service and portraying them in light of the crazed Kurtz who lives in the heart of the jungle in self-imposed exile. That such an alignment could be made in a prime-time commercial is an indication that veterans' status as the exiled "Other" in American society has not dissipated in the least over the past twenty-five years. Quite the opposite. This commercial is evidence that the marginalization of Vietnam veterans has been dressed up and shown on prime-time. In other words, their exile has been mainstreamed.
That this commercial was screened for members of the executive committee of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and that they found it "memorable" is a testament to the success of this mainstreaming effort. It also opens the question of why those veterans felt positive about this kind of advertising. David Crosby's active support for the commercial perhaps gives us a clue. By re-recording the song "Long Time Gone" with Graham Nash, he reinfused the '90s with the sound of the '60s. By lobbying for the commercial's release after it had been shelved by appropriately concerned AT&T executives, he lent some letter-writing activism to the flow of events that finally brought the commercial to public broadcast in 1998, after a year's delay.
Crosby reportedly said of the commercial, "[It] isn't really about the war for me, it's about bridging father and son, two generations, two countries, the two sides in this country." This glossy sentimentality is clearly communicated in the commercial itself, and generates an impression of sixty seconds of programming that bear respect for the experience of Vietnam veterans. And I'm sure that some of the AT&T executives were motivated by a desire to create a respectful inclusion of the veterans' experience into commercial culture. "We want to create advertising that is highly relevant, demonstrating the importance of communication and its importance to people who are important to each other. But you want to make sure you're treating the subject in a respectful way, and there's always risk involved" said AT&T VP for worldwide marketing Stephen D. Graham (NYT , July 24, 1998). It is understandable that veterans and former anti-war activists like Crosby might be charmed by the respect that is implied, and the inclusion that cannot be denied. What is unfortunate is that there has not been an acknowledgment that this inclusion of the veterans' experience into the commercial culture comes at the expense of the children of those veterans. It is also unfortunate that the kind of respect that is shown by the commercial was accepted at face value. A closer look tells us that respect motivated by profit is rarely respect.