Prophylactic Self-Disparagement

by Steve Hartshorne on March 25, 2013

The other day I posted a question on Twitter to which I have not received an answer, much less a satisfactory one: Why did Subaru spend millions of dollars to air an advertisement showing a guy peeing in his pants?

So I had to come up with an answer myself. I find that if I pose a question like that and set it aside, sometimes the answer comes to me in a couple of days.

Back in the day, I had lots of questions about Mr. Whipple. Remember him? He used to squeeze toilet paper. Charmin spent hundreds of millions of dollars on that campaign. Ad men spent their entire careers writing material about Mr. Whipple. I’m not sure about this, but I think it had to do with people’s subliminal desire to play with their own feces.

The point is, it worked. Companies don’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ad campaigns that don’t work.

But that was another era. The guy peeing his pants is aimed at another demographic altogether. I think it’s related to that weird mask the guy wears in the old Burger King ads and the ads for Farmers Insurance — we are Farmers, bump badumpa bum bum bum. We’re showing that we don’t take ourselves seriously. Psychologists call this “prophylactic self-disparagement.” We make fun of ourselves so that others cannot make fun of us.

I learned about this somewhere, but now when I Google the phrase, all I get is my own comment on my daughter’s blog entry about Phyllis Diller. Can my psychologist friends help me out here? I swear I didn’t make it up.

You can see prophylactic self-disparagement everywhere you look nowadays. I think it’s because most of the members of the younger generations cannot possibly achieve the same level of success that their parents achieved at the same age. The economic system is stacked against them. The Boomers are greedy and will not make a place for them. They live in their parents’ basements and play video games.

Why here in my own house I have sullen teens in their late twenties. And I’m sympathetic. When I started part-time at GoNOMAD, I had lots of low-wage jobs shoveling manure and working at Staples. Believe me, the market is savage. And most low-wage jobs come with a boss who wants to take his or her bad mood out on you.

Parents recall their own experience, but they lived in an era when, even in a bad economy, an enterprising person could still find a decent job. That’s just not true anymore. Young people have to resign themselves to a demeaning form of serfdom, so they have to resort to prophylactic self-disparagement.

But apparently a few of them have enough scratch to buy Subarus and car insurance and burgers.

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