First kisses. For many of us, few things in life cause more stress than attempting to suck face with someone for the first time. For me, a first kiss was generally preceded by seconds… no minutes… ok, actually hours (honestly, sometimes days) of sweaty anxiety and contemplation. Sometimes, when the opportunity arrived I was brave enough to dive in, lips-a-pucker. Other times, I just couldn’t work up the nerve. Either way, kiss or no kiss, plenty of dreams and nightmares revolved around this very moment.
I’d venture to guess that nearly everyone has either dreamed of, or been lucky (in some cases unlucky) enough to experience a first kiss. Dare I say that it’s a pretty common human experience? Advertisers love making ads about common experiences. It’s not surprising then, that first kisses are the focus of two ad campaigns currently sucking up a lot of airtime across the country. One of these kissy-face ads promotes the new Taco Bell Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco (that’s a mouthful!) while the other is selling Audis. Here are the ads:
“Taco Bell: First Kiss”
For starters, you may have noticed a few similarities; both ads feature teenagers in a parent’s car. Both ads are hetero-normative (i.e. they focus on a male-female dating relationships) and both promote traditional gender-roles (i.e. boys are doing the driving and boys are doing the kissing), plus in both cases we see these boys sneaking kisses on some very surprised looking girls. They differ of course in the setup. In one ad the magical first kiss occurs in what I’m guessing is a Taco Bell parking lot. In the other, a rather aggressive young man drives to his prom (alone), bursts onto the dance floor and
passionately kisses sexually assaults the prom queen.
I already wrote (and have since given a few speeches) about the sexual assault disguised as dramatic first kiss in the Audi ad. To sum up my basic point; any sexual contact without expressed consent meets the legal definition of sexual assault. In the Audi ad we witness the boy grabbing the prom queen and without any discussion kissing her. Pretty cut and dry if you ask me. Is the kiss in the Taco Bell ad a sexual assault too? Well, we’re not given enough back story to know for sure. Only the young girl who was busy enjoying her taco at the time can say. Because generally speaking, the person on the receiving end of an act is the person who determines if they were assaulted or not. But hey, I’m no lawyer, so lets step away from further legal discussions and consider something I feel far more qualified to discuss.
In the Audi ad, the act of grabbing the unsuspecting prom queen and
kissing sexually assaulting her is depicted as an act of empowerment for the boy. That girl’s body, like the Audi he’s driving, becomes a vehicle of empowerment for the boy. His violent act is meant to symbolize courage and the claiming of masculine power. The Taco Bell ad on the other hand, seems very different (at first). It’s a mostly sweet depiction of of two presumably inexperienced kids out on a date. The awkwardness is palpable. But then the announcer, like the voice of god challenges the young boy. “Are you just going to stare at her?” the voice asks. Maybe it’s just me, but when I watch the ad it feels like there’s an unspoken, yet implied second sentence hanging in the air: “man up and kiss her.” The boy of course accepts the challenge. He was so nervous that he didn’t seem to care that his date’s mouth was at that very moment busy chewing away at the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco she just bit into (that poor girl is always going to be remembered as the girl who tasted like a Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco).
The announcer’s challenge pushes the Taco bell ad into Audi’s fucked up territory for me. In that moment it stops being sweet. Once the announcer issues his challenge the ad is no longer about an awkward date. It becomes and ad about a young boy being pushed into action by an implied challenge to his masculinity. And in that moment yet another girl’s body becomes nothing more than a vehicle of male empowerment. Unlike the Audi boy, Taco Bell boy doesn’t morph into some sort of yuppie cowboy driving his parent’s car off into the sunset as he howls like a wolf. No, thankfully he seems to maintain some of his awkward innocence. And the young girl smiles of course, because having her get pissed, or act grossed out or show any other non-supportive behavior wouldn’t sell tacos. As viewers we’re meant to feel proud of the boy for being brave and overcoming his nervousness (while not considering at all how the girl might be feeling).
This points to a larger issue with the way we define courage and empowerment in these situations for men and boys. Sadly when a young man returns from a date and is asked by his friends “did you kiss her?” if the answer is “yes” then; “good! Way to man up.” is the typical response. If the answer is “no” then its; “why’d you wuss out?” (or something worse). This sort of response pressures young men into being more aggressive in the future (and media depictions of this behavior only adds to the pressure). If I ruled the world I’d tell these boys that it is NOT courageous to unexpectedly grab and/or kiss someone. That they are NOT more manly for having done so. “True courage in these situations” I would tell them, “is being brave enough to ASK and/or discuss your desires with the person you want to kiss.” “Human up and dialog.” I would say, “Risk rejection. Give her/him/they the chance to respond and share their wishes and desires for the night with you.”
Fact is, first kisses will always be a bit scary and asking feels very awkward in the beginning, but I’ve found with time and practice both get easier and more comfortable to do. So let’s dialogue with young people (especially boys) and encourage them to start asking for kisses instead of stealing them. And while we’re at it let’s also demand that advertisers stop shoving these warped depictions of intimacy down our throats. If we do these things then who knows… maybe one day we’ll get to watch an ad in which a nervous person overcomes their fear and bravely asks before swooping in for that awkward first kiss.