So I Wrote a Snide Column

On big teeth, demographic pandering, and the Commonwealth Club

Over the past six years, I have used this space to address a variety of important problems in public policy and civic culture. Usually, I focus on political figures and governmental officials when writing about threats to the social fabric. Today, though, the danger I address is more general, involving the entire commonwealth — as in the Commonwealth Club, which proudly describes itself as “the nation's oldest and largest public affairs forum.” The pride is more than warranted; this nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has sponsored an incredible cast of speakers in its 100 years of life, from presidents to activists to authors to tycoons. In just the first half of this week, the group hosted talks by combative and smarmy ex-Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, legendary and controversial CBS producer George Crile, and biographer Robert Dallek, whose new book on JFK is winning rave reviews. For a century, the Commonwealth Club has been a focus for San Franciscans who care about current events and the life of the mind, and who enjoy experiencing their intelligentsia up close and personal. It has stood as a bedrock reminder that the notion of San Francisco simply does not involve dumbing things down.

Until recently.

Now, apparently, even the Commonwealth Club thinks it must grasp clumsily after slow minds in the youth demographic, and you can see the results in an unctuous ad campaign running at a transit stop near you. In the campaign, supposedly hip and attractive men and women of the 18-to-34 set assert their intense desire for close interaction with semicelebrities at the Commonwealth Club. All of the ads radiate condescension; one particular ad, located at the bottom of an escalator serving the southeast corner of the Powell Street BART/Muni station, is cloying enough to have inspired sarcasm of a type that can only be called … inspired.

In the ad, a young woman states that she'd always wanted to directly question the founder of the Burning Man festival. “So I did,” she smirks, luxuriating in the satisfaction of unmediated interrogation as she retracts her lips from front teeth of Bugs Bunny-ish proportions. Not long ago, a wag who deserves a Presidential Medal of Humor slapped a sticker on the billboard, altering the ad to make the toothy young woman say, “I wanted to ask Larry Harvey if success is killing his original idea for Burning Man. So I bit him with my enormous teeth. ” (Another observer says the rearrangement of ad copy read, “So I bit him with my generous teeth,” which, to me, is just as funny.)

The “enormous/generous teeth” sticker was scraped off the ad within a day of my first sighting. Though I'll miss my commute-time laugh, I really can't fault BART for its quick response to the ad-graffiti (grad-ffiti?). A transit-oriented advertising campaign costs large money; even those who sponsor fulsome campaigns ought to expect the ads to run as conceived.

Just the same, with the “So I Did” campaign, the Commonwealth Club is turning countless stomachs and undermining its central position in the cultural life of San Francisco. I mean, what's next? Commonwealth Club speed dating?

OK, the club might explain itself more effectively, so young people know they are welcome there. It could stand to schedule more speakers below the age of 40, so long as they are accomplished and interesting enough to meet the club's standards. But young people aren't stupider, by percentage, than any other age group, and the Commonwealth Club doesn't need to poison the municipal environment with pandering billboards. The Commonwealth Club's a classic, the Sinatra of public affairs programming, and there's a reason you never heard Ol' Blue Eyes do disco, or, for that matter, gangsta rap.

The antidote to silly behavior is ridicule, and the Commonwealth Club has earned a serious dose of it. So enter the “So I Did Your Teeth” contest by filling out the coupon accessed with the link above in the way most likely to humiliate Commonwealth Club management. Winner(s) will be announced in a future column, by which time I hope the ad campaign in question will have been canceled, the intelligence of San Francisco's public life will have been preserved, and a significant number of SF Weekly's younger readers will have taken a glance at the Commonwealth Club's schedule, to see what they'd been missing.

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