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Normalizing TSA Groping with the Pillsbury Doughboy

Geico Insurance has come out with a number of “Happier Than…” commercials which compare very happy characters, like the Hump Day Camel on Wednesdays, with the happiness of changing to Geico Insurance. In a recent advertisement, the happy character is none other than the Pillsbury Doughboy. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the Pillsbury Doughboy’s happiness at being poked and prodded by TSA serves to normalize the invasive practice of being touched during the airport experience.

His high-pitched giggle is instantly recognizable. His plump body calls to mind warm, fluffy biscuits just out of the oven. Pillsbury’s famous mascot, the Pillsbury Doughboy, represents the comforting family kitchen. We’re so used to the Doughboy that he’s become as much of the American cultural landscape as a Norman Rockwell painting. The sound of his giggle makes us salivate for crescent rolls like Pavlov’s dog. The Doughboy’s successful association with the typical family home environment has normalized, for example, the purchase of packaged, mass-produced, ready-to-bake biscuits, cookies, and pie crusts.

Normalizing is a societal process where certain desired behaviors are made to appear very normal or so everyday that they come to be taken for granted. Who desires certain behaviors? Well, everyone from governments to educational systems to the military to corporations. Television commercials play a huge role in normalizing behaviors, for example, buying a new car before the old one breaks down, shampooing your hair daily, feeding your entire family through a drive-through window, and drinking diet soda.

The Pillsbury Doughboy is quite familiar to American audiences. In fact, the Doughboy as a corporate mascot is second only in popularity to those little talking M&M’s. The Doughboy been seen everywhere from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the children’s toy aisle, in addition to starring in hundreds of Pillsbury commercials. Lately, though, the pudgy mascot has been seen backing a different type of product: insurance. Geico Insurance’s series of popular “Happier than…” ads recently featured the Doughboy giggling uncontrollably while an airport TSA agent pokes him as he’s going through security.

An entire post could be written about the novel concept of cross-advertising auto insurance with unbaked cookies, but let’s concentrate on the details of the commercial itself while thinking about the normalization of monitoring and surveillance in our society. In the commercial, a TSA agent repeatedly tries to poke the Pillsbury Doughboy while the mascot’s giggling increasingly gets out of control. The announcers ask, “How happy are people who switch to Geico?” and volunteer the answer, “Happier than the Pillsbury Doughboy on his way to a baking convention.”

The familiar giggling, the tiny rolling pin that another TSA agent examines, along with the exasperated faces of the travelers behind the doughboy (as if to say, “Get ON with it so we can get on our flight!”) all serve to normalize the experience of being touched by a stranger in a TSA uniform.

The Transportation Security Administration was born out of post 9/11 hysteria, in order to screen for possible terrorist activity in the air. Passengers are subject to pat-downs (frisking) or full body scanners. This is not a process that everyday Americans had been required to endure before this time. But if the Pillsbury Doughboy is manhandled, and he thinks it’s funny during a lighthearted commercial, shouldn’t an everyday American feel the same way?

Michel Foucault wrote a book called “Discipline and Punish” to explore the evolution of the modern prison system and today’s culture of surveillance. Foucault argued that normalization of some behaviors, like being inspected, monitored, or put under surveillance, occurred so that authorities could have better control over citizens. Being physically inspected by a stranger at the airport is an experience that authorities hope to normalize. The act needs to become taken for granted so that it is no longer, questioned and operates efficiently, creating obedient citizens. Foucault’s work serves as a warning, though. To allow a controversial behavior to become normalized means we are surrendering our own personal liberties. We are, in a sense, being controlled socially.

The ACLU says some victims of aggressive TSA pat-downs have experienced similar psychological effects as if they had been sexually assaulted. Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has stated he won’t fly anymore because of excessive TSA groping. The TSA has received press on some very invasive frisking incidents, including the rough physical treatment of toddlers in wheelchairs and grandmothers, all in the name of air travel safety. Breasts and groin areas are routinely subject to touching, spurring the 2010 rallying cry of Don’t touch my junk!

This post is not an exploration of the pros and cons of the TSA, but is instead an invitation to carefully consider advertising that “normalizes” controversial behaviors. When a lovable corporate mascot makes us laugh at an experience that has violated rights and damaged emotions, that experience becomes all the more “normalized” in our society.

Dig Deeper:

1. Do you believe that the Pillsbury Doughboy is an effective agent of normalization? Why or why not?

2. Have you ever been through security at an airport? What was the experience like? Did you feel violated or did you feel it was a routine matter?

3. Google a TSA groping joke and use this as an example of showing how presenting something as funny helps normalize the experience.

4. Visit the following page and look over the article and videos about a recently-developed cartoon aimed at kids from the TSA. In what ways does the cartoon normalize pat-downs and touching?