Critique: Sex and Sensibility

These are the times that call for Zoloft commercials. We’re depressed, anxious, feeling out of control- and that’s just from pondering Geraldo Rivera’s motivations. Then there’s Peter Arnett, who made a serious mistake in complimenting the manners and cordiality of the Iraqi regime.

Although the Mideast conflict has produced a schizophrenic TV universe (with some networks and stations operating as if nothing has changed), perhaps the war’s most surprising media casualty so far is Pamela Anderson.

The latest word from Miller is that the star’s much-awaited spot has been temporarily bobbed. Naturally, if you’re appealing to the boobeoise by showing bikinied women at work in the water, you might as well go to the great master. Nevertheless, it seems that showing girl-on-girl-on-girl pillow fights (six breasts, no waiting) was deemed to be in bad taste while our military is battling it out in Baghdad.

Miller, of course, has generated an amazing amount of controversy (and publicity) over the original “Catfight” commercial. (Last week, it won the Grand Ugly from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Awards, sponsored by Advertising Women of New York.) Certainly, since the debut of “CF” (which is also off the air for the war’s duration), the brand has gotten more attention than it did in all the years since Lite was launched in the mid-’70s. The early spots, with Bubba and Butkus and Madden and Rodney, became a continuing series, and much of the appeal was in the way the characters (all celebs, mostly athletes) were allowed to develop over the years, just like in a soap opera.

I’m not encouraging these women to develop (there might be explosions). But in light of the nonstop hype, no matter how desperate and gratuitous and offensive the spot is-and it is-Miller would be even more stupid not to exploit the already exploited into as many (better, funnier, smarter, more clever) sequels as possible. For example, why not add to the character roster! Maybe even give the women speaking parts beyond their tinny, “Tastes great! Less filling!” cheer. And some clothing. It would result in another well-known continuing series, which, as we saw with Bud’s “Whassup?,” has so much more power than scattershot commercials.

Indeed, three sequels are ready, but they won’t break for at least a month. In a way, ABC beat Miller to the punch: One of the best spots on the Super Bowl (pregame, actually) was a “Catfight” parody in the form of a promo for “The Practice”: The men pulled off their shirts and dove into a pool while the women hooted.

Not unexpectedly, one of the sequels does the same thing, but it’s still pretty funny. The tables are turned and the fighters are hunky men-the kind of hot young guys with ‘fros who look like they’d get thrown off American Idol for passing bad checks. They’re about to fight when one of them pulls back and says, “I’d like to create a friendship where we support each other’s growth.” By the end, he’s taken his top off, saying, “This shirt is chafing me.”

The spot makes fun of women’s need for emotion, and that’s OK, since it still allows both sexes to see the humor.

But another follow-up is even lamer than “Catfight”: The dweeby guy from the bar tears off his clothing and imagines himself, rather than the blonde, in the tangle with the dark-haired woman. At one point, his head seems aimed right at her Silicone Alley. As with the first spot, this will have two endings: On late-night and cable, he ends up getting spanked by the fantasy girl; in prime time, a nasty 400-pound guy appears in the pool, hovering over him. (Prison reference, maybe?) It’s bad.

My biggest problem with the original is that it really isn’t about men loving sex. It’s more about hostility, about tuning out women for soft-porn caricatures and putting up a sign that says, “Boys club. No girls allowed.”

And that’s too bad, because we need each other. (And no marketer can afford to alienate so many female viewers.) One of the pro-“Catfight” arguments was that it wasn’t offensive to women since it mainly made men look like morons. What’s good about that? I’m not for stupid images of men, either.

But what’s really testing my resolve is a spot in the “Storyteller” series that broke last weekend. An obvious sop to women, it shows a guy stepping out on the porch of his bungalow, getting clanked on the head hard by a metal gutter (not funny). Then a golfer on his front lawn hits a ball directly into the guy’s groin. He doubles up in agony (sorry, not funny at all). He has several more mishaps, including getting hit by lightning (ho, ho, ho), until the spot cuts to three women in a bar and one says, “Those are all good. But after cheating on me, he deserves something way more painful.” Cut back to the guy, still trying to leave his property: There’s a near miss, but then a piano falls on his head. OK, for whatever reason, I found a piano falling on his head funny.

But isn’t that even more screwed up? That stupid, gratuitous sex is off-limits for now, but stupid, gratuitous violence isn’t? Geraldo, can you hear me?