“Transformers”: robots, commercials in disguise

By Eric Naing

This week, my childhood hero Optimus Prime once again makes the leap onto the big screen. But does this summer popcorn flick represent anything else besides an hour and a half of mindless entertainment? Symbolizing more than just a computer-generated action film, the release of the “Transformers” movie in theaters actually marks the ascension of Generation Y into cultural hegemony.

In 1969, the Federal Communications Commission banned television shows “designed primarily to promote the sale of a sponsor’s product, rather than to serve the public by either entertaining or informing it.” Decades later, in 1983, following a pattern of Reagan-era deregulation, the FCC reversed its ruling and opened the floodgates for 30-minute toy commercials disguised as cartoons. The result was He-Man, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Thundercats and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all of which also happen to be synonymous with my childhood.

Let’s face it, us twenty-somethings belong to a generation of unabashed consumers. I dare you to find one annoying human interest story in the media about Generation Y that does not mention the word “iPod.” Even Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, which seem to define this generation so much, consist mainly of lists of products that we would like people to know we consume.

Regarding the Transformers, nostalgic Gen-Y’ers have already written thousands of words condemning the new movie’s lack of fidelity to the original cartoon (the real Optimus Prime would never paint flames on his body!). But ultimately, wasn’t the original show just a thinly-veiled excuse to sell toys? And isn’t the new movie out to do the exact same thing?

The frightening thing about my generation is how consistently and thoroughly we have been marketed. But going beyond the usual anarcho-Communist fears of capitalism, the real danger of our generation’s embrace of consumerism is that we too easily confuse products for substance, pop culture for actual culture.

Whereas Andy Warhol once ironically turned a can of Campbell’s Soup into art, we now turn a toy commercial for cars that transform into robots into a $100 million movie without any hint of sarcasm. How long is it until we are asked about episodes of “Full House” on our SATs? Just as energy deregulation ultimately led to the Enron fiasco and media deregulation led to a weaker free press, cartoon deregulation has led to a cheapening of our culture.

And things are only going to get worse from here. Every single cartoon previously mentioned is currently being made into a feature film or already has. Once again, money will flow into the coffers of those who sold us toys as children, only this time it will be in the name of nostalgia.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for me. I was programmed long ago by Hasbro to willingly give up my money to those shape-changing robots. So pity me as I listen to my iPod and wait in line for “Transformers” while thinking about adding it to my list of favorite movies on Facebook.