Travel Morality Tales

Tom Swick: Parsing the hidden travel advice in two DirecTV commercials

09.13.10 | 10:54 AM ET

Screen shot from commercial for DirecTV

We have all seen commercials for travel: shots of skylines, beaches, cruise ships, cobblestones. The pitches are usually for a place—some country, city, hotel, theme park—a means of transportation, or a company that books travel.

But currently on television you can see something new and astonishing: commercials promoting a philosophy of travel.

My favorite takes place in New York City. Two tourists from Texas—a man and a woman—are giddy with excitement in the backseat of a taxi. They are thrilled not by the passing streetscapes but by the football game they’re watching on their smart phone. It is not just any football game; it is a Dallas Cowboys football game. This couple has journeyed to what some people (mainly New Yorkers, but still) claim is the greatest city in the world, and they are imprisoned in their known universe of northeast Texas. Why did they bother to make the trip? Why are they wasting their money on travel? The taxi driver obviously wonders the same thing because, when they lean forward to inform him of a Cowboys touchdown, he slams on the brakes and their faces scrunch against the protective glass. This, the commercial says, is the price you pay for traveling the world and never leaving home.

But that’s not all. The cabbie—who speaks with a wonderfully hardboiled New York terseness carried on an Eastern European accent—deposits them at a vacant, garbage-strewn lot that the visitors, suddenly confronted with their new environment, have trouble believing is Central Park. But it is too late—the taxi has moved on.

I don’t believe I have ever seen a more searing condemnation of the parochial traveler. The fact that it is disguised as an ad for DirecTV makes it even more brilliant.

It’s not the only one. Another takes place in a Texas luncheonette, with Philadelphians most likely, watching an Eagles game “on their phones and laptops.”

The Eagles. In the heart of Texas. Did the men ask for cheesesteaks too? With a side of scrapple?

Like the first one, this commercial captures the arrogance and the hideousness of the cocooned traveler who shows no interest in the people around him, no curiosity about the local culture, who wants everything to be as it is at home. He is someone on whom—to flip Henry James—everything is lost.

Oh, you think I’m being too critical? That these are probably just businessmen killing a Sunday afternoon before their Monday morning meeting? Who cares if they follow their favorite team? Perhaps as soon as the game’s over they’ll head out for some line dancing over at Rusty’s.

I doubt it. They are travelers of an increasingly common type, but one rarely seen on TV (let alone in commercials). With limited time in a new (sprawling) place they spend it hunched over small video screens. They change their sky but not—now to butcher Horace—their boorish behavior. As the waitress remarks with great indignation and eloquence, speaking for invisible locals everywhere: “No respect for their surroundings.” Then she walks back into the kitchen, where she wrings out an old dishrag over their next round of iced teas.

And you’re going to tell me that the point of all this is to get me to subscribe to a satellite service and not an idea of sensitive travel?

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

8 Comments for Travel Morality Tales

Roger 09.13.10 | 12:07 PM ET

I’ve seen both commercials repeatedly, and you are right. It seems to me that our media/electronic device industry will unashamedly promote anything that gives the user instant gratification, regardless if it seems to provide/promote oblivious and boorish behavior. That’s just the way things are going. Also, humor seems to be the preferred way of educating people in the advertising industry. I think it’s a bit unfair to diner waitresses and cab drivers.

Laura 09.13.10 | 5:14 PM ET

I don’t have a television and therefore missed what might be the only good commercial campaign in the last several years.  I love the promotion of going local and even support the way DirectTV seems to be offering a solution to technology dependence (yes, I fully recognize that irony).  Thanks for highlighting this!

Sherman Unkefer 09.15.10 | 5:17 PM ET

You are right on - these commercials are more about insensitive travelers than anything else.  I think the way they portray the locals is a little demeaning but it’s done with enough of a wink that it overshadows it.  Of course, the travelers are the real villains but it’s still a great commentary.

Republic Monetary Exchange 09.16.10 | 3:30 PM ET

I thought they were funny ads but lost what they were trying to sell because of the overarching message of the idiot traveler.  I would have expected this ad from Travelocity or Expedia but not a satellite TV company.

Dave S 09.17.10 | 9:41 AM ET

Trying to manage one’s sporting addiction on the road can be a nightmare. I’ve risen from bed in the middle of the night to watch Cubs games in Europe, raced to internet café’s in the Middle East to look up football scores, and once threw quite a tantrum when I found out that Mexico’s version of ESPN wasn’t bothering to broadcast the final of the Australian Open. I’m not proud of my affliction- it really is like a disease.

I have to say that most hotel chains also seem to go out of their way to “help” the traveler avoid local color.  Many offer no local TV channels, and insist on giving you the USA Today instead of the local paper. Ask the front desk clerk for a restaurant recommendation, and they might just tell you to go to Chili’s.  It’s hard enough trying to distinguish one American city from the rest these days- pretty soon older strip malls will be declared historic districts- but the modern travel industry doesn’t help us much. Now I’m rambling. Great piece, as always, Tom.

Marilyn Terrell 09.20.10 | 5:30 PM ET

Reminds me of this LA County Fair commercial, spoofing the ignorance of its urban-centric residents:

John M. Edwards 09.24.10 | 9:07 PM ET

Hi Tom:

I was at dinner with some friends recently in New York, and one of them spent more time hunched over his iphone than the dinner plate. When I asked what he was doing he said, with a faraway look in his eyes, he was downoading some photos from the Internet. With Google, YouTube, and Facebook maybe electronic travel has nearly gone too far. We should be experiening the here and now, not absorbing incidental fluff through a videoscreen.

John M. Edwards

Dave 09.26.10 | 9:53 AM ET

It is odd to find this criticism of electronic connectedness to home on a site that celebrates twittering travelers.

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