MTV Recreates the Holocaust -- for Teens

04/02/2008 10:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A recent series of commercials produced by MTV's youth networking website, Think MTV, poses an interesting conundrum to the modern television viewer. Using the Holocaust as the backdrop for what could befall America if we are "not careful," the 30-second spots questions the integrity of the network for using an example that remains fresh in the memories and minds of a culture. Which seems to be exactly their point, if they have one.

The first, Subway Roundup, starts off on a NY underground car that buckles along shakily. The lights go out; the faces of riders are nervous, or disinterested; the car rocks side to side, apparently mimicking concentration camp railways. When the car stops, fierce officers gaze in, machine guns cocked. They lead the riders out in a single line fashion, sometimes pushing, forming an orderly line. The final image dissolves into Nazi Germany.

The second, Home Raid, uses the same motif. A family is at home, relaxing, until being brutishly handled by the same thug cops. They come in, guns drawn, and put them into an open truck, where they will be shipped off to ... dissolve: Hitlerian times. Both use minimal dialogue (gruff commands from cops, barely audible); I suspect the silence is meant to represent part shock/part Paxil sedentary. The victims never fight, allowing themselves to be escorted into what I guess to be a sort of penitentiary system or, worse, some futuristic concoction of oppression that the MTV marketing staff has dreamed up.

When MTV first launched in the early '80s, they described their station as leading a revolution. To the music industry, and arguably the entire entertainment business, videos were certainly an evolutionary aspect. Artists had another vehicle for creativity, and record labels had an expansively new audience to sell to. Since that time MTV has stayed relevant, in certain regards. Considering today that playing music videos would again be revolutionary (since so little of actual content includes them), it's hard to say to exactly whom they've been relevant to.

Youth culture, for sure -- and that's exactly who these commercials are geared toward. It's an insider's joke, a "hey, heads up kids" PSA from your ol' pal; it's the updated version of the mid-'90s slogan/chant, "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me." The difference, of course, is that Zack de la Rocha had little corporate support when that song was recorded, and ended up using the system he raged against to bullhorn his words around the world. In this case, MTV is taking the initiative to say ... well, I'm not quite sure what they're saying.

That's part of the power of media: it's mystical. And I don't mean that in the sense of a religious epiphany. I could say that it's ambiguous, and that too would be true, though in this sense the ads are serving the purpose of fulfilling the inner desires of teens that have grown disenchanted by corporate-controlled media, provided to you by -- corporate-controlled media. The only more blatantly exploitational media machine is News Corp, which would never place commercials like these on Fox. The wounds of the Holocaust are too important an image to misuse in the conservative sect. MTV has a different market altogether.

Why this particular image, though? I would be moved if MTV used footage from Tibet, Somalia or the Middle East to reflect upon what happens when a government uses national media to control the flow and distribution of information. This would make the message palpable to modern eyes. But America has a tendency of living in its past. While the Holocaust was a terrible chapter in human history, to constantly refer to it keeps us believing we're still the victims of some unstoppable force, while those forces actually do exist, and there are victims today being murdered in like fashion.

The less specific a media is, the more mystical it can appear. Plus, being ambiguous has its benefits -- you don't have to be held accountable for anything, because there's always another angle you can claim when confronted. The medium is still the message, yet when that medium will not take responsibility for the messages they put forth, we're only left to wonder why they bothered speaking in the first place.

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