I was aware of, but before last night had never seen, the DirecTV commercials in which actors hawking the satellite service are superimposed via blue screen technology into scenes from their old films. In the spot I watched, Christie Brinkley, treading water naked in a motel pool, tempts Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold (“this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy”) not with sex but—you guessed it—an unbelievable introductory offer. National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day) from an ingenious John Hughes script, is one of the smartest, most subversive studio comedies of the 1980s, and I wasn’t outraged about its exploitation here so much as baffled at how DirecTV’s ad is predicated on a willful misreading of this classic film.
In Vacation, Griswold drives his wife and kids across country to California’s Wally World, and en route, Brinkley repeatedly overtakes his station wagon (aka, the Wagon Queen Family Truckster) in her red Italian convertible, each time flashing him her horsey smile. Given no name and credited only as the Girl in the Ferrari, Brinkley is the flesh for Clark Griswold’s married man fantasies.
The problem is that in the scene DirecTV’s ad uses, Griswold finally realizes he can’t go through with it. And who can blame him? He’s got a husky-voiced tiger of a wife (Beverly D’Angelo) who calls him “Sparky” in bed, and who is—let’s face it—considerably hotter than this vacuous Uptown Girl. Griswold, of course, gets caught in the pool with the Girl, and recriminations follow before wife Ellen forgives him. But one of the sweetest, and most subtle, jokes of Vacation is that there’s no need to go for hamburgers when you can eat steak at home.
DirecTV has aimed its pitch at the armchair philanderer, the head of household would rather be in that pool with Brinkley than in his own living room with the Mrs. The four hundred or however many channels DirecTV offers him are naturally supposed to serve as consolation. Premised on a half-century-old Madison Avenue idea of the beleaguered suburban husband, the company’s Vacation ad is a perfect example of the kind of capitalist lies about sexual dissatisfaction and conspicuous consumption that Ramis’s masterpiece rips to shreds.—Benjamin Strong