Sometimes it seems like the people living on this planet are inhabiting completely different planes of existence, they live in entirely separate worlds from each other. I was recently reminded of this when I saw two TV commercials that ran right next to each other.
The first commercial, for Liberty Mutual Insurance, was produced by the Hill Holliday advertising agency. It is a “corporate ad” so it is not intended to sell a specific product, it is intended to associate a positive image with the corporation. But the image this company is promoting is startling in its difference to other advertisements, it shows what can happen when people do kind things for each other.
The first time I saw this ad, I was sucked in by the sweet singing, and the portrayal of simple acts of kindness. But when I saw it again, I took a closer look at the editing and camerawork, and decided it was a minor masterpiece of cinematography. We see someone doing a kindness for a stranger, but the camera centers not on recipient of that kindness, it focuses on a third person who witnesses it. In each successive scene, we follow that third person who is inspired to his own action, which is then witnessed, and the cycle of kindness is repeated again and again. It took me several viewings to notice the catch, the final scene is the same as the opening scene, the circle of kindness is complete. When I saw the catch, I burst into tears. This commercial vividly shows the cause and effect cycle of good karma in action, if only one person is moved to an act of kindness by having viewed it, the world is a better place.
But my good mood was shattered mere moments later, when a commercial for the Hummer SUV came on. It shows almost the same scenario of cause and effect, but from a different angle. Someone commits an act of unkindness, which perpetuates another cycle of unkindness.
Here we view the direct effect of the unkind cause, the woman responds by buying a big SUV, now nobody’s going to get in her way again! The commercial accompanies these actions with an obnoxious cacophony of cartoon sounds of boinks and cash registers going kaCHING, over a raucous song. After the woman buys a monster truck, she straps her child in the passenger seat, we see the look of self-satisfaction on her face, and the camera pulls way out in the distinctive ending of every Hummer commercial, we see the earth from orbit, above the ozone layer the Hummer SUV is destroying. The goal of this commercial is to sell Hummers, and if one person decides to buy a big fuel-guzzling, high-pollution SUV instead of a normal car, the world is a worse place.
As a buddhist, I can see these two commercials as representations of different states of being, we call it the “10 Worlds.” The woman who buys a Hummer is in the world of Animality, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and she wants to be a bigger dog than anyone else, with a bigger car than anyone else. Her selfish act might bring one brief moment of satisfaction, but it places her firmly in a cycle of bad karma. The Liberty Mutual commercial represents the world of Bodhisattva, where a person takes pleasure from the happiness of others. This is the path to enlightenment. Buying a big SUV will never give you the same pleasure as a simple act of kindness, of handing a lost toy back to a child.