The Cleveland Cavaliers aired a promo ad for their playoff game against the Chicago Bulls that is so thoughtless about domestic violence that it’s more baffling than it is offensive. In it, a couple reenacts the “Time of My Life” dance scene from Dirty Dancing; when the woman goes in for the jump, and her Cavs-loving boyfriend, realizing she’s wearing a Bulls shirt, drops, or maybe throws, her to the floor, where the camera lingers over her curled up in pain. Last we see her, she’s chastened and snuggling on the couch with her boyfriend, wearing a Cavaliers shirt and holding an ice bag to her head while he continues to needle her for the crime of being a Bulls fan.
The ad is a platonic narrative of domestic abuse: a woman lulled into thinking she has a loving relationship, then cowed into submission by a seemingly out-of-the-blue act of violence. Thanks for making me rethink my plan to root for you, Cleveland, even if you do have LeBron James now.
The inevitable rebuttal is “It’s just a joke,” because we all know that abusers come up with the idea to abuse all on their own, with no cultural input guiding their choices. There is no reason to believe an advertisement, which exists solely to mold behavior, could mold anyone’s behavior.
There’s actually a growing body of research into how humor can affect male attitudes toward women. A 2007 study from West Carolina University laid some groundwork, creating a scenario in which men exposed to sexist, women-demeaning jokes were more inclined toward cutting money to women’s organizations. A number of other studies have found similar results. The research looking at the link between sexist jokes and sexist violence is less common, but there are some troubling preliminary studies. One, published in the journal Sex Roles, found a correlation between enjoying sexist jokes and willingness to rape women; women’s enjoyment of the jokes correlated with their willingness to accept male violence. Another study from the University of Granada in 2014 took it a step further, showing that how “relaxed” you were about sexist jokes correlated with rape proclivity.
What’s more, as comedian and science educator Raj Sivaraman explained in a 2013 blog post, long-standing research that shows that disparaging humor toward a group of people increases willingness to be aggressive—even violent—toward those people. Taken together, it becomes increasingly hard to argue that humor has no effect on people’s attitudes about domestic violence.
Update, 2:07 p.m.: The Cavaliers have issued an apology for the promo: “While the video was not intended to be offensive, it was a mistake to include content that made light of domestic violence. … We sincerely apologize to those who have been affected by domestic violence for the obvious negative feelings caused by being exposed to this insensitive video.”