an open letter to rob lowe and directv from m kelter (part two of a series)

Ed note: What follows is part two in a series of three letters to Rob Lowe et al regarding the content of the current ad campaign for DIRECTV. Please see part one here.


{image is a photo of “Painfully Awkward” Rob Lowe anxiously peering out a window}

Dear Mr. Lowe,

I wanted to share a few concerns about your DirectTV ad featuring a “painfully awkward” version of yourself. The ad has been hard for me to watch, and I’ve had a difficult time pinpointing why exactly that’s the case. After all, humor based on awkwardness has been in vogue for some time now. Pop culture is filled with characters who struggle through basic social interactions with cringe-inducing, yet often funny, results. So I’ve tried to think about why this ad felt uniquely “off” to me; I finally realized: it’s not just that it’s uncomfortable to see the very apparent social deficit of the character; it’s the way the character is contrasted with your “normal” self. While the former is alone in his house, struggling with his anxiety about having to see another person, the latter is at a party, hanging out in a room full of relaxed, attractive people.

Seeing that … it hurt. A dynamic is created where we are laughing at one character (who is alone, awkward) and admiring another character (who is social, at ease around others). In other words, the ad takes a side. One character is relatable. The other is laughed at.

I am the one you are laughing at. I am that awkward adult.

I’ve never been able to process social cues effectively. Body language is something I both lack and have difficulty perceiving in others. These are just a few facets of life on the autism spectrum, but the result is that most social interactions are profoundly confusing; they feel more like mine fields than conversations. If I had to describe my life in two words, “painfully awkward” would be a pretty great fit.

I get that social challenges are a pretty reliable source of humor for most people. My concern in this case is for awkward folks out there who are the most vulnerable – kids and adults who, in their daily lives, are the targets of teasing and bullying. People whose sense of identity and self-worth are under siege, all because they are like me.

I’d like to ask you a favor. Watch the ad and try to put yourself in the shoes of a painfully awkward kid. A kid who struggles with his social life, a kid who understands that he is the target of the humor.

Then watch from the perspective of a bully. The kid who soothes his own insecurities by teasing the painfully awkward kid. That kid, the bully, knows he is watching an ad that shares his perspective, that takes a side. And he is going to know that the side it chooses is his. “Don’t be Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe,” it tells him, “be the one who is laughing at him.”

I completely get that this was not intentional. I’m writing this because I respect your intelligence and feel like you would be willing to think further, not just about the ad, but about what it represents for those of us out here struggling to find a place in life. That painfully awkward character…he’s me. He’s a lot of us. And in too many cases, he represents folks who are vulnerable and hurting and under attack.

Thanks so much for your time, my friend, it is much appreciated.

M. Kelter

Author, Invisible Strings

Ed note: Please find comments below and HERE.

8 thoughts on “an open letter to rob lowe and directv from m kelter (part two of a series)

  1. I would never want my children to make fun of someone else’s challenges.

    Thanks M for writing about your experience.


  2. We don’t get these ads in the UK so I looked them up on Youtube. Maybe American humour is different, but I didn’t find them particularly funny. I can see why people are getting upset over them, they are kinda bigoted in the way they project the idea that you have to be like the smart succseful Rob Lowe to be acceptable as a human being.

    I agree entirely with the above about giving bullies the wrong message, almost justifying what they do. But the harm goes even further than that.

    This afternoon I found myself in tears, I mean literally crying like a baby, sobbing my heart out crying. Not because of these ads I must add.

    Why? Because I’d just finished telling my wife about the struggles of trying to be like everyone else. For perhaps the first time since we married, I finally opened up about how everytime I spoke as a young person, I ended up upsetting someone, or making them angry, or more likely just being laughed at. Because I had no social skills whatsoever. I honestly didn’t know that what I said would upset someone or humiliate me until after I had said it.

    After a while you become so used to messing up every time you open your mouth, that you become more and more reluctant to speak, for fear of ridicule, or people getting angry/hurt by what you innocently said. Eventually it got so bad that I actually locked myself away from the world for ten years, living in my parents attic and speaking to no-one. The outside world just seemed too hostile to my social awkwardness for me to be a part of it.

    Eventually (in my mid thirties)I forced myself to go back out into the world, and by sheer hard work I made myself become like everyone else. I copied NT mannerisms, and ways of speaking. I learned to fake facial expressions, to emulate shock or anger when none was felt (because my autistic brain didn’t understand why they were shocked or upset). And I forced myself to do things that I thought would make me more like ‘normal people’, like buying a motorbike or going to noisy nightclubs.

    By the time I met my wife I had mastered the art of illusion to the point of fooling her into believing that apart from a little shyness I was just like everyone else. She knew I was maybe a bit eccentric, but as an artist people expect a little eccentricity, so it was accepted about me.

    But you cannot live a lie like that forever.

    Sooner or later you will break down, as I did this afternoon, overwhelmed by trying to be like ‘Mr cool Rob Lowe’ (well not like him personally, but like the succsessful socialite that he tries to project). I’m exhausted with trying to be ‘normal’, with trying to suppress my true self, with trying to stop being a geek because people laugh at geeks.

    Whichever way you look at it, trying to be like everyone else has been harmful to me, it drove me to become a recluse when I failed at it, and made me lose it big time due to the exhaustion of finally being succsessful at pretending to be like them.

    So much so that as I told my wife the truth about how much I was covering up by pretending to be like everyone else, I cried my eyes out from having bottled it up for so long. It’s not a pretty sight to see a 52 year old man cry like that. And it’s hard to admit that you seriously need help to cope with the overwhelming sense of failure at not being able to carry on with the deception.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of what I achieved when I conquered my percieved difficulties to become succsessful in life. I’m proud of the hard work I put into improving myself, and the self confidence that I have been able to cultivate within my psyche.

    But no one should feel that being themselves is so shameful that they have to go through all that, that they shut themselves away, or feel they have to become someone else (to become Rob Lowe?) in order to be acceptable. And that is the dangerous message in these ads, if you are not like Mr cool Rob Lowe, then you should be, or you will always be the loser with no life.

    Sorry for the loong post, but I felt I had to get it out there while it’s still fresh to me, to let people know how harmful trying to be someone else can be.

    • Oh, Graham, this hurts my heart. It’s everything that we’re trying so hard to avoid for the next generation, so many of whom still live this hell, but you and M and so many others bore the brunt of it alone. Please accept whatever version of a hug you might find comforting. I wish I had more. We’re trying. Thank you so much for sharing this here.

      • Aww you’ve just brought tears to my eyes again, but good tears😊 I also want so much for this to change, for the sake of my own autistic kids, and all the others like them.

    • Graham, you are so right that the harm goes further…i think right now, there are so few spaces where difference is allowed to just be…ads like this just reinforce mockery and stigma, so it’s so extremely unhelpful. your story is so powerful and just drives home how necessary it is to seek out connections with others that are real, authentic…like you, i spent a lot of years trying to mimic the behavior of others, and it was so mentally exhausting…utlimately it made me feel more alone, not less, even when I seemed to be getting by okay. The mimicry just made every interaction feel like a huge obstacle course. You articulate these issues and their consequences so well, thanks for sharing that.

  3. M, I have always been a fan of your writing–both the humorous and the serious. This is a fantastic letter. Bravo, M.

    Jess’ Mom

    • I have 2 children with autism and they are both doing fantastic. But the ad like the “R” word is incredibly painful. Thank you for writing this letter and educating those ie Rob Lowe who may not know they are hurting people. God Bless You.


  4. This article is spot on…totally spot on. Our behaviors are integral to how we are able to do our processing, thinking, and decision making. Our behaviors also allow us to carry out the decisions we make. When human behaviors are scrutinized for why they are inappropriate or awkward it is destabilizing to all who witness it. Those commercials have been disturbing to me as well.

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