I have always detested TV commercials—with the too-rare exception of clever, funny ones. Alka Seltzer used to have some pretty funny commercials, like the cartoon with the guy and his stomach sitting in two chairs opposite some kind of counselor, trying to talk out a conflict: “I happen to like pepperoni pizza!” “Do you like indigestion? Cause you’re going to get it every time you eat pepperoni pizza!” You know the solution. I guess my favorite was one inspired by the 1960s Monster Boom. Count Sore Throat Pain was begging viewers not to avail themselves of Isodettes throat lozenges. “Vat do you vant from me, a song and dance? It’s like sticking my heart vit a golden stake!” But most were just boring, tedious, trying the patience till the show you were watching came back on. Not much has changed.
There are still comical commercials, even more of them. These days I get a chuckle out of Geico ads with Peter Pan showing up at his 1965 high school reunion still an annoying adolescent jerk, with the Kraken grabbing golfers out of a water hazard, etc. I like seeing the Coneheads shilling for State Farm and Norm MacDonald impersonating the late Colonel Sanders (who can be expected to start haunting him pretty soon now). But it would never cross my mind to reward these advertisers by switching to Geico insurance, signing on to State Farm if I weren’t already with them, or buying KFC. (It ain’t bad, mind you, but why bother when there are joints around here that serve real Fried Chicken? KFC is to fried chicken as Arthur Treacher’s was to real fried fish.)
In all these cases what you have is really corporate sponsorship of half-minute comedy skits, essentially no different from them sponsoring half-hour sitcoms. The cleverness of their comedy writers is no reason to buy their product. The one has nothing to do with the other. In fact, it reminds me of what Voltaire (I think) said about the epistemological irrelevance of miracles: if I tell you to watch me prove that 2 plus 2 equals 3 by making a ball disappear from my palm, and I do in fact make it vanish, 2 plus 2 still make 4. The one, no matter how impressive, has absolutely nothing to do with the other.
But my enjoyment of these “comedy-mercials” is more than offset by my indignation at other recent advertising trends. It really galls me, for instance, when we are shown numerous individuals, supposedly satisfied customers, all using some contrived, punning slogan (“This is my body of proof!” “This is how I own it.”) as if it were common conversational usage. Are they trying to create a Newspeak of advertising jargon so to ingrain their ads and their products in our subconscious? Well, you know where they can stuff it.
A related, larger gimmick is on display in a zillion commercials in which we are asked to accept the ostensible testimonials of satisfied customers in what are obviously scripted fictions. Take the Aleve commercials, where the voice-over informs us that coach So-&-so has chronic knee pain but soldiers through his day aided by a mere two Aleve pain pills, and “we” asked him to trade them for the day for a bottle of Brand X, as if the whole thing were a medical experiment. And every time (there are loads of versions of this one), the Aleve addict grouses that he/she has to interrupt his/her day constantly to take handfuls of Brand X to do the same job as a mere pair of Aleve. Or we see a series of dizzy models being asked to apply some non-sticky deodorant, eliciting excited praises. Or some computer dating site shows satisfied customers offering grateful testimonies—and then you remember their faces from other commercials they appear in. My point is that those who produce these commercials do not even try to cover their tracks. The ads have the spontaneous genuineness of a scene from a soap opera or a sitcom. They are not even trying to deceive you. They know you know it’s phony. So why do it? It’s as if they’re saying, “Here’s what we wish customers were saying about our product/service.”
It comes to the point that the audience not only knows what they are hearing is not true, but that they even realize it couldn’t be true, just like the cheery government propaganda in Iron Curtain Europe about successful five-year plans that will revive the economy, etc. Of course, government propaganda in our day has sunk to the same depth. It is all spin. What is said is not meant to inform but to manipulate. In the case of TV ads, my guess is that the goal is to model behavior among viewers. Hearing these bogus testimonials again and again, obedient consumers will begin to “think” they ought to behave the same way, whether the products deserve their accolades or not. It is like the laugh track on a sitcom: it tells you what’s supposed to be funny because you couldn’t guess it from the content. You hear the machine guffawing and so you think, “Okay, that must be funny—time to laugh.”
And I rankle at the manipulative slippage of pronouns, like on the Liberty Mutual insurance ads. “You loved your car. You named it Brad. You screwed countless guys in Brad’s back seat. But then you wrecked Brad. You cried. ‘Nothing can replace Brad!’ But then Liberty Mutual calls and you break into your happy dance.” Really? It’s odd that I have no memory of these things! Or Ty Young congratulates me because I saved money and successfully invested it. I did? Obviously, these actors are telling me what they did, but they want me to identify with them, to picture myself doing these things, buying these things, and so to allow myself to adopt these behaviors.
How about the ones where, beneath the talking head giving the testimonial, it says, “Not an actor, but a real customer,” but their testimonial is obviously composed of ad slogans that real customers, even actual satisfied customers, would never naturally use. The captions ought to read, “Actual customer reading a script.”
I remember how, when you, er, I mean when I first read Orwell’s novel 1984 and got to Eric Fromm’s afterward, I bristled when he opined that Orwell’s fictionalized dystopia was not just a satire of the Soviet Union but applied equally to the Capitalist West. I didn’t understand then, but subsequently I have come to realize he was quite right: Television commercials betoken a socio-economic system which seeks to catechize and manipulate us via a constant fusillade of lying propaganda. Maybe being a curmudgeon is the only way to fight back. It is a battle in which I am constantly engaged. And of course my two weapons are the mute button and scathing mockery yelled at the screen. Won’t you join me in the fight?
So says Zarathustra.