Television Commercials: A Misunderstood Art Form

I’m probably the only person west of Manhattan who likes television commercials.  That’s not strictly true: a long time ago, I met a whole pile of people in LA who built them.  I don’t know whether they liked them or not, but they certainly had a lot of fun making them.  I was actually in a commercial, once, way back when.  It was a horrible, boring ordeal.  I was Boy #4, who, with all the other young people, raised a beer bottle in the air and smiled.  I never saw the finished product.  (We didn’t have a television machine at the time.)  Actually, the only thing I remember clearly is getting totally pissed off with Boy # Whatever, who, after a hundred takes, still couldn’t grasp the simple concept: label out!  I’m not sure, but I think he went on to become a megastar as a TV detective.  Boy #4 worked hard that day.  His arm and smile muscles were sore from raising that bottle a million times, but it beat picking tomatoes out in the sun and turned him off beer for a while.  Anyway, despite the experience I like television commercials.  I think they are the most misunderstood art form of our time.

The root of the huge prejudice against TV commercials comes from the archaic notion that they are insidious, subliminal messages, forced on an unsuspecting public who then have no choice but to clamour off their sofas and conspicuously consume things.  This was a cute idea back in the Wonder Years, when Corporate America was the only bogeyman, and the root of all evil – real and imagined – was capitalism.  Unfortunately, many people still cling to this argument, even though we now have empirical (waistline) evidence that proves North Americans are not getting off that sofa, come hell or high water – no matter how many times they’re told to Swiffer.   In actual fact, ever since Uncle Miltie brought his transvestite act to Main Street America, via NBC, TV commercials have been an integral part of our electronic world.  They’re just as big a piece of our cultural heritage as the programs they sponsor.  However, prejudices are hard to break down, but if you keep an open mind, I’ll try to show you how it works.

Viewed with proper perspective, TV commercials are ingenious little stories that provide tons of information.   The writer, director and cast set the scene, introduce the characters, establish the conflict and offer the resolution — all in less than sixty seconds.  I know people who can’t tell a Knock-Knock joke in that time frame.  Plus, commercials cover the horizon from high drama to slapstick comedy, all within a prescribed storyline dictated by the product.  They have to appeal to the widest possible audience, and they must, regardless of whatever else they do, be memorable.  The mark of a good commercial is not whether it makes us laugh, cry, happy or annoyed; it’s whether we remember the name of the product or not.  In fact, many very good commercials fail because, despite their exemplary qualities of art on film, nobody remembers what they were made for.  The people who make TV ads work in a very tight box that most film makers would throw tantrums over.  Yet they produce films that remain in our consciousness long after the sitcom laugh tracks have faded into obscurity.  “They’re grrrrreat!” from Tony the Tiger™ has outlasted anything that George Reeves/Clark Kent/Superman ever had to say.

In essence, television commercials are little itty-bitty movies.  The only difference between them and the films of people like Ron Howard, Michael Moore or Oliver Stone are a couple more hours of digital tape.  Good movies and good commercials work exactly the same way.  They set up their own universe and remain true to it.  They work from a selected premise — be it romance, international espionage or toothpaste.   Then they create the story, always working towards a conclusion.  For example, lately, there have been a rash of commercials for air fresheners, as Proctor and Gamble duke it out with SC Johnson for family room supremacy.  The premise is we stink.  To hear the tale, our homes are as smelly as dead buffalo, rotting in the sun and there’s nothing we can do about it because these are common household odors.  That`s the conflict.  The conclusion, resolution or solution comes when somebody (usually mom) starts spraying chemicals around like Saddam Hussein going after Kurdish tribesmen.  Cinematic triumph: not unlike The King’s Speech.   Premise, conflict, conclusion: the basis of a big win come Oscar night in Hollywood.

Television commercials have never gotten much respect, and now with new media like pay-as-you-go TV, Netflix and PVRs, they may be lost to us entirely.  However, we need to remember that ever since the first guy paused “for a word from our sponsors,” they have been part of our consciousness.  So, before they disappear into history, next time House has a big decision and Ford™ or Febreze™ interrupts for dramatic effect, don’t run off to the bathroom.  Hang around and watch.  It might not be Lawrence of Arabia, but I guarantee you it’ll be better than Tron: Legacy.

Christmas and Commercialism

Personally I think “Christmas is getting way too commercialized!” is just a phrase everybody yips about at Christmas.  In truth, Christmas is pretty much the same as it always has been.  However, there have been some profound changes that not everyone is aware of.   For example, in the 21st century our buying habits have…..

 We interrupt this blog to bring an important breaking story

In a surprise marketing move, at least 3 gigantic electronics companies have introduced the same new consumer product — just in time for Christmas.  The Incredibly Useless Thing was introduced simultaneously at retail outlets around the world today.  The product sold out within hours.  Immediately dubbed the iThing by every unimaginative journalist in the universe, the device has sent computer geeks everywhere scurrying back to their mothers’ basements to try it out.  According to industry spokesperson, Nebraska Peterson, the iThing comes with twice as many mega-pixels and enough speed and memory to launch the Mars Rover from your kitchen.

“We’re calling it a whole new approach to connectivity,” Peterson said. “The iThing will connect with every other electronic piece of junk you own.  It’s wireless and interactive.  There are different coloured lights that come on randomly and various unusual sounds.  We’ve also added a remote, so you can access the iThing from any corner of the planet.  The remote is as big as a barn, with 17 buttons that don’t do anything, 6 buttons that do something (but nobody knows what) and 3 buttons that you’d better not touch because they’ll bugger up everything in your house — including the toaster.”

The iThing uses the new Inutile Operating System, which is no different from any other system except it kinda works but not really with all the stuff you’ve already got.  It’s unnecessarily complicated and the Interactive Help Menu is no help whatsoever.  Installation and set-up are so confusing no ordinary person can possibly understand what half the crap does, and if you click the wrong button in the dialog box, you’re screwed forever.  All three gigantic electronic companies are offering 24/7 tech support in a language that sounds remarkably like gibberish.  So say your prayers, ’cause the coyote’s got a better chance of catching the road runner than you have of ever figuring this thing out.

In a candid interview, one techno-drone said they’ve changed the names and placement of every function on the menu just to screw with everybody.  He went on to say that software developers do this all the time because all the cool kids in high school made fun of them, and they still haven’t got laid.  He concluded by shouting, “Who’s laughing now, Braaadley?”

Initially, the iThing will be offered in two models: the cheap one you see advertised (which is under powered and worthless) and the outrageously expensive one (which the pirates who made the device know you are going to have to buy eventually, anyway.)  However, Canadian media giants Rogers and Bell — who between them, own everything but the Crown Jewels — are taking a bold new direction as retailers.  “We don’t care about the iThing itself,” they say. “It’s free.  You can have the damn thing for nothing, as long as you sign a 5 year contract of penal servitude so we can charge you for every nanosecond it operates from the minute you turn it on.”

There have already been protests about the predator pricing of the iThing.  A fake YouTube commercial, showing the iThing exploding has already been e-mailed to everyone on the planet, and a Facebook group called “iThing Sucks” has attracted several million members.  Retailers have responded to the criticism by saying, “Big deal! A bunch of kids and old people have clicked a button on Facebook.  So what?  We’re sold out already, anyway.”

Nebraska Peterson, spokesperson for the three gigantic electronic companies, also responded by saying, “There has been some criticism, but the retail numbers speak for themselves.  This is not a manufactured shortage.  Our customers are saying they want the iThing.  Look at the unholy prices people are getting, reselling it on eBay!  But we’re a family-oriented company and we want parents and grandparents to have something for their loved ones during the Holidays, so we’re offering an opportunity to pre-purchase the next shipment of iThings.  Your purchase comes with a numbered gift card which you can use to track your iThing through the entire distribution process.  We plan to ship fairly quickly, so pre-purchasers should have their iThing within 3 months.”  Peterson admitted, however, that pre-sales had far extended the company’s ability to print the gift cards, and most people are just using their credit card receipts as presents.  She also hinted that there was already a new and improved model, the iThing 2.0 — with tons more memory, better resolution, and a cheaper price tag — which should be in retail outlets on April 1st, 2011.

We now return you to your regular blog.

Therefore, in light of this profound and insightful argument, we can conclude that commercialism hasn’t changed the face of Christmas but merely modified the holiday spirit.