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.

Evil Ad Empire Revealed – almost

I’m going to tell you a little secret.  There is no, I repeat NO, corporate conspiracy trying to turn us all into mindless consumers.  Advertising is not carefully contrived to make us want to buy things.  And there is no subliminal seduction in advertising.  I hate to burst your bubble, folks, but if you buy useless crap it’s your own damn fault.  How do I know these things?  Very simple, boys and girls: if there was a way to make advertising effective, those ruthless bastards on Madison Avenue would have used it by now to drive their own competitors out of business.  Q.E.D.  Personally, I think the whole conspiracy theory thing about advertising emerged in the 60s when large numbers of college students got the munchies and needed to explain to each other why they were eating Oreos and Twinkies instead of celery and whole wheat granola.

Here’s the truth.  Advertising, especially television advertising, is, at best, a brilliant art form and at worst a minor annoyance.  The creative people behind advertising — including the psychologists — are a bunch of shysters who are lying to their corporate masters.  Nobody really knows what makes people buy things.  However, ad people, over the years, have intimated that they can figure it out.  Their hidden agenda, if they even have one, is to secure a way to indulge their art and make bundles of money doing it.  The results are all those ads you see everywhere in our universe which are simply following trends that you, “the consumer,” have already set.  Look around you, folks!  Do you see any ads for sewing machines?  No! Why?  Because the great mass of people don’t sew anymore.  If advertising was the sinister force it’s always been proclaimed to be, there would still be ads for sewing machines, and people would still be buying them.  (Whether they sewed or not is a different matter.)

Here’s how ineffective advertising really is.  (I’m a little scared of getting sued, so bear with me.)  There is a company named after a fruit.  Their whole image is based on Young And Cool and they charge outrageous amounts of money for their product — which never goes on sale.   Their theory is that people will pay a lot extra for totally cool, and it works.   They started an ad campaign in 2006 which featured a comparison between a young, laid-back style of guy and an older, pudgy, suit-and-tie guy.  They introduced themselves, and, in the course of 30 seconds, they made fun of the pudgy guy and his product.  There were tons of variations on this original ad, and everybody recognized the scenario.  Unfortunately, after 3 years, there was no appreciable increase in sales.  In fact, the only result of the entire campaign was that people got turned off the company’s image of Young And Cool.  The ad was mercilessly lampooned on YouTube.  What happened was people began to feel sorry for the little pudgy guy because, after people had seen the ads 110 thousand times the jeans and t-shirt guy just seemed smarmy, sneaky and a bit of a bully.  It was an unidentified side effect of doing a direct comparison.  In general, people turned slightly against the company named after a fruit, because they perceived it to be mean-spirited.

This ad campaign cost literally tens of millions of dollars and generated a direct negative result.  So much for the corporate menace theory!  But, here’re the sprinkles on the doughnut.  There is another set of ads for a cell phone company in Canada which is using the same type of scenario and is producing a similar negative image.  Live and learn?  Doesn’t look like it!  The cell phone company is spending a dump truck full of money — just the same as the company named after a fruit did — for what is obviously going to be the same result.  My question is this: If the evil ad empire can manipulate whole populations at will, how come they’re not doing a better job at it?  The answer is simple.  Advertising is not that powerful, no matter what people say.  Let me explain using television ads as an example.

TV commercials are just little, itty bitty movies.  You have to have plot, character, conflict and resolution.  They have to contain all this in a 30 second package, and, in most cases, they have to be made in such a way that they can be cut in half and still make sense.  Then these ads are always shown with several other little movies in a tiny film festival, stuck between touchdowns in a football game, or something like that.  Plus, unlike regular movies, the mark of a good ad is not whether you remember it or not – that’s extra — it’s whether you remember the product or not –which is a good trick.  Given this set of constraints – and regardless of how brilliant the film maker is — the chances of an advertisement catching your attention is astronomical.  Believe me, Spielberg, Scorsese and Ridley Scott would all suck at making ads.  And by the way, radio and print ads are even more difficult. 

In actual fact, maybe at one time — when Mad Men ruled the earth — advertising was a powerful thing — to be respected and, perhaps feared.  But these days, it’s a weak sister to the much more powerful persuader: “word of mouth.”  So this weekend, when you discover all those new Super Bowl ads, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself.  You might be watching something that, 1,000 years from now, will be considered a masterpiece of early 21st century art.