Commercial TV's Most Noxious Humanoid
Most likely, innocuous small talk among the chatty anchors of your local “news” shows has tackled the profound American issue of TV commercials shown during the Super Bowl, How much they cost, because of that sports event’s ratings, how they’re less boring than the game itself, blah blah blah…. http://www.collegiatetimes.com/stories/16750/commercials-detract-from-favorite-american-pastime With all due respect, guzzling beer in front of a TV set for countless hours is America’s favorite pastime, but I digress.
Twits who tweet all day (or do I have that backwards?) rationalize their obsessive documenting of every burp and half-thought by using the word “multitasking.” In contrast, the guy with the daily blog detailing how he solved each clue in a given day’s crossword puzzle (complete with graphic images and video clips) and perhaps a majority of amateur (e.g., Salon) bloggers have too much spare time on their hands. Doubtless, this latter group has more than a passing awareness of television advertising and many codgers like myself are less than impressed with ways TV ads have regressed.
Television at present seems beset by unfunny, obnoxious, White-middle-class thirty-somethings who dominate an ad spot by making “funny” faces, making unpleasant noises, and plotzing near hysteria at the hint of a corporate sponsor’s latest sale event. Why these unappealing creatures from no known planet are supposed to invite us to enjoy, condone, and even identify with their Jerry Lewis imitations remains a puzzlement.
Approached by the Progressive spokeswoman, who would not flee in horror—or at least flick the remote as fast as possible? And was I the only soul, during the Cheney’s merrie antics of invasion and torture, to find Norse invaders pillaging to promote a bank to be as tasteless as the Saw and Hostel torture franchises? The worst/best example of this currently is the utterly appalling Aamco ad, in which ugly creatures simulate ugly noises their cars are making: Here is what's probably considered "the director's cut" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBUASLYOlJY), since an even more repellent shorter version now besmears TV broadcasts so that the abridgement permits it to be shown twice in succession ... presumably for its target audiemce of persons with no attention spans and superhuman tolerance for crap.
Perhaps the bias of the codgers among us is that we have fond memories of ads in our own childhoods. They may have been corny and graphically simplistic, but they didn’t assault us with cruelty and crassness passing for humor. Many back then were dumb and irritating, but not a few also treated us as if we were capable of grasping wit or of identifying with genuine human prototypes. Before this blog addresses Super Bowl ads head-on, this sampling of American TV commercials marks their early simplicity to tasteless decline.
Cigarette and beer commercials were considered to be a benign staple of 1950s television. U2b features ad spots from I Love Lucy in which a cartoon Lucy and Desi play cat and mouse until the non-animated wife lights her non-animated husband's Philip Morris cigarette. (Since the real Desi later died of lung cancer, his daughter was especially vocal in her bitterness about this TV sponsor.) And those under forty should be advised that the Winston jingle captured the nation's imagination (a) because it was so catchy and (b) because Americans actually enjoyed quibbling over its incorrect grammar. (Ask your grandparents what "grammar" was.)
And long before Joe Camel was condemned for using a cartoon character to sell an addictive drug, the animated Piels Brothers (Bert and Harry) were warmly accepted beer salesmen because their humor was perceived to be directed toward adults. And sex was treated coyly during the sportsjacketed Eisenhower years (viz. Brylcreem below), but generally speaking TV spots treated children with gentle, uncynical humor.
Captain Midnight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvKlqMjfk1Y Brylcreem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6F4GtyRfto
Old Gold: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3NaPYLXfPs
TV commercials in the 1960s may retained some glimmers of wit and sophistication, notably from satirist Stan Freburg (represented below by spots for Pizza Rolls and Cheerios) and R. O. Blechman (self-portrait at left). And they did provide salaries for veteran comics like Bert ("Cowardly Lion) Lahr and Buster (Beach Party movie refugee) Keaton. Alka Seltzer's ad campaigns in general used an involving humor to successfully engage the whole country in repeating new, good-natured catch phrases. Dustin Hoffman privately stewed over doing a commercial for a car that had been designed during Hitler's regime; and the bizarrely antisocial situation for a Richard Dreyfuss ad anticipated the negative "humor" so prominent in today's ad spots.
But no overview of this period would be complete without a nod to Tony Schwartz. In pursuit of my first M.A. in Media Studies, I accumulated many credits under his tutelage. His classes were held on location at his office/ studio, as depicted in the photograph above. His demeanor was that of a genuinely gentle cobra, hissing softly his theories about the how easily people can be manipulated by media without their knowledge ... and, in a sense, with their own innocent participation!
Schwartz's real expertise invollved using aspects of sound that we mere everyday humans aren't even aware affect us, and "convincing" us that an ad's apparent content is credible mainly because our emotional response to the message's packaging feels credible. In one radio spot, he recorded the sound of ice clinking into an empty glass, of a bottlecap being popped off, of the resultant fizz sound of a beverage pouring from that bottle—all without any words spoken. Instead, he invited us to aurally experience good memories from our everyday past (and even make us a little thirsty, into the bargain), before a soothing baritone voice finally spoke" "Drink Coke." As McLuhan was declaring around this same time, the medium of sound effects—not the voiceover's few words—contained the real "message" to which we responded.
His reputation among politicians and media theorists was cemented after he applied these same principles to a TV commercial that aired only once (during a biblical epic on NBC two months before the election), but is still credited with having destroyed Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign against Lindon Johnson. We emotionally connect to the voice of the little girl, while the obverse countdown and final image create tension in us. Since no PAC existed to sponsor the ad, Schwartz made up name for the spot's final tag line. And he insisted that Goldwater could still have won the presidency if he'd announced that he, too, shared the commercial's "surface" message.
I detail so much about Schwartz here, to suggest that you might later revisit those "cute" Alka Seltzer commercials and assess the ways they apply Schwartz's methods. By the mid-Sixties, as seasons of Mad Men attest, the American TV commercial was growing hair in new places and its pubescent voice was changing.
Pizza roll: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SE-NdrzfFOo
Alka Seltzer Classic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTT1TSdWjkQ
Alka Seltzer Hip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBPPfZCdqYo
Alka Seltzer's Lucy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErgdUhZteqw Alka Seltzer Epiphany: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFKifpMtlNs
Dusty v. Nazis’ Car: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3RD-hG4nbc Dreyfuss: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbPdqoHGaoY
The Schwartz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYk5MNjYhmk
The 1970s-The Present
Well, we all know how gawky and obnoxious adolescence can be. Especially if you're impatient to get to the Super Bowl. So let's cut to the chase.
Some 1970s TV spots still managed a touch of adult wit, but most (like the dog food ad below) blended in with the laughtrack suburban fantasies about itchy-nosed witches and family non-problems. Cute kids in uncynical ads sang sweetly about their Band-Aids or luncheon meat, or less innocently were seduced by pop stars even if they were (gasp!) Black. The Burger King jingle featured here remains a favorite of mine, though it's rather sad to see that those three urban sistahs never advanced beyond their minimum wage jobs over the next quarter century. Meanwhile, kids plopped in front of the TV as easy babysitters acquired screen-life aunts and uncles, such as Madge and Mr. Whipple.Tang: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf1kw5Yp9Ck
Burger King: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rkg_XojVRcs
TV ads in the 1980s lost any whiff of virginity. The content was more aggressive, and frequently less supportive of bedrock family values. Clara Peller and Moschitta became popular one-note icons, but meanwhile Calvin Klein applied Schwartz's approach with (then, scandalous) soft-porn surrealism, Brooke Shields got f**ked by her fashionwear, and Fantasy Mom advised her daughter on what brand of hygiene spray to use. TV ads appearing during the family hour had outgrown their awkward teens all right, only to become a randy alternative to traditional social standards. We TV audiences had entered Mad Avenue's roach motel.
Ray’s In: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCuXvtgMwHE
Clara Peller: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug75diEyiA0
John Moschitta: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeK5ZjtpO-M
Moisty Fresh Mom: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoiU0nYaRMA
During the Reagan administration, restrictions were eased on how many minutes of TV commercials could herd together between program segments, and content became increasingly brittle, clanky, and unappetizing. In sum, should you happen to acquire retro DVDs of old television shows with their commercials intact, you'll find that the worst aspects of today's TV marketing were already in place. For every current TV spot selling solicitous-but-toxic antidepression drugs or discount furniture, at least modern viewers are spared most of the phone sex ads that stunk uip the '80s, and the endorsement informercials by ESP authority Dione Warwick.
Radio shack: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=694TX2lQ7Uo
Old Spice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owGykVbfgUE [http://mashable.com/2010/07/27/old-spice-sales/]
Above, I've only included a couple samplings from the 1990s, mainly as curios. Suffice it to say, the situation did not improve. And I've selected a few unconventional TV spots from the past ten years—to illustrate a curious theme not overt in previous decades of advertising, and as context for our arrival at the Super Bowl.
The Hyper Bowl
Now that I've finally reached our destination, neither you nor I want to wade through more of my prose notes. More likely, you've skipped over most of the twaddle above, to get a gander at "cherce" Bowl ad favorites. I've included a few, and then thrown in some of the more recent controversies associated with Super Bowl TV ads. Frankly, neither of the "scandals" interests me personally very much, any more than the general hype about "all those great commercials" that the news anchors and "entertainment TV magazines" will pick apart as soon as they've been aired.
Tim Tebow Ad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICSJBePaQSw
The halftime show, the exorbitant money issues surrounding the Bowl ads, the rabid national worship bikinis and beer, and (oh yeah) a football game that will probably be as scintillating as the Oscars TV show—surely this is the pinnacle of Democracy the rebel Egyptian millions aspire to!