Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where's the Beef?

Following is a light-hearted editorial I wrote back in the Fall of 2007. A few things have been changed merely to make some of the language less awkward or to improve a couple jokes. There are numerous dated references to commercials and culture in general, however, so bear with it.

It’s a scenario many Americans are all too familiar with, you’ve been there: You’re sitting at home in the evening, having returned from a busy and stressful day at work. You sit down in front of the TV, maybe with your dinner, or possibly after; the button on your pants is undone, or you’re just hanging out, in the buff. You flip through the channels, searching for NBC’s Thursday sitcom lineup, looking forward to laughing off the day’s stress. There’s no better medicine. Everything is going fine, but in the back of your mind is a growing anticipation and fear. You look at the clock on the wall, beads of sweat dotting your brow. It’s already ten minutes into the show. They’re coming…the commercials!

Irish Spring has just released a new body wash and, apparently, according to the commercial, inside the bottle lives a community of little mischievous Irish girls, just waiting to be unleashed on your dirty, sweating carcass. One can only imagine if the inclusion of the tiny women was meant to be sexy, scary, or possibly funny. I, personally, was terrified.

The last thing I want to see when I’m getting soaped up is a miniature person being pooped out of my soap bottle ready to do God-knows-what to my body- clean me, Riverdance me, or maybe she wants to bite my nipples off. Welcome to the world of advertising (cue strobe lights and dancing tomatoes).

The vast majority of commercials really perform no truly necessary task. The general idea we hold concerning advertisements is that they’re meant to inform us about products that we may not know about. But, in truth, nobody actually needs to be told that there exists somewhere out there, in the vast, ever-expanding universe, a chewing-gum called “Trident.” When folks go to the store and they see a package of gum on the shelf, they know that it’s gum and not cyanide or a nuclear warhead. Commercials aren’t necessary to inform people of these things. The point is, more or less, to convince (or brainwash) you into believing you need their product, not just more than their competitor’s, but that you need it to fill a hole that exists in your life. Chew this gum and you’ll be having fun and dancing all night long! Or Use our body spray, and you will literally have women tearing your pants off!

Now, any rational being, who had not yet experienced this phenomenon, might say to themselves, “Oh. Well that’s not so bad,” and sit down expecting to see some scientific data involving charts, graphs, studies, or other information that might provide genuine evidence that Trident is better than Dentyne Ice or Orbit. Instead, what we get is a man in an airport, ripping off his coat and rub-a-dub-dubbing it across his ass while boogying through the metal detector, while strobe lights flash and obnoxious bass thump along with the middle-class white guy having convulsions (which he’d probably call dancing). He shoots a sexy look into the camera, telling the audience that if they chew trident, they too can turn the airport into a dance club. But, a question is left lingering- What the hell does this have to do with chewing gum?

In the vast majority of cases, the strategy to pick up customers is not to inform them. This is done by appealing to the most basic and primal aspects of the human psyche. One example, which in recent years has become increasingly common, is the use of sexual innuendo, or in some cases, just straight sex. I doubt I need to remind anyone of the old Herbal Essences vehicles that ran when the product was first released- the woman in the show moaning and shouting with orgasmic delight. Meanwhile, her husband or lover is in the other room and believes he’s stumbled upon her banging their hunky 29-year-old pool boy. But, alas, she’s merely shampooing her hair which has apparently rendered her husband useless, at least in regards to giving her sexual pleasure. While Herbal Essences has not rendered the husband moot, their company, no doubt get their own sort of pleasure from knowing that such a seed has been planted- Herbal Essences will give you a orgasm.

Now, while no victim of these advantageous and predatory practices would outwardly admit to being fooled into believing such absurdities, the reality remains that though we don’t buy into the immediate silly premise, now, that bottle of Herbal Essences (or whatever product) stands out more than it otherwise would have.

Additionally, there is another trend going about the advertising circuit that, while not new, is rapidly becoming dangerously more prevalent, and surreptitious.- product placement. While earlier it was more about endorsing certain items (i.e. cigarettes), the past couple decades have seen a focus on endorsing specific products (see Reeses Pieces in E.T.) Over the summer was released what is probably the longest and most financially taxing commercial ever in the history of advertisement. The piece was complete with state-of-the-art CG, massive explosions, big name celebrities, and some really kick-ass action. You probably remember it as Michael Bay’s Transformers. Yes, the summer blockbuster was nothing more than a two hour propaganda piece for the GM corporation.

Increasingly, more advertisements are being masked as entertainment. You might ask why this is such a big deal, but I personally am growing tired of being sold something at every turn; and the fact that companies are actively trying to make it more difficult for us to even realize when we’re being sold something, makes it frightening. How far are companies willing to go to advertise their products to us consumers?

Sometimes, they don’t even try to make the commercial memorable in a good way, but just want the spot to be so insanely mind-numbing that you end up hating the commercial with a furious passion- but you still remember the product’s name, and that’s all that really matters, in the end.

But, maybe I’m making a bigger stink about all this than is necessary. All I want is for advertisers to stop telling me about the next piece of crap that is going to “complete me.” I honestly (and desperately) hope some people will wake up to this invasion of our homes, and more importantly, our minds; though, I expect that they may be too busy getting freaky with a bottle of shampoo to notice.

Interestingly, about the time I had written this, AMC’s amazing program Mad Men was running its first season, though I would remain ignorant of it until the following summer. For those unaware (shame on you!) of the show, its about the advertising business on Madison Avenue (hence the title Mad Men) in New York circa the 1960s, and one of its running themes is the battle between the old and the new ways, including advertising which actually used to (partially) tout a product's actual virtues. This idea stands in opposition to the new (at the time) ideas concerning marketing and the notion that products have to resonate with people on an emotional level, hence the advertising we have today which insists on connecting products with positive experiences, regardless of whether the product actually has anything to do with the subject presented in commercials. Just watch the denouement of the first season where Jon Hamm’s character, Don Draper, engages in a nostalgic rant about the Kodak Carousel, a slide projector which was originally going to be called the “wheel.” The superiority of the name Carousel, which invokes memories of ones’ childhood, is immediately apparent to that of the Kodak “Wheel.”

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