Friday, August 4, 2006

Geckos, Jerks, and Barbarians

Seeing a murder on television... can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some. ~Alfred Hitchcock

Benny Hill once did a routine about a woman who watched TV for the commercials, thinking that the ads were the programming. Historically, there has been much programming on the tube that has actually been improved by commercials, since the ads cut down on the amount of actual program one has to see and provide relief from what one has been watching.

Television advertising has always been uneven. Some ads are occasionally informative and/or entertaining. Others are just boring. Then there are those, like a current one for a headache salve or something that you smear on your forehead. If you don't know what I mean, consider yourself lucky for not having seen it.

Some of the best ads failed to actually sell products. There was a classic set of ads for Alka-Seltzer 30 or 40 years ago that the company is actually using again, with new actors and slight modifications to the scripts. One they haven't brought back is the classic “speecy spicy meatballs” ad. I'm sure you've seen it, because it makes every retrospective about ads or old-time TV. It's a funny bit of business and won scads of advertising awards, but it didn't sell Alka-Seltzer because people thought they were selling spaghetti sauce.

Almost all advertising is an insult to the intelligence since they don't provide accurate information to help you make product decisions. Over the years, the FCC and FTC got hard on advertisers who used statements like “9 out of 10 doctors” and so on, demanding that they have proof on file to show that 9 out of 10 doctors really did recommend that brand of cigarette.

By the way, that's not entirely a joke. In the 1950's, menthol cigarette ads touted the lung-clearing benefits of their wares. I guess if you're getting a lung removed one might construe that as "clearing" it.

At any rate, since they don't really tell you anything factual, ads are just intended to call your attention to a product and build an image around it that makes the potential buyer feel like he would be cooler, happier, and more fulfilled if he uses Brylcreem or Drano (for different problems, of course). They may also hawk some sales promotion, but the idea is to fix the product in your mind. That's why the meatball Alka-Seltzer ad failed; it fixed the wrong product in people's heads.

Humor is a tool that is most successful primarily, I think, because if an ad is funny, you don't mind seeing again and again. As Shelley Berman once said, “Television is a visual medium. They SHOW it to you ... and show it to you and show it to you and show it to you.” Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail.

Take Geico. The gecko ads have been around in one form or another for years now, and they just get better. A current ad says it best when the gecko answers a question by saying, “People trust advertising icons.” And so the little green bugger has become. The character is funny, yet understated and says just enough about the company to make sure that you never forget what the product is. They've also made enough of the ads to rotate them sparing us some of the endless repetition for which commercials are so notorious.

Besides, the animation is fantastic; have you noticed him drumming his “fingers” on the table?

Yet Geico also can miss the boat. The Neanderthal ads are tiresome. They made two of them, endlessly showed the first for months, and now endlessly show the other. The first one was a little funny; the second one isn't. Maybe it would be if the caveman with no appetite would rear back and toss a spear through the spokesman.

So the same company can do well yet turn around and screw up. It's almost like they have two ad agencies, and maybe they do. If they do, they should fire the one run by the Neanderthals.

Years ago, Volkswagen did one funny ad after another. This time around, they're having a little trouble finding the mark. Recently, they go for pretentious or insulting. The crash ads are pretentious. Hey, look, they say, if you're babbling to your passenger instead of paying attention, we'll probably save your butt.

Then they tried the “stereotypes are bad” ads, which I guess were supposed to get you to think people would think you're special if you drive a VW. This campaign disappeared rather quickly, not long after the one where the black guy asks the white guy for advice on dance moves, thereby insulting two racial groups with one ad. They decided to go back to the crash ads. Interestingly, they didn't go back to the “pimp my engineer” ads. I guess a guy who sounds like a Nazi out of a 1940's movie trying to sound like a rapper didn't fly all that well either.

For pure stupidity, though, few ads can beat the latest ads for the Hummer. Hummer is your essentially useless vehicle, way too expensive to buy and operate and homely to boot. They've tried to make Hummer owners look cool and fancy free (since most of their owners are millionaire athletes, movie stars, and California governors, it's not hard for them to be fancy free; they can afford it). Apparently that hasn't worked, so now they're going with the “join the jerks” campaign.
In one ad, a mother has her kid shoved out of the way by another mother who pushes her kid ahead in some line. When the mother is leaving, she sees the Hummer and knows that if she is going to survive amongst the jerks of the world, she must be one herself. Her next stop is the dealership.

Or there's the one with guy at the supermarket buying healthy food. The next guy in line has loaded up on cardiac arrest goodies and looks at Mr. Tofu with total disdain. When Mr. Tofu gets to the lot to get into his fuel-efficient little car, he sees the Hummer and realizes the error of his clean-living ways. If he must eat healthy, he can at least waste energy resources, by golly, so he heads for the Hummer dealer. You can imagine that on the way, he stops at a burger joint to get two triple cheeseburgers and a lard shake (yes, fast food joint “shakes” are made with flavored shortening; that's why they call them “shakes”, not “milkshakes”).

Other products have portrayed people who use their product as idiots. Coors for years alternated Pete Coors (recently arrested for DUI) pontificating about drinking responsibly with spots showing young adults getting blasted on his beer and obviously cruising for some casual unsafe sex. Dodge trucks featured two complete dorks lusting after one of their hemi-powered trucks, interspersed with the obnoxious guy teaching his kid to say “hemi”. In fact, in the first couple of ads, he came across as a probable wife-beater, though they toned that down later.

One set of spots I rather like are the credit card ads featuring the barbarians trying to cope since people have started using Capital One. I have this little fantasy when one of the obnoxious commercials is shown that the barbarians suddenly arrive on the scene and start lopping heads off.

I think I've been watching too much TV.

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