Saturday, July 28, 2007

"That's Entertainment!"

If you have a blog that you post to every week or so, you might worry that every now and then you won't have anything to write about. Earlier this week, it didn't look like I'd have anything to write about but then I turned on the TV and watched it for a while.

I don't watch a lot of what you might call "mainstream" TV -- I mostly watch movies on the "premium" cable stations (and in this case, "premium" is a synonym for "not free"). Those stations also have enough specials and series to keep me busy, so I don't spend a lot of time watching the normal channels. But I do end up watching some "basic" cable stations from time to time (and in this case, "basic" is synonymous with "full of commercials").

I was watching some show the other day. I don't remember what it was, but I do remember some of the commercials. That would make me the ideal television viewer from the standpoint of the advertisers, I suppose, except for the fact that I don't go out and buy any of the things I see advertised on TV.

I guess it's no secret that the networks make their money from advertising, and that as television developed from its infancy to where it is today, somewhere along the line its promise shifted from using the public airwaves to provide the public with news and entertainment, and instead focused on providing the public with a reason to spend hours at a time sitting in front of a television screen in a semi-comatose state that would make people more receptive to watching commercials.

The idea was to make the shows just entertaining enough to keep people from switching the channel, so that when the commercials came on people would sit there passively and absorb whatever advertising messages the sponsors wanted to broadcast.

I'm not telling you anything you didn't already know, and what I'm about to tell you, you probably already know as well, which is that commercials generally avoid giving you any actual information about the products -- instead they simply want to entertain you or otherwise make you feel good in the hope that you'll associate that good feeling with their products.

For example, not so long ago, it seemed like every commercial was promoting "family values" in one way or another, regardless of the actual product being advertised. But that got old really quick (although you'll still see examples of it from time to time), so advertisers have been experimenting with various other "feel-good" themes. For example, I saw a commercial for Tylenol recently that said nothing about the product itself -- all it did was show one close-up after another of people who are presented as Tylenol employees saying things like "I love making Tylenol." The commercial ended with a message like, "What makes Tylenol special is the people who make it."

The obvious question here is "Do the people who created that commercial actually think we're stupid enough to choose a product based on such a vapid, idiotic message?" And the obvious answer is "yes." Sometime when I was in high school or college, I read Vance Packard's book, "The Hidden Persuaders." It was written in the '50s but it's probably just as relevant today as it was back then, if not more so. I didn't read it until sometime in the '70s, and I hardly remember a thing about it, but one thing I do remember reading is that the people who create television commercials deliberately make them sort of stupid. The idea is that when people see a stupid commercial, they don't take it seriously, so they let down their guard a little, which makes them more receptive to it. That might seem a little far-fetched, but it's a pretty good explanation as to why there are so many stupid commercials.

Of course, stupidity isn't the only weapon in the arsenal of television commercial producers. Another thing they do is try to make the commercials as entertaining as the shows. For example, consider the case of the Geico cavemen commercials. They started out advertising the fact that getting insurance from Geico is so simple that a caveman could do it, but it didn't take long for the commercials to stop being about insurance and turn into little humorous vignettes about cavemen instead. And in some bizarre ironic turnaround, a sitcom based on the Geico cavemen has recently been developed. I don't know how many episodes were created or if it's on the air yet, but turning a series of television commercials into a television series blurs the line between advertising and entertainment in a way that such lines probably shouldn't be blurred.

Coincidentally, another insurance company -- Mercury Insurance -- also has a series of commercials that don't really tell you anything interesting. They all convey the simple message that despite the fact that their rates are so low, they are not from the planet Mercury. Okay. That's good to know, I guess, but this is a stereotype I wasn't aware of. I understand the stereotype of prehistoric cavemen not being sophisticated enough to easily obtain the right insurance for their various needs, but is there a stereotype about Mercurians consistently offering lower prices than inhabitants of other planets? I've never heard it before. And if it turned out that Mercury Insurance was indeed founded by Mercurians, would that be a reason not to buy insurance from them? For some people, perhaps it would. In any event, the premise behind the Mercury Insurance ads gets old pretty quickly, so I don't think we'll have to worry about a sitcom being developed.

Interestingly, while commercials are turning into entertainment, a growing number of television shows are nothing more than market research disguised as entertainment. I'm talking, of course, about the so-called "Reality TV" shows in which contestants compete for careers as pop singers, TV show hosts, and I don't know what else. I've never actually watched one of these shows, and I'm sure I never will, but I understand that for some (if not all) of them, the television viewers are given the opportunity to vote for their favorite contestant, and whoever gets the most votes is the winner. So it isn't necessarily the most talented singer who wins, it's the singer with the broadest public appeal. In other words, it's the singer who, if given a recording contract, will sell the most records. Even though I'm sort of disgusted at this cynical abuse and manipulation of the television-watching public, I have to admit that it's a pretty clever idea.

I have to wonder, though, how we allowed this to happen. Sometime in the '70s, there was the saying "Corporate Rock Sucks." You used to see it printed on bumper stickers a lot. The idea was that bands that focused on commercial success rather than musical creativity or innovation were not worth listening to. It was a popular sentiment at the time, but somewhere along the line the message was lost, until a decade or two later when you started seeing bumper stickers with the message "Corporate Rock Still Sucks." That message faded away over the years as well, but the simple truth is that corporate rock has always sucked and will always suck. And corporate pop -- the kind of bland crowd-pleasing worn-out pap you'll hear on shows like "American Idol" and its numerous counterparts in other nations -- sucks even harder.

So that's my little essay for this week, inspired by nothing more than a Tylenol commercial, a Geico commercial, and a Mercury commercial. I'm going to have to stop watching so much mainstream TV.