I must confess I don’t watch much commercial television — except for a couple of sit-coms and sports (all manner of sports). And when the commercials come on I usually mute the television so I don’t have to listen to them. But the message still comes through loud and clear: they are designed to sell the product by appeal to such cravings as sex and power, though some use the avenue of humor which I applaud. (I do listen to the E-Trade babies which are terribly clever.) And I note that a great many commercials are peopled by young, beautiful, thin folks laughing and having fun at what appears to be a non-stop party. But most commercials resort to “in your face” tactics that are designed to get the message through in spite of whatever defenses you might throw up. Even the mute won’t help.
Years ago commercial messages were designed to simply inform potential buyers of a product’s desirable qualities so the buyer could make an informed choice. At some point, early in the last century it was discovered that the commercial message could also be used as a device to sell the product, thereby killing two birds with one stone as the salesman becomes redundant. And once that seed was planted it grew like a weed when television came on the scene; we now get 10 minutes of commercials in every 30 minutes of TV programming. And increasing numbers of those minutes are taken up by messages selling violence, such as those promoting Xbox games and shoot-em-up movies — ignoring for the moment the highlights on ESPN. One must consider the hidden message behind so much of what we watch on television — in a culture that wonders why we have such an affinity for violence. But there are other messages as well.
I will skip the Cialis and Viagra commercials that frequent the airways, especially on the Golf channel curiously enough, because they are simply in poor taste. But good taste is a concern that went out with hoop skirts. I will also resist the temptation to list the plethora of commercials that play into our cultural narcissism. Instead, let’s turn our attention to a commercial that has been on a good deal during this Christmas season when the car manufacturers want us to believe that a car would make a good Christmas present for our loved ones — “Just what I wanted,” as the Hyundai commercial would have it. (And, by the way, you can buy your loved one’s love by giving her jewelry if you can’t afford the car. It must be true, I saw it on television.)
In a Buick commercial that I find particularly offensive, a young man has just given his girlfriend/wife a brand new small car with a giant red ribbon on it. She is ecstatic and is giving him a huge thank-you hug when a new Buick drives by and catches her eye — and her affection. She looks longingly at the car, drawing his attention in that direction as well. Once the car has passed, he looks back at his partner, shows her the keys to her new car and tries to hug her again to recapture the moment. It is futile as she looks off into the distance and clearly wishes the car he gave her was the Buick instead of that thing.
There are at least three subtle messages coming through in this commercial: (1) buy a Buick if you want to win over your partner, (2) any gift recipient is sure to be disappointed and even to withdraw his/her love if you don’t spend lots of money buying them an expensive present, and (3) it’s perfectly OK to hurt someone’s feelings. Feelings don’t matter, things matter. It’s the latter message that really burns in my belly. Whatever happened to the notion that “it’s the thought that counts”?
It’s bad enough that we have turned Christmas into a commercial enterprise, but it’s deeply disturbing to send messages that other people’s feelings don’t matter, bigger is better, and it’s all about how much you spend that makes the present worth having. To see what Christmas is all about, check this out. Christmas isn’t about presents at all, and it is certainly not about expensive presents. And feelings do matter; they matter a great deal.
But the advertising agencies have learned that if you show people what the “good life” is all about they will want it and even go deep into debt to buy it — and it is for sale. They have also discovered that if you tell people something often enough they will believe it no matter how absurd it is — just ask the politicians.