Saturday, August 1, 2009

"The Television Commercial"

I don’t mean to throw stones or to insult anyone specifically, but recent treatment of the television commercial has come across to me as quite stupid, indeed. A quick wikicheck* shows me that the commercial break traces its origins to the first televised commercial which occurred one month and sixty eight years ago during a baseball game. The four dollar watch ad was probably able to gather more service from its pure newness than from any actual thought process put into making their advertisement. However, Bulova appears to have made a solid commercial, in my opinion, ten seconds of a clock over a map of the US with accompanying voiceover spouting out what could be seen as the first television advertising catch phrase, “America runs on Bulova time.”

This is a satisfactory approach for any number of reasons really; the ad is short and to the point enough to possibly work itself into viewers’ heads, and many, seeing their old watches break or die in the coming months may have sought out Bulovas thinking that if the whole country was running on them, they might as well too. I’m fairly sure that in ’41 television was trusted much more commonly than it is today, and certain that the first advertisement these people had seen come out of their picture boxes would not be as distrusted as the masses that they must deal with nearly every program these days. So, congratulations to Bulova aside, I would like to trace the sides to my observance of the pure bush league approach taken from almost all sides in today’s television commercial culture.

Sure, some disparaging remarks are due the commercial sponsoring companies themselves, but first I think I need to blow off some steam towards the television stations themselves, namely Fox, and their recent attempt at metamorphosing television advertising. What I speak of directly here is the attempt with new shows Fringe and Doll House from last season to incorporate a “Remote Free TV” approach to programming. My main issue with Fox’s attempt here is plainly the destruction of an important element to television viewing, “the commercial break.”

What commercials have become, to some extent, is a time to get things done around the house, or to do your homework, or whatever else your mother tells you, it is an added element of control for the parent who gives their child the remote, the ability to say, “and I want you to get this done during the commercials.”

Now this isn’t to say that a shortened number of ads in an episode of some show is such a bad idea anyway, but rather that the whole concept of “Remote Free TV” is perhaps a last dying wish from the advertising world. The fact of the matter is, television commercials are going to have to be innovative enough to make people pay attention to them, and shortening ad breaks will do nothing for this. The rise of DVR use effectively crushes the television commercial, no matter how long each break is made.

No one is going to stop and sit through 90 seconds of ads when they don’t need to, but I don’t believe it’s such an absurd thing to see someone pause and watch a commercial they particularly enjoy, or that piques their interest for the first time. The point I’m trying to make is that the commercial break has found its way into our culture, just as television has so firmly put its hand around our lives, and for regular television channels to begin experimenting with this concept is a horrible idea, and one that ultimately benefits very few.

The idea of the commercial as enjoyable programming, skewed towards one product is perhaps the best way to approach the issue. Gatorade’s ads preceding their rebranding that were only asking the question of “What’s G?” were just blatantly useless, as far as any serious ad campaign goes. Spreading buzz really has no place in a thirty second ad. One should stick to humor for the most part, although innovation is always useful.

This is why people like the late Billy Mays and Vince Offer can make their sales pitches into straight commercials. Innovation works very well on television. We, the viewers, have grown skeptical of how truthful our picture boxes really are, but we’ve also grown more sure of the pioneering process. Often times, I’m sure, advertisements for new products leave people thinking, “why didn’t someone think of that before?,” and this works just as well as any humor in winning a viewer over to the advertisement’s sponsor. This concept has spun itself into new life, interestingly enough, with such things as American Inventor and Pitchmen. People like to see new inventions, creations, and ideas made manifest. I’m sure once and awhile even made those of us most skeptical of the worth of the human race**, proud of humanity.

For me, the ad campaign that tickles me the most is USA Network’s series of little interlocking tidbits tying different television series together into one close-knit family. This might just be my own fondness for inside jokes and reoccurring characters, but it is also a good way to make commercials entertaining. It is quite apparent that USA can be more involved with its original television series, because of its smaller network status, but it just seems obvious to me that new semi-canon segments outside of television shows, things like USA’s concept or simple minisodes are perhaps the best way to advertise for television programming.

And now that I’ve truly found myself to have my fill of this particular topic, and my butchery of typical informational journalism, I think I’m pretty much done here. I tag this as a rant as well as whatever else it is, because I’m speaking off the top of my head for the most part, and, in so doing, I’m sure, have devolved at least partially into a raving lunatic. So, if you have made your way all done this line of type to this sentence, than I both apologize and thank you for your effort.

Perhaps the best way to end this whole segment is to segue out on Radiohead lyrics, thusly adding my own little advertisement to this extended monologue…

I’m not here, this isn’t happening.

* A phrase I may have just coined that I intend to only mean checking Wikipedia for facts. Noteworthy in that it allows one to inform the reader that yes, this isn’t just made up, but no, the most suitable source for said information was probably not tapped.
** I’m thinking of Kurt Vonnegut, “Father Kurt,” according to Tabitha King.

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