by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, August 3, 2012


It's an unwritten rule in the Lundberg home that, when the TV's on and it's time for a station break, the sound on the television must be automatically turned off. We do this for a number of reasons: One, the commercials tend to be 60% louder than the actual program we're watching (why is this?); two, with four kids running the house, the added silence isn't just welcome, but necessary to maintain our sanity; and three, 19 out of every 20 commercials tend to raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels. It's unhealthy, I suppose, to get so infuriated by your average TV commercial that I wind up yelling back at the screen like an idiot, so until we can afford some much-needed psychotherapy, that all-important "mute" button on the remote will have to do.

It's not that I'm against commercials in general. We live in a consumer age, after all, where nothing counts so much as the almighty dollar, and companies have only 15-30 seconds to hawk their products and/or services during any given advertisement. Not every ad can be a masterpiece; I get that. These people have to keep their name in the rotation, and they have to stay current with the latest trends and fashions, or else they risk getting swallowed up by the competition. It's all part of the business, a never-ending circle of shameless self-promotion.

But for the love of everything holy, must they always pander to the lowest possible demographic?

Case in point. I will never eat at Carl's Jr. unless someone else is paying for it, and even then I'll probably tell them I'm on a diet, just so I can eat as little as possible and not seem ungrateful. I've been thinking about it, and I believe my aversion to Carl's Jr. started with the following marketing campaign, which cranks up the sound effects to uncomfortable levels:

I don't know about you, but I can't say I particularly enjoy the sound of other people chewing and swallowing their food, let alone when they do it in my ear. This commercial is the equivalent of that, which sounds like the guy is biting into a wet mop. Is this supposed to make me hungry? Because it does get my stomach gurgling, just not in the way they probably intended. Also, what kind of idiot finishes their drink before they take even a single bite of their food? Pay close attention to this commercial, in which the guy apparently has nothing in his cup but a large chunk of ice (another case of cranking the sound up to the point of ridiculousness). And this with a full burger and order of fries yet to go:

Hey, at least they're consistent. And speaking of consistency, take these two ads for Swiffer WetJet/ Sweeper, which continues their time-worn tradition of running a joke that really isn't all that funny to begin with right into the ground:

Notice how they take the exact same script and simply switch actresses/locations? And how they use the exact same song over and over again for ripe comedic effect? (The song is "Give Me Just A Little More Time" by The Chairmen Of The Board, in case you felt like downloading that to your iPod.) I'm not sure whether they're just trying to be cost efficient, or if the Procter & Gamble guys honestly think they've latched onto comedy gold, but this sort of blatant harmless generic-ness makes me a little numb. Yes, I get the point: less time cleaning equals more time to read books or sip teas or wear cleansing masks and such, while your kids look on as if you've never relaxed a day in your life. But the blandness is overkill.

And while we're on the subject of songs you should never, ever download to your iPod, how about these obnoxious little ditties from Lowe's, Target and JC Penney? Sometimes I wonder if these companies make it a point to pick the worst possible songs for their commercials, just so they can flat-out annoy us into shopping their stores.

The absolute worst commercials on TV, however, take a more backward approach to advertising - as in, "Just how the hell is this supposed to help sell their product?" Take this ad for MiO water enhancers, starring a gaggle of anthropomorphic CG animals:

That's not just strange, it's off-putting. Like a computer-generated Island Of Dr. Moreau crossed with Planet Of The Apes, where everyone's hopped up on energy drinks. I feel icky just looking at it.

Then you have this, from the "What kind of crap were they smoking?" school of advertising:

Quiznos, I salute you. That one took guts. And best of all, the kids seem to love them. (Those things, by the way, are affectionately known as "spongmonkeys," just so you know
. So now you can impress your friends at parties.)

DTC (direct-to-customer) advertising, on the other hand, appeals to a very specific demographic. You're already familiar with DTC, even if you've never been able to put a name to it. And they're all structured the same, which is actually sort of amazing to me. It makes me wonder if the FDA has issued some sort of list which all drug companies must follow, or else they suffer the consequences.

Watch the following ads and compare. Both run about a minute in length, both open with some sort of talking head interview in which some poor disease-ridden schlub explains his/her problem to us, followed by a montage of said schlub living life from the sidelines (preferably in slow motion), until about the 30-second mark, when the name of our miracle drug is finally revealed ("But wait - don't despair!"), followed by a brand new montage of our hero hiking or boating or bicycle/horseback-riding or what have you (in slow motion), as a list of "possible side effects" plays over top of it (always a crowd-pleaser), and to wrap it up with a nice pretty bow, we get one last shot of our happy little test subject smiling away, not a care in the world, so that we know he/she will be just fine, thank you very much. You can practically set your watch to it:

And so on. Is anyone else out there bothered by these? Especially that "possible side effects" part. It reminds me of this Jeff Foxworthy quote:

  There are so many drugs out there. They advertise
  this prescription stuff, and I swear, nine times
  out of ten, the side-effects are fifty times
  worse than what the thing cures. It's like, "Try
  new Fluorofluor. For itchy, watery eyes, it's
  Fluorofluor. Side effects may include: nausea,
  vomiting, water weight gain, lower back pain,
  receding hairline, eczema, seborrhea psoriasis,
  itching, chafing, liver spots, blood clots,
  ringworm, excessive body odor, uneven tire wear,
  pyorrhea, gonorrhea, diarrhea, halitosis,
  scoliosis, loss of bladder control, hammertoe,
  the shanks, warped floors, cluttered drawers,
  hunchback, heart attack, low resale value on your
  home, feline leukemia, athlete's foot, head lice,
  clubfoot, MS, MD, VD, fleas, anxiety,
  sleeplessness, drowsiness, poor gas mileage,
  tooth decay, parvo, warts, unibrow, lazy eye,
  fruit flies, chest pains, clogged drains,
  hemorrhoids, dry heaving and sexual dysfunction."
  I'm watching it, going, "You know what? I'll just
  have itchy, watery eyes."

There is, of course, an antidote to these self- righteous modern-day marketing missteps, which is a good old-fashioned sense of humor. To me, nothing sells a product better than a well-placed joke or visual gag. Yet even these so-called advertising geniuses manage to botch something as simple as this. Take this Taco Bell commercial, circa 2004, in which we're supposed to buy into the idea that actual human beings walk around in public areas shouting absurdities while everyone else accepts this as perfectly rational behavior:

My question: If "humor" is defined as some clever twist on the human condition, then just what is this supposed to be twisting? The fact that anyone who eats at Taco Bell is a raving lunatic? I can't remember the last time I was hanging out on the golf course or in a classroom or at a costume party where someone made this sort of declaration. Were they trying to start a trend? (My favorite bit: "What are you supposed to be?" "I'm full!" "Oh ho ho, right. I'm a pirate." The hilarity!)

Some will say I'm over-thinking it. Yet compare the "comedy" from the commercial above with the comedy of this one, an unassuming ad for Athenos-brand feta cheese:

Now that's how you do it. Just a handful of adults enjoying a day by the pool, and a kindly Greek grandmother who completely misinterprets what she sees. And the collective shock on the partygoers' faces is priceless. (Yiayia's adventures, meanwhile, continue here, here and here.)

You also have to admire any company that continues to crank out commercials of vastly different shapes and sizes. GEICO sets the standard, of course, with old reliables like the GEICO Gecko and Cavemen making the rounds to this day. They don't always hit a home run, but you can't fault them for trying. I get a particular kick out of these:

My current favorite, though, comes courtesy of State Farm Insurance. You all know the jingle (penned by Barry Manilow, of all people), but here it's put to remarkable use:

Silly? Yes. Implausible? Maybe. But it's good to know they've got your back in case of emergencies. State Farm even manages to delight the closet Journey fan in all of us:

The nostalgia train marches on in this latest line of Old Navy commercials, too, particularly for all you Beverly Hills 90210 lovers out there (and you know who you are). Admittedly, I've always thought Old Navy had some of the worst ads on TV, but these are actually sort of clever:

So you see, there's hope. You just have to sort through a whole lot of other crap to find them. Still, none of the above can hold a candle to the classics of yesteryear. Does anyone remember this mini-masterpiece from Little Caesar's Pizza?

Or how about this one? Nothing says "funny" like a poodle in a conga line (or, for that matter, little kids bouncing off grandmother's butt):

Or, finally, how about this all-time classic from Timex? (Extra brownie points if you remember "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.")

So how about you, Faithful Reader? What say you on the current state of TV advertising? Any favorites I've left off? Any you've particularly hated? Is anyone even listening to me?


  1. I'm pretty certain you'd un-mute the tv when a commercial for any Christopher Nolan movie or G1 Transformers toys comes on.

    - you know who this is

  2. Couldn't stand the dummies on Old Navy ads a while back. And the disaster guy on some insurance ad was just weird.

    I fully agree with your thoughts. Nowadays it is few and far between. The Quizno's ad... *shudder* I pushed that out of my mind for a reason.

    Oh, I have to admit, some of the Blockbuster hamster ads from the past were pretty clever.

    1. Hollywood Video used to have some pretty great radio spots too. Remember "60-Second Theater"?

  3. I needed a good laugh like that. It really helps me to put life into perspective when I read your commentaries. :)

    1. Hence the blog-post-as-psychotherapy-session.