To borrow a phrase from the Madison Avenue ad people “In these difficult times, it’s reassuring to know that we still have enough of what we need.” Well, let’s be more truthful here. We may have limited access to some of what we need. We may not have enough masks, or tests or essential drugs. We certainly don’t have enough nursing homes where it’s safe to live or work. And many of us don’t have enough money to pay bills or buy food.
But, for those who have cable, we sure have enough TV ads. As this clever spoof (“Every COVID-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same”) makes evident, one of the reasons why we have enough ads is that we’re actually seeing the same ad over and over again.
The guy who made the spoof, “Microsoft Sam”, wrote, “What’s the deal? In reality, many companies have found themselves short on cash, almost overnight. They needed to get a message out—and quick. They asked their teams to throw something together. Since they can’t film a new ad because of social distancing, they compiled old stock b-roll footage and found the most inoffensive royalty-free piano track they could find. This, combined with a decade of marketing trends dictated by focus groups and design-by-committee, released a tsunami of derivative, cliche ads all within a week of one another. It’s not a conspiracy—but perhaps a sign that it’s time for something new.”
This is a revealing insight into the limited imaginations of those who work in advertising and media—even of the clever ones. They can’t really imagine that the alternative is not better advertising, but no advertising at all.
Ads of all types serve many functions in the current world order. At bottom, of course, they are always about getting prospective customers to buy particular products. But they are also intended to convince people that they “need” things for which there is no real need. At times, they are intended to trick people into believing that something will be really beneficial for them when the likelihood is that it will not—this is especially the case when it comes to ads for drugs that are promoted as “life-saving” when, in many cases, the reality is that the drugs in question might prolong someone’s life for a relatively short period of time (some times, weeks) and may well make the patient miserable in the meantime. They also are intended to make people believe in magic–you can eat delicious prepared meals, including desserts, and still lose fifteen pounds in a month.
It’s worth thinking about the dramatic upsurge in ads for pharmaceutical corporations. There are so many of them that they barely have time to list the negative side effects such as bedwetting, entertaining suicidal thoughts (probably from watching the commercials), blindness, seizures, crucial organ failure and the grand prize, death. The ad people are treating the virus period as a season, like Xmas or that stupid Friday after Thanksgiving affair, when people line up outside of the big box stores at dawn to buy a cut-price top of the line weed whacker or a device to change the sparkplugs on their portable electric razors. Who but only a select few can afford to buy a Lexus sedan for their significant others at Xmas time? But if you are able to contemplate spending tens of thousands of dollars on a luxury car, make sure you play out the fantasy…wrap the car key with a bow under the Xmas tree and have it surprisingly parked outside in front of the three-door garage. Try that in a trailer park or in the housing projects. To the ad creators, it is the seasonal spirit that counts. And now ‘tis the season to be sick.
But beyond all these specific functions and seasonal come-ons, ads also serve as a way of organizing people’s sentiments—this is what is on full display with the current outpouring of Covid-19 ads. They all work on the same sentiments that have been carefully cultivated through exposure to thousands of ads a year—the same music, the same kinds of camera shots, the same kind of plots so to speak. An Ad Age analyst provided an appropriately cynical summary: “somber music, a reminder of how the brand has been with the consumer throughout its entire history and that in these ‘challenging,’ ‘trying,’ ‘uncertain or ‘unprecedented’ times, while ‘doors are closed’ or ‘distance between us’ has grown, we can still ‘stay connected’ in the ‘safety of our home.’ The brands promise to remain with you, assuring viewers that we can all get through this ‘together’… , and finally the ads close with rousing music and scenes of people applauding from their windows and homes.” When all else fails, tug at the old unsung hero and heroine heartstrings.
Each ad prepares the way for the next ad; they all work as a concert of sorts. Keep in mind that when the TV companies get other companies to place ads on their channels, they are selling us to the companies—we are the product they want to buy. And they know what they’re getting.
At a time like this, it might be a good idea to not take so much of this for granted and be willing to look into the extent to which our feelings and our ideas are being manipulated. We have been trained to respond the same way to the same ads—they have been market-tested. Or it might be more truthful to say that we have been market-tested. These results are obtained by treating us like laboratory mice. It might be safe to say that the advertising con artists work on the adage “what do we expect from pigs but grunts.” But we can flip that around too if we bear in mind what they are all about. Remember the Malcolm X quote about sending a dog to catschool…it’s still going to come back a dog. The advertising industry is made up of shameless snake-oil sales people. No world pandemic can change that fact.
We have previously cited the insights of Keston Sutherland, a British poet (see “Adventures in Cruiseland”) He doesn’t like advertising. He cuts to the chase when he challenges the claim that the ad men are simply selling what people want. The claim is “true enough but only because the condition of wanting has itself been degraded in advance by these same innocent marketing men into a stupefying adjunct of the culture industry.” Sutherland continually hammers home the idea that we have been “stupefied”, made to lack any real sensibility and become numb.
These times demand that people renew their own real sensibilities and refuse to become numb. It may be time to close down the ads.