Thursday, April 21, 2011

Television Advertisers are Obnoxious Jerks

As a child, I was rarely able to stay up past ten o'clock on a school night, but I remember that those times I did stay up late commercials transformed into something out of the ordinary. The lighting was subdued and the announcers spoke in low tones. The commercials often promoted cigarettes or liquor. Presumably, the sponsors respected the fact that the viewers at this time were mostly moms and dads who had gotten the kids to bed and had finished their final chores of the day. Now, these people were trying to unwind before they themselves went to bed. It was conceivable that many were collapsed in front of the television holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. They did not need to be blasted with loud jingles or have a jokey cartoon pitchman storm their way into their living room. Better to have tranquil voices waft through the air to prepare these people for a good night's sleep. After all, they had to be alert for their jobs the next day if they planned to earn the money to buy these products.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a broadcast recording of a 1962 Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode complete with original commercials. It was like taking a trip back in time. The commercials were mostly like I remembered them to be. Sultry Julie London is sitting in a dark living room with a fireplace burning in background as she softly extols the mellow flavor of Marlboro cigarettes. An announcer speaks in a hushed tone to explain that an elegantly dressed woman enjoying a romantic candlelight dinner is wearing Coti lipstick and perfume. This was soft sell at its best.

The commercial breaks were, in their gentle way, much more appealing than the commercial breaks that television viewers have to endure today. The Hitchcock episode included five commercial breaks while the program was in progress and an additional break after the closing credits. This last break allowed a local commercial to be aired prior to the start of the local news. Four of the breaks that occurred during the show lasted no more than one minute and included no more than a single commercial message. The viewer was brought in and out of the break before they had a chance to get antsy. The one other break, which came at the middle of the hour, was three minutes long and included a station identification, a local commercial and two national commercials (one for Marlboro cigarettes and another for Lavoris mouthwash). The commercial breaks in total, including 20 seconds spent on sponsor identification at the opening and closing of the program, totaled 8 minutes and 24 seconds.

I compared this to the commercial breaks on a current primetime show, NBC's The Event. In this instance, the total time given to commercial breaks was 17 minutes and 44 seconds. There still were five commercial breaks during the course of the hour-long program. The commercial break between shows has been eliminated. The closing scene of The Event was directly followed by an opening teaser for the next program, which was designed to grab viewers before they had a chance to switch away to another channel. However, the commercial breaks are not consistent from show to show. I learned through further research that other hour-long shows, such as Blue Bloods, make room for as much as 20 minutes' worth of commercials per episode.

Most surprising is the number of commercial messages that were broadcast during The Event. Eight commercial messages aired during Hitchcock, but shockingly The Event shoehorned in a total of 42 commercial messages. The modern day philosophy of network broadcasters is to bombard audiences with ads. Buy!  Buy!  Buy!  It is a mind-boggling fever dream of consumerism. Julie London is not whispering these messages in your ear. Today, sponsors do not care if commercials are annoyingly loud and brightly lit as long as they are able to catch your attention in the Great Commercial Expressway. Loud commercials are likely to remain ringing in your ears and shiny commercials stand a chance of burning into your retinas.

The Hitchcock commercials looked to sell mouthwash, shampoo, perfume and lipstick.  But high-dollar items, including cars and electronic devices, were prominent in the advertisements aired during The Event.  Other commercial messages solicited viewers to be socially conscious, participating in recycling efforts and supporting the National Math and Science Initiative. NBC is not even directly earning money for all of these commercials. Several of the commercials promoted other NBC shows, including The Office, 30 Rock, Law and Order: LA, Parenthood, The Biggest Loser and The Voice. A commercial for The Voice aired during three of the five breaks.

I assumed that basic cable channels aired more commercials than the networks, but it only seems that way because basic cable channels have six commercial breaks in an hour. Here is a list of the commercial breaks for an episode of 16 and Pregnant broadcast on April 19, 2011:

10:08:54 to 10:12:02    3 minutes and 08 seconds
10:18:11 to 10:21:34    3 minutes and 23 seconds
10:26:22 to 10:28:56    2 minutes and 34 seconds
10:35:16 to 10:38:19    3 minutes and 03 seconds
10:43:38 to 10:45:54    2 minutes and 16 seconds
10:51:08 to 10:54:55    3 minutes and 47 seconds

The length of these breaks, in total, is 18 minutes and 11 seconds.

If this is not enough advertising, an increasing amount of product placement is being include within the program content. By 2006, product placement had evolved into something that advertisers call an embedded commercial. Here is an embedded commercial for Acuview contact lenses included in a 2006 episode of Smallville.

Blogger Wayne Schmidt wrote, "During a 2008 summer episode of Eureka, the lead star picked up a deodorant dispenser in such an awkward way to keep the label facing the camera that is was insultingly obvious it was a commercial.  Worse still, this was a science fiction show in which the actor was caught in a repeating time loop. That's right, the viewer was forced to watch the clumsy bit of embedded commercialization every time the time loop repeated."

Chuck frequently uses a character's addiction to Subway subs to promote Subway as a part of their storylines.

The Amazing Race proves that Goths are not so anti-establishment that they cannot take the time to provide a good word on the Ford Focus.  A good drinking game would be to take a shot every time you see the Ford logo or hear Ford name-checked during this clip.

A map of Austria cannot be displayed on The Amazing Race without a credit for Google Maps being emblazoned across the bottom of the screen.  

Network executives are trying to find ways to thwart DVR users who fast-forward through commercials.  My son, Griffin, is a big critic of what he calls "DVR traps" (advertisers call them  "interstitial ads" or "DVR busters").  This is when a commercial is designed to look like a scene from the show so that the viewer, thinking the show has started again, eases up on the fast-forward button.  Unsuspecting viewers lured into stopping to watch will not get wise to the trick until it is too late.

Mad Men

Desperate Housewives

30 Rock

I have personally had enough of this advertising overload.  I refuse to buy a product just because an advertiser is determined to cram it down my throat.  I am a brand loyalist anyway.  When I visit the supermarket, I stock up on same products that I have been using for years.  I am largely influenced by word-of-mouth when it comes to purchasing a book or seeing a movie.  I ran out and bought a IPod only after my nephew swore to me how useful his own IPod was.  I am not the type of person willing to buy a Ford car because he sees it on The Amazing Race or Hawaii Five-0 (another showplace for Ford cars).

By their aggressiveness and deceit, network executives have scared  away many consumers and have severely diminished the trust of others.  They need to find a compromise, otherwise no one wins.

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