Because my husband and I watch a lot of television, we are forced to watch a lot of commercials. Even though most of the time we remember to mute the sound, the pictures shout out to us, loud and clear.

We started a little experiment the other night. We decided to analyze each commercial as it came up. The question we posed was, “What are they selling here?” The answers were interesting – and had very little (if anything) to do with the products.

Each commercial appeals to one of our most basic (or base) human characteristics.

For example, let’s look at the “all you can eat” commercials for chain restaurants. That’s obvious: greed. Another example in the greed camp is the one-minute infomercial for some kitchen gadget. Invariably, they tell you that the product is a “sixty-dollar value”. Then you see a big red X through the $60.00 sign, and underneath is “Only $19.99”. (What is it with $19.99? Everything in infomercial land seems to sell for $19.99). Then, just as your common sense is telling you that the product was really only worth $19.99 to begin with, they say, “BUT WAIT! Call within the next thirty seconds and you’ll get a free (fill-in-the-blank)! All for the unbelievably low price of $19.99!” About this time, I’m thinking that this product must be really awful if they’re selling it this cheap. But I do understand the allure: The allure is in the message, “Look how much you can get for almost nothing”. In a word: Greed.

Now, let’s talk about lust. Lust is always easy to spot. Victoria’s Secret ads are the most obvious example. But if they’re selling a pick-up truck with a gorgeous model in a halter-top and Daisy Duke shorts in front of it, they’re selling lust. If the product is mouthwash, and the ad promises to make you “kissing sweet”, while showing an attractive couple swallowing each other’s tongues, they’re selling lust. And, by the way, if the product is a video of some promising young girl who happens to be half undressed – I don’t care how good a singer she might be – they’re selling lust.

Entitlement often overlaps with greed, but it has a different feel to it. Whenever you see the luxury car commercials, which promise things like, “rich Corinthian leather”, or “stylish appointments”, they’re selling entitlement. Whenever the commercial features an attractive young couple standing outside what appears to be an English Tudor-style mansion, they’re selling entitlement. There is a wonderful example of an entitlement commercial. The product is a gargantuan, British-made SUV. It is rolling through the narrow streets of what appears to be a South Asian country. It stops to allow a local entourage to pass. The royalty in the small parade appears to be a gorgeous young princess in native garb. She waves her slender hand to allow the gargantuan British SUV to pass. The last shot of the commercial features a single word, “RESPECT’ (and then the manufacturer’s name). I guess the message is, “Drive this vehicle and you will garner all the respect you so richly deserve, since you are the great white buana!” That’s entitlement.

Next comes vanity. Vanity is simple. Anytime there is an implication that by using a certain product you will emerge looking like the model on TV, that’s vanity. It could be a diet commercial, soap, shampoo, clothing, perfume or cologne. It doesn’t matter that cologne couldn’t possibly make you look like the model, because remember, we are in our TV mode now, and common sense does not apply. If there were still cigarette commercials on TV, they would be vanity commercials, too. Cigarette commercials used to always strive to make you think you would look cool and sophisticated with their brand of cigarette between your lips.

Now we come to fear. Well, fear covers a very broad spectrum, and I can’t do it justice for today. Suffice it to say that fear is probably the most common human emotion covered in commercials. There is: fear of bad breath, fear of dandruff, fear of body odor, fear of social ridicule, fear of strangers, fear of boredom, and of course, fear of death. Most of those commercials for prescription medicines play on your fear of death. Of course, if you turn up the volume and really listen to the hushed, rushed list of caveats at the end of the commercial, you will notice that in many cases “death” is one of the rare unpleasant side effects of the medicine. Once again, however, we are in TV mode, where common sense is not an issue.

Anyway – I envision a day when commercials as we know them will be done away with completely. All commercials will be embedded in the story line of the shows, which is already beginning to be the case. You won’t need a Folgers coffee commercial because the can of Folgers will be prominently displayed in the Pine Valley kitchens of “All My Children”. You won’t need a Sears commercial because the Sears and Kenmore logo will be all over the appliances used in “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” (whoops – that’s already happening). It will be a little trickier to spot the true message of the embedded commercials, which will make them all the more effective. You won’t know you’re being sold. (Isn’t that the definition of propaganda)?

© Robin Munson, 2005

 Category: Humor Robin's Nest

Related articles

1 Comment

  1. Constance

    Intriguing analysis. What do you make of the comercials involving 1-800- help lines? I always was a little disturbed by ads that interupted entertainment hours with people’s actual problems. And a broadcast for them came off insulting, as if they would rather watch Andy Griffith than look up 1-800-help in the phone book. Have I ever met anyone who actually took that # off the screen and was helped. Not that I know of. Maybe yet another commercial is needed. I called 1-800-help and got help, you can too?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.