June 11, 2012

The commercial's the thing...

Thirty years from now, will there be DVD collections of old TV commercials from the 2000s and 2010s for us to watch? Will there be a best-of collection of Super Bowl spots? Will we sit around the TV (or computer screen, or iPad, or whatever delivery device exists at that point) and laugh in fond recollection of those products that are now a distant, nostalgic memory, or the stars of today who were no more than bit players back then?

An interesting question. Better still, or at least as interesting: how did people in the 1950s and 60s feel about the commercials that appear on DVD collections? Those commercials were a lot longer than the ads of today, and without remote control to help out, most people simply sat in their chairs and watched, or went to the kitchen or bathroom. I’m not sure that they wouldn’t look at us, fifty years hence, and wonder how in the world we could think that commercials were ever entertaining?

It is the boomers, of course (and I count myself in this group, even though technically I’m just a bit too young to qualify), who’ve made these commercial collections popular. And who doesn’t enjoy looking at ads for their favorite toys, or recall when tobacco products were actually advertised on TV, or how so many television and movie stars got their start on commercials? There’s also something exceedingly clever about some of these ads, at least when compared to the spots of today – the cleverness may simply be a product of retroactive revisionism, but if you’re inclined to think that television as a lot was more clever back then, you’re probably comfortable ascribing the same qualities to commercials. In fact, it’s that word – clever – that stimulates so much of the interest in the aforementioned Super Bowl commercials. And the idea that the creative guns save their biggest hits for that day suggests that the commercials from the other 364 days each year are, at least, not quite up to that level.

At least in my mind, there’s no doubt that one gets the full impact of the culture of the 50s and 60s through its commercials. We see the roles of men, women and children, we see toys that stimulated the imagination and glorified combat and cowboys-and-Indians warfare, we know things about housework and the everyday life of a typical American and – most important of all – what that everyday, typical life was supposed to be. Unquestionably, today’s commercials emphasize various aspects of a life to be desired: we covet sex, slender bodies, material possessions, smug certainties. But is there a difference between lusting for “performance enhancement” and a floor wax that doesn’t yellow? To each his own, I suppose.

Best we ruminate on the meaning of commercials now, though, because the Dish Network’s commercial-zapping Auto Hop is bringing the question of commercials to the forefront. Are they creative works or major irritations? Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen puts the blame for this at the networks; essentially, he’s telling them “you made me do this,” through his comment that as the Wall Street Journal reports, “networks—and advertisers—need to develop more targeted commercials ‘that you're not going to want to hop over,’ and he says he has ‘half a dozen creative ideas’ about how to do that.”

Of course, Ergen isn’t talking quite about the same things we are. He thinks networks need to do more “demographic targeting” of viewers, making the commercials a better match with the viewers. When he says that commercials have to change so that we won’t want to “hop over” them, what he really means is that the commercials have to give viewers information they want, on products they want, in a manner that won’t be so annoying they won’t hear the message. He’s not saying that commercials should be more entertaining, or less obnoxious, or more clever, although to a certain extent that’s implicit in the criticism.

This whole question may be moot, anyway, as the traditional method of content delivery continues to evolve. Ergen admits that four of his five children don’t even subscribe to a pay-TV system; they “come home and bring out their tablets. . . until they find something free that they want to watch.” And that seems to be the direction we’re headed. Direct access to a program, without the hassle of going through a television set, means no or fewer commercials, at a lower or nonexistent price, on a schedule of your choosing rather than that of the programmer.

So who knows what the future holds? One reason I prefer watching my old shows on DVD rather than on the retro TV networks (don’t get me wrong; I love MeTV and Antenna) is that I don’t have to suffer through the commercials. If the ads were the ones that had been shown on these shows originally, I might feel differently. Or I might not.

But it could well be that, just as soccer fans look back in wonderment that there was a time (the 60s and 70s and 80s) when American television interrupted the games for commercials, the viewer of tomorrow may marvel that there even was such a thing as a commercial interruption, much less that some of us thought they were entertaining. TV  


  1. I don’t understand why CBS, FOX, & NBC execs don’t want us to enjoy commercial-free TV. I’m a DISH employee – AutoHop is great because you can easily watch commercial-free TV. Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, is taking a stand for consumers by creating a petition that tells CBS, FOX, & NBC media to keep their hands out of your living room & DVR. Sign their petition to keep control of how you watch TV.

  2. Javi,

    Of course, the networks want us to watch commericals because their advertisers want you to see them, and the advertisers are the ones paying the bills for the networks. As a viewer, if I'm going to watch anything other than a live news or sporting event, I'm probably going to record it - precisely so I can skip through the commercials. Why would an advertiser, knowing how many viewers there are like me, want to pay to sponsor a program when it's likely their ads will never get seen? Hence, I can understand the networks' position. Nonetheless, I agree that they should not be allowed to ban this kind of technology.

    Here's a thought - make better commercials. If you watch shows from the 50s and early 60s (The Jack Benny Program, a noteable example), commericals were even integrated into the plot itself. There's probably an FCC rule against it, though...

  3. These are the commercials that ran during NBC's coverage of Super Bowl III...



Thanks for writing! Drive safely!