WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T LIKE TELEVISION COMMERCIALS?
Let the In crowd carp... For the rest of us, what’s life without beer belles, blipblip, tornadoes, tigers and that nutty knight?
ARE YOU A VICTIM of cultural fatigue? When you wake with that philistine feeling, do you have to force yourself to admire op art. Bob Dylan, the Sassoon cut? Then turn to television commercials for deep, lasting relief. Even in these days when it’s In to be far enough Out, commercials are still stubbornly regarded as unfashionable. It’s not just acceptable to knock them, it’s almost obligatory.
Yet, when a commercial flashes on, we don’t ^always turn off the set or even look away. Freedom from advertisements hasn’t sold us on the ^idea of Pay-TV. In fact most of us, if pressed, .•».would admit a sneaking fondness for at least some messages from the sponsors. I’d rather watch the deadpan American Gothic couple with their engagingly simple song, “Please buy our corn flakes, they’re made from corn,” than sit through Gidget *or, for that matter, Bonanza. This year, it seems to me, there are more memorable commercials and more forgettable programs than ever before. Good commercials ^are becoming a highly sophisticated form of pop art, worth at least as much attention as the shows if-they interrupt. I’m still waiting for the day when an entertainment columnist offers a regular review of the best commercials, but meanwhile I’ve been ^making a casual assessment of my own favorites —which may or may not be yours.
Since the average Canadian family keeps a ftelevision set turned on forty hours a week, :'|its members are exposed to about five hours of commercials, or three hundred one-minute plugs. *They’ll see fewer than that if they watch mostly ^.CBC-TV public-affairs and nursery shows, considerably more if they’re addicted to late movies on other networks. Day after day we’re engulfed ^by a tide of commercial imagery, and some of it washes right into our reflexes. We catch ourselves ^whistling, or at least recognizing, “Things go better with Coca-Cola,” and, “Come alive! You’re Tin the Pepsi generation!” Some mornings the rhythms of, “I can spell with Alpha-Bits,” or, The only breakfast cereal that comes in the
shape of animals,” go round and round in my head. For me, “Look, Mom, no cavities!” will always summon up Earl Cameron interlocking his fingers to show how Crest melds with tooth enamel. I’ve watched that Hertz customer who plunges into the driver's seat, providing gag fodder for Jackie Gleason, Wayne and Shuster, and Ursula Andress in What’s New Pussycat? and 1 wasn’t even surprised to read in a Toronto newspaper that the first words an elderly woman spoke when she reached hospital after a motorcycle accident were, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”
Commercials have come a long way since Betty Furness broached her first refrigerator. The best ones have style, a kind of tough bouncy lightness illuminated by the brilliance of a single fresh idea. The man who snitches Crackerjack from kids, the Chinese baby eating Jell-0 with chopsticks, Alka-Seltzer’s gross navvy braced against a pneumatic drill, the Esso serviceman who gives a furnace the same tender pat the doctor gives a baby, all rate a smile of recognition the third time round. And it takes an advertiser with guts to run his spiel in Japanese (a Hush Puppies commercial in which a Japanese woman goes shopping for something more comfortable than sandals) or to kid his own brand name. Last year Canada won an award in an international festival at Cannes with a honey of a commercial in which Pat Galloway confided, “Whenever I think of roses, I think of pickles,” ending, “Remember, Pickle Brand Roses!”
THOUGH THESE PACESETTERS are trailed by hundreds of drab commercials, the kind you scarcely notice or instantly forget, it’s my impression that there are fewer really terrible ones than there used to be. When I began to wonder why commercials are improving fand also why some are so staggeringly bad), I went round to some advertising agencies to talk to people who make them. 1 found that nowadays, if commercials are
dull or jarring, it's not because they’re trying to irritate us into remembering the product. Those distasteful deodorant commercials are just as unconscious of offending as the pathetic creatures who don’t use Arrid, Fresh and Dial soap. Some commercials are poor because there isn’t enough talent to go round (and it's the same with programs). A few years ago David Ogilvy, the advertising expert who put an eyepatch on the man in the Hathaway shirt, claimed that the commercials that got results weren’t the ones people liked, the ones that got awards. Today there’s a general feeling that entertaining commercials really work. Alka-Seltzer sales have risen sixteen percent in the U. S. since they launched the one with the stomachs.
Whatever their message, many commercials are little gems of technique. Considering their cost, they should be. A one-minute commercial may occupy a hundred people, take twenty hours to shoot and cost more than fifty thousand dollars, perhaps more than the half-hour program that surrounds it. Makeshifts went out years ago with live commercials. Old advertising men (in that business they’re old at thirty-five) remember the time when Joyce Davidson turned on a food mixer and sprayed batter straight into her face, and the day when the camera covering one Grey Cup parade panned to the Salada girl just as she fainted.
Today virtually all pitches are worked out meticulously, then pre-recorded. When Hertz puts you in the driver’s seat, they photograph you being yanked (by hidden wires) out of a stationary car, then run the film backward (to put you into the car) and superimpose this film on separately shot footage of moving scenery to give the effect of a car sifting down a highway. To heighten the effect, and defeat sharp-eyed fault-finders, they animate the wheel discs to give the impression the wheels are moving. One of the first commercials shot from an aircraft, as so many are now, showed a Chevrolet perched on a mountain peak. How did it get up / continued on page 38
If you dote on Peyton Place, soap ads are sure to get you
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there? They assembled it there, and used a helicopter to drop a pretty girl to sit in it.
Some commercials are technically more resourceful than programs. The contrapuntal harmonies of “How can just one calorie taste so good?” were borrowed from Bach and originally scored for twelve voices and a harpsichord. “With commercials you can try anything,” says Richard Lester, a director who used to turn out eighty commercials a year before he made the Beatles films. A good many of the photographic experiments employed in such movies as Help!, Tom Jones and Mary Poppins were first used in commercials, where the story has to he packed into twenty, thirty or sixty seconds. Years of watching commercial techniques of compressing action have prepared us to accept the same conventions in such programs as The Man From U .N.C.L.E. There’s the swish pan, when the screen blurs sideway as the scene shifts from New York to Rome; the out-of-focus shot before the scene dissolves; the jump cut in which you see, for instance, a pickle shrinking bite by bite because the intervening film has been cut out; or the frozen frame, when the camera makes its point by stopping and holding a motionless shot of Sophia Western laughing, or a model wearing Supphose.
It’s getting harder and harder to tell the commercials from the programs. Jack Gilford, the man with a craving for Crackerjack, turned up in The Defenders as a perjured witness who tried to frame Ken Preston, and when I first saw Steve Levy barreling down a sewer looking for a Dow I thought the Seaway had caved in. While the programs are picking up experimental techniques from the commercials, the commercials are busily casing the programs for trends; spy stuff, fantasy, hot actors, closeups instead of cartoons, pictures instead of words, and above all the gentle mockery of the medium that pervades entertainment today. Some advertisements come right out with sendups of specific programs, like The Squintstones with Tom Kneebone and Barbara Hamilton. Alka-Seltzer’s The Offenders has the familiar courthouse music, even the credits, and The Girl From Fahulash has a secret weapon guaranteed to make any man say U.N.C.L.E.
Advertising men are fond of saying that commercials are a mirror of life, a distillation of our affluent society. I don’t think they have much relevance to my world or even, surprisingly, to my shopping list. What they actually reflect is the world of television, or rather television with a leucotomy, with all such disturbing elements as poverty, sex and current affairs sliced away. Sponsors read the ratings and advertising men deliberately aim their message at the sort of people who like to watch hockey and The Beverly Hillbillies.
Though they aren’t consciously copying programs, some commercials
imitate the mood of certain kinds of shows so faithfully that I’m convinced they must be designed to capitalize on whatever it is about the show that appeals to viewers. It seems to me that Peyton Place fans would be suckers for the soap ads, and that people who find Dr. Kildare convincing would be persuaded by commercials for patent medicines. I’ve been whiling away the prime time spotting parallels between the programs and the plugs:
THE BOND CAPER: Such programs as / Spy and Get Smart are still getting mileage out of the mannered agent and so are commercials — the one for Mark Ten, for instance, in which a driver roars up to a farmhouse for an assignation with a blonde who’s been buying goodies with cigarette coupons. In all the Bond imitators the style is crisp, staccato, sinister, with a compulsive score: “There’s a man who knows what he wants . . . gets what he wants . . .” Easy enough if you only want a Peter Jackson cigarette.
FISTICUFFS: Some commercials,
such as a barroom brawl staged by Dow, pack in the most vicious infighting this side of the hockey games, but in others the dirtiest digs are not physical but verbal. Right now coffee is taking a verbal beating from three rivals, Nescafé (“Keeps the flavor old-fashioned perking boils away”), Sanka (Sanka drinkers stay calm at the auction while rivals who are pepped up with coffee fluff their bids), and Salada Tea (“Are you putting the right thing in your cup?”). Bayer Aspirin is fighting back Bufferin’s split tablet with, “Pure Aspirin, not just part Aspirin.” The Good Luck challenge mocks up an elaborate test to prove that a nice old lady can’t tell the difference between margarine and a product whose name is censored on the sound track. “I’m sorry,” she apologizes, “they both taste like blipblip (beargrease?) to me.”
THE SICK WESTERN: Just as Shenandoah and similar shows star heroes haunted by their past, some commercials are designed to build the product a new image by tearing down its old one. Like a neurotic fresh from therapy, Jell-O insists on showing us the lumpy, watery pudding it used to make, and instant Bovril compares itself with those old Bovril cubes that never would dissolve.
THE MEDICS: Ben Casey never
spoke with more authority than the patent-medicine commercials. The anatomy may be rudimentary (that cough centre in your brain; the A’s and B’s racing for your stomach) but the message comes through loud and clear to those of us who suffer pain more than other people do, pain that really hurts. There’s one bit about a tired businessman with a headache, cringing when his child greets him with Indian warwhoops. My point is, that man had reached forty without ever hearing of headache pills.
SOAP OPERA: A diehard radio tradition lingers on in a shadow world where people meddle in one another's affairs, wandering into neighbors’ kitchens to comment on their
housekeeping. Faced with the fact that all detergents look alike, the manufacturers have invented a society in which women care deeply about the whiteness of their sheets. The myth reaches its apogee in a series in which women are asked to compare piles of washing from unlikely vantage points: “We asked Mrs. Randolph, a housewife, to go up in the Cheer balloon ...” Candid Camera once spoofed the whiter-wash test with a sketch in which one victim declared flatly that both samples were filthy.
NOT-SO-LIGHT FANTASTIC: The cosy cardboard world of the soaps collapsed when Ajax’s White Knight galloped through Steel Town. By nudging out Mr. Clean in the most successful cleanser campaign ever launched, it doomed us to a season of white tornadoes, white phantoms, storms in sinks, tigers in soap boxes and blondes seeping out of haircream tubes like Jeannie from her jar. Most sponsors, peering out from thickets of market research, are trying hard to dig fantasy without quite abandoning the “realistic” slice-of-life. They produce schizophrenic commercials such as the one in which a woman remarks, “My son spilled some water on the floor . . .’’ As the camera drops to show her standing in water to the knees, she produces a paper towel that slurps up the flood. Up to then, it’s great fun — but then she kills the whole thing by telling us she was just kidding.
KID STUFF: The wilier advertisers know that you hook the housewife by showing her not another housewife but a small child. As well as being enormously appealing, to me at any rate, children make credible mouthpieces for the sort of exchange that sounds ludicrous between grownups: “Our house is better than your house.” “Our house has electric heating all over.” “Oh,” says the first little boy, and his woebegone face makes a neat pitch for Ontario Hydro. (Chimpanzees are useful, too, for demonstrat-
¡ng how easy it is to make Xerox copies or load a Kodak Instamatic camera.) Commercials beamed at children, on the other hand, are hardsell all the way. If you think Earl Cameron borrows weight from his function as news announcer, you should watch kids’ faces when Uncle Bill, Uncle Bobby and other nursery hosts on local stations step out of their roles as friendly teachers and start shilling for toys and (believe it or not) vitamin pills for kids.
SHOW BIZ: Whether they’re building a go-go scene for the teenage cola drinkers or a campfire session for the beer crowd, commercials sell the idea that their product is your ticket to a swinging party in much the same way that Perry Como and Andy Williams invite you to meet their guests. I prefer the situation-comedy kind, such as the one in which a man keeps trying to order while waiters burst into a song until he’s surrounded by a quartet belting-out, “Molson's Canadian!” — and he still hasn’t got his beer.
SUSPENSE: The torture tests in which they attach watches to skis and drop television sets by parachute leave me cold. The only cliffhanger with more tension than The Fugitive is a commercial for Scotchgard stain repellent that focuses on an authentic-looking party in full swing. Instead of showing us drinks and sandwiches being spilled on the furniture, the camera shoots the agonizing moment just before, and you catch yourself reaching out to grab the glass from the screen.
OLD MOVIES: Marble pillars, pounding surf, a choir backed by a string orchestra, and we’re back with the car commercials. Most of them never overcome the fact that cars all look alike, they’re all superlative every year, and they're always photographed from eight angles as mandatory as ballet positions. Only a few commercials, such as the Mustang ad that transforms a meek shopkeeper into a dashing playboy, make real capital of the emotionally loaded relationship between man and machine.
Programs change and so do commercials, and next season they’re both going to change even more drastically than usual. Color is being stepped up, and neither shows nor ads will ever look the same again. For a while commercials will probably be less imaginative than they are now (though I’ve seen one wild, wacky pop - art cartoon in color for Ford). Because optical tricks are too expensive in a medium that costs up to 30 percent more than black and white, color will kill fantasy and strengthen the trend to actuality already emerging in those embarrassing testimonials from apparently real people. Just as colorset owners now prefer any color program to black and white, we’ll sit spellbound watching a man’s fingers opening a pack of cigarettes and lighting one — in color. We'll see more advertisements for cars, clothes, food, furniture and other products that don’t show to advantage in black and white.
As costs soar, we’ll get fewer sponsored programs (the kind where Hoss Cartwright praises the virtues of Chevy trucks on Bonanza) and more spot carriers (network programs in
which advertisers buy space for one or more commercials). Stations try to lard in commercials so they don’t interrupt programs, but they don't always succeed, especially in U. S. shows that carry different ads in Canada. A Canadian advertiser once persuaded Ed Sullivan to signal commercial breaks by putting his hand to his forehead, and on the first program the ads slipped in more smoothly than ever before. The following week Sullivan happened to
raise his hand while he chatted with a guest and up in Toronto the camera cut to announcer Bill Walker, who had to ad lib for five minutes, five seconds.
It's a safe bet that we’ll tire of just seeing products in color and commercials will then swing back to involving us in a mood. After fifteen years of television we've developed some immunity to the hard sell, but we’re still susceptible to the pitch that stirs our emotions. The good ones do it well.
sometimes too well. An acquaintance of mine once figured as a happy drinker at a beach party in a beer advertisement. Months later, driving to the airport, the taxi driver insisted that they'd met at a barbecue. The cabbie swore he could remember a fire, hot dogs and songs (but no beer).
“We had a ball that night, didn’t we?" he said wistfully. "Let’s do it again sometime.”
It's as easy as switching on your set. ★