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Diminishing Returns

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Illustration by Steven DeCinzo

As audiences wise up, are we witnessing the slow death of TV advertising?

By Zack Stentz

FOR THE PAST 15 YEARS or so, it's become a cliché to say of each year's Superbowl that "the game sucked, but at least the commercials were interesting." This year was different. The Broncos/Packers matchup was genuinely thrilling, while the superexpensive new TV spots proved uninspired and dull.

None of the commercials generated the Monday-morning conversational buzz of ads past, such as the fighting Coke and Pepsi drivers, the Holiday Inn transgendered high school reunion or, of course, Apple's eye-popping "1984" spot that introduced the Macintosh to the world. Instead, we got a Mick Jagger-channeling insect singing "Brown Sugar," a lame Intel appeal to choose our own ending via the Internet and an assassination attempt on the Budweiser frogs by the Budweiser chameleons.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that many of TV's most successful and familiar campaigns are running out of creative steam. We've been through just about every scenario in which the absence of milk creates problems; the perils of the Energizer Bunny have ceased to enchant; and even that sweet Taster's Choice couple is nowhere to be seen.

The Budweiser chameleons vs. frogs campaign actually comments on the phenomenon of creative exhaustion, and it's in this commercial that we really witness the mechanisms of TV advertising at work--and also see why those techniques aren't working the way they used to.

Consider the fact that the people who created the commercials realized that viewers who were once enchanted by the Budweiser frogs (one survey found that more children recognized them than Mickey Mouse or Big Bird) have now gotten tired of the croaking amphibians.

The Budweiser reptiles, then, are actually stand-ins for the audience, acting as avatars for viewer hostility toward the overexposed mascots while simultaneously breathing new life into a campaign that had been showing its age. By acknowledging viewer skepticism toward a particular spot and toward television advertising in general, the commercial seeks to subvert that hostility and turn the emotion to its own advantage in selling the product.

This strategy of "deride and conquer," as cultural critic Mark Crispin Miller calls it, is nothing new. Since the mid-1970s, as Miller noted in his book Boxed In: The Culture of TV, the medium has stifled mockery and opposition by beating viewers to the punch and doing the mocking for them. By gently making fun of itself or its own advertisers, be it in a David Letterman monologue or smirking ESPN Sports Center promotion, television lets the watcher feel superior to the common herd and in on the joke, even while he or she is still glued to the sofa.

THE MOST RECENT and cynical example of this "you're too hip and smart for advertising but buy our product anyway" approach is ABC's TV Is Good campaign, with its cagey acknowledgment of viewer guilt over watching so much television. "Don't worry, you've got billions of brain cells left," declares one ad.

Thankfully, the campaign has done nothing to boost ABC's dismal ratings, just as the aforementioned Budweiser commercial failed to generate the expected enthusiasm, leading one to wonder if H.L. Mencken was wrong about the financial upside of underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Sprite has done a better job of parodying the absurd claims made by soft-drink companies--and by extension advertising in general--about the life-improving properties of their products. Sprite's most recent ad hilariously shows how a family might react if a cartoon soft-drink logo came to life: mom and kids run screaming in terror from the offending mascot, which by no coincidence speaks in the same screechy falsetto as South Park's Mr. Hankey.

These campaigns subscribe to another theory of advertising: that in the age of the remote control, viewers will only sit through a commercial if it has inherent entertainment value. But here's the rub: clever as the Sprite commercials are on the level of media criticism, they're less effective at convincing us to drink Sprite. It's the dirty little secret of most artistically superior ads that they entertain audiences but don't necessarily make viewers want to buy the product being hawked.

Consider the recent "They go on" commercials for Levi's jeans in which a bunch of refugees from a magazine spread for CK One are depicted in a Slacker-esque series of obtuse, interlocked scenarios. (I keep wishing that the blonde would dump her hipster boyfriend and take up with the used-car salesman, who's by far the most charming, grounded character in the campaign.)

The spots look beautiful and win countless Clio awards for their makers, but thus far they've done nothing to erode the company's declining market share. Just as viewers are beginning to see through faux-ironic commercials, they also seem to be appreciating the aesthetics of these arty ads while blithely ignoring their sales pitches.

One can even draw parallels between this increased immunity to advertising and the American public's ho-hum reactions to the current Clinton sex scandal. The most enjoyable part of the entire controversy, aside from Ted Koppel wondering aloud if oral sex is adultery, has been tracking the baffled reactions of the news hosts and Sunday-morning TV punditocrats to our general lack of moral outrage at the allegations.

The viewing public is tuning in, to be sure: ratings are up for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and all the other news-only cable channels. But the wrath of this allegedly Puritan nation has been directed less at the president and more at the news media's sensationalistic handling of the charges. On MSNBC this last two weeks, caller after caller has blasted the hosts for rushing to judgment, while anchor Keith Olberman and his kin could only sputter and act disappointed that the American people aren't as titillated and outraged as they ought to be.

JUST AS skepticism toward received wisdom is a sign of a healthy democracy, so advertising burnout is probably a good thing for us all in the long run. Systems theorist Donella Meadows, who co-authored the books The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, calls advertising a major prop in a dysfunctional economic system that stresses growth at all costs.

"The reason why advertising is a problem from a systems point of view is that it messes up the information stream," she said in a recent interview. "It distorts it and tells a lot of lies, and it gives people misleading information--that they'll be happier, younger and sexier if they buy a product."

So a future without television advertising may be great for the planet and our own psyches, but how will our favorite TV shows get paid for? That's no small question, given the skyrocketing amounts of money the networks are now shelling out for audience pleasers like E.R.

One idea getting seriously looked at by broadcast-TV executives is actually charging viewers to watch their favorite shows. Proponents of network pay-per-view point toward several surveys that showed large percentages of viewers declaring themselves willing to pay a small amount, usually $5 dollars a month or so, to see the likes of Seinfeld and The X-Files.

When combined with the expected convergence of television and high-capacity online information services, it's not difficult to imagine a near-future world in which popular programs are "posted" every week on a network's Web site and available for download onto a home set--all for the appropriate fee, of course.

But how a system such as the one described would work for less popular shows remains to be determined. Is anyone really willing to pay to watch Early Edition or Diagnosis: Murder? Who knows. We may even see a future world where Fox will pay us to watch Ask Harriet.

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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