The fact that the commercials create so much interest within the media is slightly alarming. This is not because of the enthusiasm for entertaining or spectacular commercials per se, but rather because the whole point seems to be overlooked - exactly as the advertising folks would wish. I would doubt whether there are many (if any) commercials which have the aim of making any of us leap out of our chairs, sofas, beds or strange system of leather straps (well, I'm trying to be inclusive here!) and rush out to immediately purchase the product on offer. Advertising exists to alter our patterns of purchase, to persuade us to make a certain choice which subsequently becomes a habit. As a result, the persuasion is usually aimed at an indeterminate point in the future (around the time of your next shopping trip, perhaps?), at which time you or I may take a risk and try something new because - and here's the rub - the commercial made a good impression.
We don't actually have to believe that a certain detergent washes brighter, whiter, colder or fresher - what matters in a commercial is that we begin to associate positive feelings with a product. If that happens, we are far more likely to make an emotional (and repeatable) choice in favour of the advertised product. It works - otherwise there would be little point in creating and broadcasting the story-telling, persuasive advertisements that grace our media today.
So, I hear you say, what's my fricken problem with that? Well, I think I shall tell you, since you asked so succinctly.
An increasing number of TV commercials in particular strike me as poisonous. Living in Canada I am 'lucky' enough to see commercials from this country and (oh lordy) from the USA - on American channels there is a much higher saturation of commercials that on Canadian channels. Only public broadcasting channels carry no commercials within their programming, the result of which is that the vast majority of channels pump out advertising messages for up to thirty percent of the day. That's a lot of advertising messages. And what do they really tell us? Well they tell us to buy something of course - but there are common messages throughout the world of advertising which are far less simple. Many of them are destructive. It's perhaps time that more of us started to take notice of some of the real messages of these creative efforts.
- Women are the only people who do domestic cleaning. I have yet to see a 'husband' mopping a kitchen floor or dusting a living room, or spraying air freshener, or loading a washing machine, or...you get the picture, I hope.
- Men are, apparently, pretty much useless, stupid and live much of their lives puzzled by the amazing competence of their female partners. Their chief skill seems to be wearing office-worker clothing (with the possible exception of jeans and plaid shirt), and making fools of themselves by virtue of their stupidity or clumsiness.
- All kids are cute and funny, no matter what the circumstances.
- All women are home-makers, and all home-makers have long hair and are aged approximately thirty years with - if not actually athletic - at the very least, a trim figure.
- Every child worships their mom, while 'dad' is invisible and incompetent at every meaningful household chore - more on this particularly offensive idea shortly.
- Only men buy - or even remotely like - pickup trucks.
- Women are only attracted to men with a full head of hair, and without any grey in it (and especially, for some reason, a lack of grey in the beard).
- All young women are thin, wear dresses or skirts, overtly flirty, and relish the attention of only a male model- type of man (with a full head of hair, of course).
- All women who use chat lines are young, voluptuous, talk using a voice like a twelve year-old and are habitually dressed somewhat scantily.
- Fat men (always the butt of a joke) are intrinsically funny; fat women (if any actually exist) are jolly.
Of course it's all nonsense. Each of the above (and as you will hopefully be aware, it's a small, selective group of the generalizations that we are fed every day) is constructed around a stereotype. The stereotypes are toyed with, exaggerated and manipulated in order to maximize the effectiveness of each commercial. On its own, this comedic (usually) device can be genuinely amusing as it highlights and holds up for ridicule some of our more established prejudices. Within the medium of the commercial advertisement, however, the subtle (or, once you've noticed it, about as subtle as a brick through the window) message is repeated over and over, regardless of the influence upon children and other impressionable people (which by the way, includes the vast majority of us).
Very simply, the advertisers want us to think that way so that we will idiotically accept the repeated message about detergent A or floor cleaner X. Hugely stereotypical (and the woman with the mop is one of the most repeated) and idealized imagery swamps our senses daily, telling us a story and conveying a message - a message which has the underlying theme of 'You should be like this!'. Men should be fit and muscular (if they're not, they are figures of comedy) with full heads of hair, and women must all have long hair and athletic figures, regardless of their age. It's inaccurate, it's disturbing, and by sheer weight of broadcasting on the TV and internet, it is shaping our society's beliefs and values more so today than ever before.
The most telling example of the moment is a TV advert currently out there for a top-selling brand of night time cold remedy. Dispensing with any pretense at subtlety, the commercial shows us a sick mother, followed by worried looking kids and a father brushing his daughter's hair. She is in pain as he does this, and says to him "You're doing it wrong!". The tag line is (paraphrased) 'Nyquil - the medicine to make sure mom gets better for tomorrow', followed by a child expressing excitement at the notion that mom is taking them out for the day.
The implications in this message are bleak, and very, very clear - only mom can look after the children, dad can't even brush his daughter's hair properly and is insensitive to her pain, plus the kids are only excited about tomorrow because it will be 'mom' who takes them out.
I was all but speechless (a rare condition for me) when I first saw that commercial. It is so deeply offensive, I found it hard to find the right words to express my indignation. The bigotry expressed within that thirty seconds should be unlawful, in my opinion. However, because it's a commercial, we must of course swallow it (see what i did there?).
Because it's 'only' a commercial, our children will watch and listen to it without thinking too much about it, and yet for me it stands as the most obvious example of the stereotypical tripe that our society is being fed at the hands of people whose only aim - let's be blunt here - is to sell a product or an idea or a service, regardless of all other collateral effects. Our children will grow up with these ideas in their heads, and us adults will have our thoughts affected and to varying degrees, shaped by these purely commercial messages - unless, of course, we notice these misleading, inaccurate, damaging ideas and point out their failures. These days there is no such thing as 'just' a commercial - they are becoming things from which we need to protect ourselves. Repetition breeds familiarity, which breeds acceptance - and big trouble for our society.
Can it be right that merely in order to sell stuff, we should be expected to accept that women must be like X, men must be like Y and children are all like Z? Nobody I know likes to be labelled in this way, and in almost every other facet of our society it is taboo to stereotype by virtue of gender, colour, age, size, etc., etc., yet we are fed this brainwashing excrement all day, every day - and apparently it's still all legal and acceptable.
Not to me. I hope also, not to you. Start noticing, please.