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Watchwords

What Happened to TV Commercials?

By Mitch Silver

It occurred right under our noses. Those TV commercials we used to hate (the <we> I’m using here refers to <Baby Boomers>; if you’re younger than that, try to keep up) have morphed into something else altogether.

More than half a century ago, brand-new FCC Commissioner Newton Minow told the National Association of Broadcasters:I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

The commercials that used to run in that wasteland contributed their share to it. It was all sell all the time. “Fast, fast, fast relief. “Go Greyhound, and leave the driving to us.” “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates ad agency coined the phrase “unique selling proposition.” He meant that copywriters (he hardly knew art directors existed) should find what was different about the product, no matter how small, and pound that difference home. Unsurprisingly, American Home Products’ Anacin, and its fast relief, was one of his favorite accounts.

This has all come flooding back to me because I just heard my son Perry, actor and voice-over announcer, pronounce these words at the end of a new TV campaign for Amazon: “Watch what you want on FireTV with Alexa Voice Remote.”

Okay, not that different from Greyhound or Pepsodent, except that the preceding 25 seconds made no reference to FireTV, Alexa, Voice Remote, or even Amazon. Ol’ Rosser must be revolving at warp speed. Instead of the ad campaign justifying its sky-high costs by describing the thing it’s selling and why you should want one, it attempts to ingratiate itself with you, the sort of viewer who likes “Cake Wars”.

There’s a more extreme example of selling without selling. Delta Airlines has been running a TV spot called “Threshold”. It shows umpteen people moving through doors and across, well, thresholds in all walks of life. Meanwhile, the voice of Donald Sutherland tells us, “In this city, there’s always a threshold waiting to be crossed, waiting for you to go beyond...and Delta, right there with you. As if all of us were saying together, New York is go!

Huh? You’re selling airline seats and your summation is, “New York is go!” Delta isn’t even selling us New Yorkers a destination, like Paris or Rio or Salt Lake City. Instead, it’s selling the <departure> city. In New York, we already know New York is go.

So what this commercial is really saying, down at the subterranean, meta stage, is, “We’re New Yorkers here at Delta, too. Every minute for us is a New York minute, so we understand the demand for on-time performance,” even if they use Sutherland’s Canadian-cum-Chicago accent to, uh, not actually say it.

When did this sea change take place? When did advertisers give up trying to use TV and its digital frères to demonstrate the product’s competitive benefits? When did the “we’re with you” ethos creep in?

I have a couple of theories. One, when TV got better than a wasteland maybe even the best kind of entertainment our eyeballs can enjoy the commercials that accompany that entertainment had to become more entertaining, too. And two, when Facebook, with its ubiquitous “likes, became <de riguer> for people under 40 (including advertisers and agency creatives) in the early 2000s, liking commercials, rather than sales, became the metric everything was judged by. Rather than sales.

Maybe you have your own theory. So, next time you pick up the remote, see if the spots before your eyes manage to mention the product or service they’re selling. And why you should buy it. And keep in mind this maxim of David Ogilvy (remember him, Boomers?): “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”