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And now, a (bad) word from our sponsor...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

As fellow TV travelers riding our varied cushions as we wing our way around the dial (okay, that's more than enough of that), you and I have probably seen more than our fair share of advertising, from the simple to the elaborate, the surprisingly entertaining to the deadly dull.

Commercials are the reason most television as we know it exists, plain and simple. Companies with products and services to sell need people to know about them, so they must use every storytelling device and media outlet at their disposal (and within their budget) to reach the widest audience possible.

There's no crime going on here, only commerce. I don't have any issues with that. Most ads go right past me, some actually interest me in the product -- and a handful (whether I have any interest or financial wherewithal in actually purchasing the product) I'd even say that I enjoyed. The people behind those particular commercials are truly creative, finding ways to avoid those pitfalls that tend to trip up or drag down the others in the field.

And then there are the ads that end up smack-dab in the mire; bad ideas that somehow wormed their way through the marketing department and then through the other individual creative processes to end up on millions of TV screens. That they weren't caught and canned early on isn't necessarily surprising -- sometimes an idea plays a lot better in a conference room than the living room -- but when particularly poor ones spring up, it does leave you wondering, "What were they thinking?"

Sprint, a national wireless service provider, offers something of a deal for their customers: $69.99 a month gets you unlimited minutes for voice calls, texting service and Web browsing on their network. The price point is something that surely attracts interest, if not new customers. Their latest ad campaign also likely attracts interest, but not necessarily because people want to do business with them because of it.

Sprint's ads feature -- oh, how to put this delicately -- passive-aggressive jerks you wouldn't want calling, texting, e-mailing or even breathing the same air as you, all enjoying the benefits of ruining someone's day with their Sprint smartphones, while dismissing their victims' protestations with chipper restatements of the plan's price and benefits.

I'm guessing that the ads are supposed to be funny, but that's based on empirical evidence only. Personally, I'm amazed that none of the ads have ended with someone getting punched square in the face many, many times.

A new commercial for the office supply store Staples shows a family arriving home to find that they've been robbed -- tangled wires and bare walls are all they have to show for their home entertainment system. In another emptied room, however, they find that their desktop PC remains, all alone on the floor.

The couple's reaction to the totality of the crime committed against them is -- well -- rather inhuman.

See, unlike real people -- who usually react to frightening events with silly things called emotions -- this couple goes to a Staples store almost immediately and seeks out the latest and greatest in computer technology, their eyes glinting with a masochistic shared wish that they'd done this earlier, perhaps so they could have lost even more of their personal property to the thief -- and even seen their banking information, credit card numbers and whatever other private (and potentially embarrassing) items they'd socked away on to a hard drive end up in a stranger's hands.

Indeed, the question that the couple in the new Staples ad seems to be asking as they look through their wrecked home isn't 'how could we have prevented such a terrible loss' or 'will we ever feel safe in our own home again,' but 'why aren't we attracting more burglars?'

Perhaps the worst ad I've seen in a long time came from the makers of the popular Doritos snack chips. For the past few years, they have handed over a part of their marketing to their consumers, who write, direct and appear in a number of micro-budgeted commercials for the product. This has resulted in a mixed bag of ads -- some quite clever, some not, and a few true stinkers.

This year during the Super Bowl, an ad known as "The Best Part" aired, creating a new low for the company to avoid. The 30-second spot featured a creepy office worker who has a obsession with the nacho cheese-ish dust that collects on the fingers of the Doritos eaters around him, which leads to some downright stomach-turning actions. I won't describe what the worker does; suffice it to say that if you were to stumble into this character's home, you'd likely find an extremely unpleasant shrine to his favorite part of the whole Doritos experience.

I know, I know -- it's an exaggeration; no actual person would act like that. But this ad underlines my complaint with all of the ones I've discussed here: not one of these ads features recognizable human behavior. The main characters manage to be broadly drawn, yet poorly sketched, plus it's nearly impossible to feel a shred empathy with them.

The people who put these ads together might argue that they were working with limited time on limited budgets, or that lots of people did like their commercials, or that I'm simply a humorless little so-and-so.

All fair points, I suppose. But other creative types have made compelling and/or entertaining spots with virtually no time and literally no money, commercials that were universally acclaimed as well-made short films, not just 30-second placeholders that grabbed my attention for all the wrong reasons.

I'm not saying that the people who made these ads I've discussed here don't possess the necessary skills and talents to make something great; on the contrary, I choose to believe that these ads are the lowest point of their careers, and that they are already on to bigger and better things -- after all, people want to be known for their best work, not their worst (yes, even humorless little so-and-sos such as myself).

But I have to call 'em as I see 'em, and I saw a batch of bad commercials. May the next ones be a whole lot better.

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center