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Ads can reveal state of the union

December 15, 2005|By TIM ROWLAND

You can keep your leading economic and social indicators. I believe the best way to track the heart and soul of a nation is through its television commercials. Most indicative is the avalanche of diamond commercials we are smothered in each Christmas. One 30-second spot for a jewelry chain can tell us more than a flattening yield curve ever could.

And the news for America, I am afraid, is not good.

We are in the midst of a prolonged, five-year slump in the television-commercial world. The high point was reached during the 2001 Super Bowl, when we were treated to all those dot-com advertisements.

The creativity was marvelous, but unfortunately no one was able to figure out exactly what it was these companies were trying to sell and the companies all went bankrupt. Now, we are left with a slew of horrid ads that are as predictable as mud on pickups. In fact, no one knows what these pickups look like anymore - they all appear as big globs of mud driving through the desert, leaving us with only the mild amusement of trying to figure out what mud is doing in the middle of the Mojave.

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The true low points are the commercials on the higher-numbered cable channels, such as the one where Wilfred Brimley is sitting on a stuffed horse telling us where he gets his diabetes supplies. You know the horse is stuffed because no live animal could possibly bear that much weight.

In the middle of the production, there is an audible creak, and the horse head is pulled into a new position, but you know that underneath the hide, the beast is solid concrete.

I was mildly hoping the diamond commercials this Christmas would pull us out of our slump, but it was not to be.

Already, we were dangerously on the edge, considering the most memorable diamond-ad campaign of the past two seasons. In the first, a man and a woman are on the steps of some Italian antiquity when the man inexplicably screams "I love this woman!" causing about 2,000 scared pigeons to take flight. In the second, he announces he wants to get married all over again, and in this spot the pigeons are replaced on the antiquity's steps with a bunch of relatives who have mysteriously materialized for the occasion.

Clearly, this man is mentally unstable, and the woman casts a nervous glance over her shoulder, probably hoping the Italian Ministry of Divorce is nearby.

It didn't resonate with guys either, for two reasons. First, to a guy, a wedding ceremony is traumatic. Why do you think it takes us so long to commit? It's not the committed relationship we fear, it's standing in front of 500 grinning systems analysts in a tuxedo, while the closest thing the bride has to a singing friend warbles her way through "We've Only Just Begun."

Second, even though few guys can be accused of being hopeless romantics, there are surprisingly few of us who equate true love with pigeons.

So the bar was set low this year, but it didn't matter. This year's diamond commercials don't even live up to the pigeon standard. For example, how's this for lame? Santa goes to the mall and buys Mrs. Claus a diamond.

I sincerely hope the creative team didn't get paid overtime for this one. It ends with his wife cooing "Oh Chris, how did you know?" How did he know? How did he know? Because he's Santa freaking Claus, that's how. Geez, give us a little credit for a modicum of historical, jolly old elf knowledge.

But perhaps the worst is the dude walking smugly through the Christmas rush to the tune of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing "Under Pressure." Then he basically walks into the living room and tosses the diamonds at the girl like you would throw old Blue a Milk-Bone. He hasn't even bothered to wrap them.

Neither has the guy sitting on the floor of the airport, where the couple's flight has been delayed, and he effectively says, aw the heck with it, here's your rock.

I do understand these commercials because to a guy, they send a compelling message, and that message is: Punt. Sure it will cost you, but a.) it saves you from having to invest any thought in the gift buying process, and b.) it's a guaranteed success. You don't even have to worry about the setting. You can set a diamond in a jar of pickle relish and she will be thrilled. No wrapping, no hassle, just give her maybe one more thing to open, like a scented candle or spoon rest, and it's back to the NBA game for you.

Come to think of it, that's sounding awfully appealing right about now.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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