The secret life of TV commercials
TV commercials that reveal a sickness
A couple of dandelions force their way up through cracks in the sidewalk—just two yellow wildflowers looking for the sun. A tall, rawboned white guy stalks up; he’s armed with the weed killer Round Up, instead of a six-gun. He spots the dandelions—and turns toward them. The dandelions shrink back in fear, they recoil in horror, seeing the big sprayer for Round Up. They seem to be screaming in fear. They try to draw away…but he fires his sprayer unerringly, the toxin soaking the two small wildflowers, so that they wither, choking, shivering, turning brown…dying before our eyes.
Justice is done.
That’s a current Round Up commercial; special effects expertly used to make you watch, chuckle, appreciate the CGI…and the ability of Round Up to kill wild flowers.
Of course, dandelions are a “weed” that grows commonly in American yards and playing fields. Children play commonly, in yards, on lawns, park playing fields. Lingering Round Up –and boy does it linger—endangers children and pets, especially. E.g., http://www.rodale.com/roundup
But what made me recoil from that ad, like the cartoony weeds recoiling from the weed killer, is the state of mind it represents. Vulgarity? Sure, but that’s not it. The Round Up commercial is all about greed, mindless destruction, and the most brutish side of civilization. Only, the Round Up execs don’t consciously know it’s about that—they look at it and chuckle and say, “Hey cute, I like that.” The Mad Ave guys who came up with it probably don’t know, or don’t care (advertising firms are famous for not caring), how sick it is.
Someone reading this is thinking, “But it’s just a cartoon sort of image, plants don’t suffer, they don’t have nervous systems, they don’t recoil in horror.” And that person is correct—but I’m not making any absurd claims about plant consciousness. I’m talking about our consciousness.
The real message of the commercial is layered—one layer is, brutality works. Ruthlessness is efficient. Round Up is brutal and efficient—and cheap. You can save money, we can make money. Fast. Another layer is, chemical toxins enhance purity. They burn away the vile intrusiveness of nature. Another layer concerns the ease with which it’s done—the toxins empower you to change your world with a splash. No need to dig the plants up (the preferred way of dealing with them, in an intelligent society, and one that can provide gainful employment.) No–burn them away with household Agent Orange. Since the image is cartoonish, there’s another layer of implication that it’s almost fun, and it’s all harmless, childlike fun. This counters the teasing little suspicion at the back of some viewer’s minds that the toxin might in fact be dangerous to their household…Oh, look, it’s all just CGI funtime.
Another layer concerns the psychological power of big men who spray fluids, getting their way, cheerfully crushing every aspect of nature, even small harmless wildflowers, under the steamroller of civilization. And perhaps there’s something in the ad’s imagery that resonates with some ancient primate instinct for urinating territorially…
A series of Terminex pesticide commercials show giant science-fiction-horror monsters growing in a kitchen, rearing over us, nasty creatures like giant maggots that want to kill us, eat us. Some household bugs may carry problematic bacteria, and this is mentioned in the ad. And a voice says that household pests are monsters.
There’s been a good deal of publicity about the health risks of exposure to pesticides. Cancer is mentioned a lot. The scary word neurotoxin is bantered about. Companies like Union Carbide (remember them?), who manufacture pesticides, don’t like that kind of talk.
So they figured out how to quash that kind of thinking. Fear. Simple fixes like sealing up gaps to prevent household exposure to cockroaches is not enough. Chemical warfare is the only solution.
No one’s fond of bugs in the house. But giant slobbering hyper detailed real-looking CGI monsters…really? The ad doesn’t have the cartooniness of the Round Up commercial. It’s very much contemporary science fiction horror film imagery and it really, genuinely, is trying to scare you. “Oh, they don’t mean they’re literally giant monsters.” I know they don’t. They’re not addressing the message to the rational mind, the mind that knows that. They’re addressing it to the backbrain, to the subconscious; they’re conditioning you with an exaggerated fear of bugs in order to twist your arm, force you to use their product despite all the bad publicity and common sense. The purpose is to see that you don’t think about it first. They know that fear is the enemy of thinking.
Union Carbide—remember Bhopal? Where a Union Carbide chemical disaster killed 2000 people right away, 18,000 more over time? The people convicted for those deaths got a slap on the wrist for it. Methyl isocynate, a significant component of carbamate pesticides, was one of the primary toxins released there. Union Carbide kept compensation and clean up to a minimum.
That’s how big chemicals companies operate. That’s the mindset. That’s the mentality that creates a television commercial that is extraordinarily, unusually, wildly fear-based to bully people into forgetting they’re selling dangerous toxins.
I asked some online friends to suggest other commercials that are deeply disturbing—or just offensive, and insultingly absurd.
Lori Young offers the example of the notorious Vagisil commercial, in which a young woman is shrinking away from herself, horrified that she has human sensations and smells (if there really were any at all), from her…vagina! The excruciating embarrassment of it. She needs Vagisil’s Hydrocortisone, Benzocaine, Resorcinol, carbomer, Cetyl Alcohol and other ingredients in her vagina now, so she’s not humiliated. Lori suggested that, “All involved in hawking unnecessary feminine ‘hygiene’ products should be forced to douche with a gallon of moonshine.”
Meldie Solley offers: “Anything involving a sloppy man-child who wants to eat food that drips or get things done while playing videogames. I loathe that message of “indulge yourself, you deserve to get exactly what you want exactly when you want it without having to lift a finger, change your clothes or get up from the couch…” And: “Another kind of ad I hate is the smiling, honest, friendly guy who tells you with a kind of humble, homespun tone how much Exxon Mobil cares about helping that butterfly get to the right flower or helping herd the little baby turtles into the clean ocean water.” I wonder why Meldie seems skeptical of their sincerity.
Lisa Tveit: “I find ads that play to and reinforce gender stereotypes (usually the worst and most extreme of them) particularly offensive.” She lists:
- A recent cell phone ad where the husband comes home to proudly tell his wife, who’s watering the garden/plants in their sunroom or hothouse, that he switched their plan and got more minutes and then, harpy that she is, she rips him a new one for not consulting her.
- Most of the beer and sports commercials that (especially recently) have been depicting men who will pass over sex for their food and drink…
- The Christmas Target ad with the blond comedian woman in the red leotard/onesy that screams and hyperventilates and works out to be in shape for shopping sales since that is obviously what she absolutely lives for.
- A recent round of commercials …where they had repeated images of men getting hit in the balls, over and over, trying to draw a comparison between getting caught not having insurance and being hit in the balls…”
Bill Bridges notes, “Have you noticed how new movie releases went from being ‘Available Tuesday on Blu-Ray and DVD’ to ‘Buy it Tuesday on Blu-Ray and DVD’? The former invites you to check it out, the latter orders you to purchase it.”
And yes, those drug ads.
Stephanie Ratcliffe: “What kinda gets me are the drug commercials where the time it takes for the voice over guy to list of side effects/disclaimers is much longer than any other info given in the commercial, and even includes ‘death’.”
I wonder if parents who’ve lost teen children to pharmaceutical toxicity interactions sit through those drug commercials. “Drugs fix everything.” The commercials warn about side effects—but never about mixing drugs. Which has killed a lot of young people.
Sure, it goes way back. Cigarette commercials, right. But the sickness is now purulenting, bubbling to the surface, oozing…
And by the way—dandelions are as pretty as marigolds, have a lovely light scent, and are edible…wild flowers.
John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays (“THE CROW”), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. His novels include Everything is Broken, The A SONG CALLED YOUTH cyberpunk trilogy (omnibus released in 2012), Bleak History, Demons, City Come A-Walkin’ and The Other End. His short story collection Black Butterflies won the Bram Stoker Award, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year. His new story collection is In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. His stories have been included in three Year’s Best anthologies. He is also a songwriter (eg, for Blue Oyster Cult), and a singer. Black October records will soon be releasing a compilation of selected songs, BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: Recordings by John Shirley, 1978-2011. The authorized website is at john-shirley.com …
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