A Word From Our Sponsor
In 2020 many folks are lucky enough to only have streaming services, as well as a DVR (which cost$), and can avoid being subjected to a barrage of commercials each day. But even those people might have to watch/listen to commercials if they view live sporting events (e.g., The Super Bowl, which is like the Emmy Awards for ads) or the Oscar or Grammy shows --- or any other live broadcast. A vast number of us, with “basic cable” and the like, do have to watch shows replete with commercials. The Lovely Carol Marie likes to point out that I may be close to being “on the spectrum” (of Asperger’s or autism --- particularly regarding OCD traits and a distinct affinity for repetition) and that may explain why I can watch hour upon hour of re-runs (Seinfeld, any Law & Order franchise, Monk, Chopped, Guy’s Grocery Games, an array of movies, etc.). While watching those hours of television (we do have a set in each room of our condo) during this sheltering-in-place hiatus, I have become particularly “sensitive” to the advertising. While it did lead me down memory lane (yesterday’s BLAST), remembering all those commercials I watched during my youth and adolescence, I’ve made some observations about the current state of advertising on television. It’s probably important to note here that all those commercials discussed yesterday were the detritus of the memories of my youth. Today’s discussion is filtered through my “senior citizen” lens, so the observations skew toward an older (more cynical?) perspective.
It doesn’t take a keen eye to observe there are almost endless commercials for drugs and medicines these days. That may be the result of: (1) an aging Boomer population watching tv and (2) the fact that I’m an aging Boomer, so the shows I see are, in fact, aimed at me! What I have observed though, is that Americans, it seems, suffer greatly from heartburn. The Prilosec and Nexium ads that run with annoying frequency would indicate this is not just an affliction of the aged (I could also throw in Pepto-Bismol here --- with its litany of illness: “Nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea”). These are often accompanied by a variety of allergy medications and, of course, the apparently endless list of medications that require your doctor to prescribe them (“Ask your doctor is “Drug X” is right for you.”). Think about that: Big Pharma is incessantly telling you to go to your doctor and ask for some medication that they (Big Pharma) have --- through their advertising --- convinced you, you might need. Are they also “enticing” doctors to prescribe these medications? Sorry if that sounds like a conspiracy theory but we know doctors are often up to their stethoscopes in “free samples” from drug companies --- which they freely dispense to patients. Not that they necessarily give away any of those advertised drugs, whose list of “side effects” are truly frightening if you happen to listen closely. Typically, “side effects . . . include a long list of relatively mild (dizziness, nausea, dry mouth), moderate (constipation, fainting upon standing) and downright serious (unusual changes in behavior, thoughts of suicide, stroke) ” conditions. (MedicalDaily.com) This is all the result of some late 20th century legislation.
In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration implemented new rules for direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs. These new rules required that the ad need only mention the major risks and prevalent adverse effects, provide a toll-free number, refer to other information sources, and state the need to see a medical professional. Those new rules made it possible to run a TV drug ad. (AlterNet.com)
It’s no wonder we Seniors might believe we need that LifeAlert device (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”). And, an aside: “the United States is the only country, besides New Zealand, that legally permits ‘direct-to-consumer’ pharmaceutical advertising.” Hmmm, could that have anything to do with Big Pharma lobbying?
Another Industry that spends millions (if not more) on television advertising is, of course, the Insurance Companies. What is particularly interesting in the competition for your Insurance dollars is how the companies have created their own programming with recurring characters we become familiar with, just as we are with sitcom or the other television series heroes and villains. Here’s a view of the Insurance Landscape that, I’m guessing, even if you don’t watch much commercial television, you are familiar with.
Even the casual observer knows that a key to successful advertising is repetition. When it comes to repetition, nobody beats the Insurance Companies. I’m relatively certain I could list the name of an Insurance Company and you could tell me about their advertising --- because you know their trademark characters, actors, or personalities. At this point in time I’m pretty certain everyone is familiar with Flo and her compatriots hawking Progressive Insurance. This is one of the longest running campaigns on tv (and you probably don’t know that “Flo” is actually Stephanie Courtney, who has appeared in a number of movies as well as five episodes of Mad Men). Even though Progressive’s commercials were #1 in toptens.com “Most Annoying Commercials” that hasn’t prevented the company from continuing to bombard us the “adventures” of Flo and her cohort. (They have recently introduced a new character: the MoTaur – half-man, half motorcycle….just as bizarre as it sounds but memorable? They think so.)
Right behind Flo, of course, is the Geico Gecko --- and Geico’s other off-beat (“Hump-Day”) commercials. Why does the Gecko have an Australian accent --- and how, exactly, does this make people more likely to buy your insurance? The only answer, it seems, is the sheer repetition --- we all remember the Geico Gecko. In the same way, you may not know who Dennis Haysbert is by name, but you certainly know the “40% guy” huckster from the AllState advertising. Or you recognize Haysbert as the “President” from Keifer Sutherland’s 24 series or, if you’re a baseball fan, you may remember him as Pedro Cerrano from the Major League movies. But most folks know Haysbert as the basso profundo who convinces us we’re in “good hands.” Of course Allstate has covered its bases with Dean Winters (you may remember him best from Law and Order) playing “Mayhem” --- and lately tormenting Tina Fey. Creating a certain “variety,” a two or three-pronged advertising attack, as it were, seems a consistent strategy among these companies.
Other Insurance “icons” you probably know? There’s “Jake, from State Farm,” of course --- who started out as a pudgy white guy but is now a handsome young black man. State Farm has also used Chris Paul, Aaron Rodgers, Pat Mahomes and Oscar Nunez (probably best known from “The Office”) to convince people to use their product. You may also know “The General,” a cartoon character who has now enlisted Shaquille O’Neal to self that company’s insurance. There is also the Aflac duck. Dennis Quaid hawks Esurance (a subsidiary of Allstate) and you are probably also familiar with Peyton Manning and Brad Paisley combining to convince you that “Nationwide is on your side.” A recent addition to this menagerie is Liberty Mutual. Taking its cue from the Gecko and the Aflac duck, apparently, Liberty Mutual (LiMu) has enlisted the LiMu Emu --- and “Doug,” as troubleshooting Liberty Mutual “agents” whose goal is to help you save money. Like Geico, Liberty Mutual also uses other, off-beat characters (a “struggling actor,” a mechanical carnival “fortune teller,” etc.) to convince you to use their product. In all these cases, it’s difficult to understand how these characters actually cause one to choose their insurance company but, given the longevity of many of these ads, the companies must believe this approach is working. Go figure.
There are many other ads we’re bombarded with each day --- from fast food (particularly Pizza!), diet plans, Car Shield, “Flawless” hair removal products, hair-growth products (I particularly love the Capillus Laser baseball cap), hair-dye products, pet products, etc. Some ads make me wonder, “What?” For example, how is it Joe Namath is selling us Supplemental Medicare programs? Do we really think Broadway Joe doesn’t have enough money to cover his health costs? More mysterious to me is a recent TD Bank advertisement which is a dead-on parody of the opening to the old Mel Brooks/Don Adams tv show “Get Smart.” I wonder how many people, who aren’t Baby Boomers, are actually familiar with a show that ran from 1965 to 1970? Has it been in re-runs so often that generations of people are familiar with the opening of the show? Apparently TD Bank’s advertising company is betting on that one. Shows what I know, I guess.
There’s more that could be said about advertising, of course, but I’ll leave it at this and let you discuss this in small groups, among your friends. Advertising has been part of our nation’s DNA from early on (newspapers were the first mass medium for it) and, even if you predominantly stream your entertainment/diversion you’re not beyond the grasp of advertisers --- they’re everywhere. We still have billboards, our grocery carts have become mobile ads, if you watch the news there’s invariably a “crawl” or a “pop-up” that’s trying to sell you something. If you go to the ballpark you are bombarded with all kinds of advertising. There’s no getting away from it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep our eyes and ears attuned to it in a critical, discerning way. Forewarned is forearmed.
Stay home. Stay safe. Wash your hands.
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