Television Commercials and New, Improved Products     by Marjorie Dorfman

Do you ever wonder about new and improved products? What were we buying before and how can we believe anyone? Read on for a chuckle about the world of advertising through television.

Television Commercials and Improved Products. What On Earth Were We Getting Before?

It is a small wonder that anyone even listens to television commercials. At my house breaks in a program have always marked the moment for that late snack, drink of water or trip to the commode. I have always wondered how sponsors make money at this most crucial time as I assume everyone’s household runs more or less the same way. If no trip to the kitchen or the bathroom is in order, I sit where I am during the commercials. I don’t even need to mute them out of consciousness. Part of me never hears them anyway. Still, it is the part of me that does hear their subliminal messages (and the part of you) that I wish to address.

No industry can survive without its ads. I cannot imagine life without a television, but I could live a long time before I would miss the deluge of commercials that constantly intrude upon my consciousness, my wallet and my favorite programs. I remember a book written many years ago, called The Hidden Persuaders, which highlighted the insidious influence of advertising on every aspect of our lives. It reveals why people buy red cars and purple fruit. I used to think such matters were solely a question of taste, but motives go much deeper than that, involving even why people choose certain colors for their pets (on an unconscious level, of course). A black and white cat, dog or horse for example, is a symbol of parity and even temperament. Before you have me locked up, please allow me to continue.

What bothers me most about advertisers is that they think consumers have no memory or imagination. For example, the cereal, Frosted Flakes, has been around for at least 45 years. Their star and one trick pony, Tony Tiger, hasn’t aged a day since I was a child. Don’t they think that anyone notices that? And does he look good and trim because he eats Frosted Flakes or because he’s a cartoon? Come on, give me a break. Everyone changes and everyone ages. Tony Tiger should be no exception, even if it’s just a change of wardrobe. At least give him a new bandanna! The little doughboy falls into this same category. He’s cute, but even doughboys get wrinkled and annoyed about getting poked in the stomach all the time, especially as they get up there in years. It’s the way of all flesh and all dough pretending to be flesh as well! It’s time for a change, if not in creations at least in attitude.

And what about all those products that promise a new you, them or me within 30 days? Where does the old me or you or them go and what if we don’t want to say goodbye to it? Can part of us be new and improved while the rest of us stagnates in polyunsaturated pools of less fat and more powerful detergents? For purposes of ease in discussion, I have divided commercials into several categories; beauty, health and fitness, household appliances and products, food and drink and communications. (To those commercials I have omitted from this irreverent study, I promise to include all of you in my next piece on the subject.)

Let’s tackle the worst first; beauty, health and fitness. All the ads that fall into this category clearly imply that everything in your life will be fine if you have all three of these things and that nothing will work for you ever if you don’t. It’s a subtle message (like being hit by a truck), but its there among the bubblebaths, soaps, mascara, lipstick and weight loss ads. You don’t even have to look too closely either. If I see one more ad with a thin woman telling me she lost 300 pounds in two weeks, I will scream. There is always a disclaimer in very small print at the bottom of these weight loss ads that reads: "results may vary from person to person." It fails to mention that the cost of the diet doesn’t vary at all. I think these companies should be charged for each pound consumers don’t lose while enrolled in their programs. Then who will end up owing whom?

Medicines for loose bladders and upgrades and downgrades make one wonder about the quality of drugs being sold both under and over the counter. I saw a commercial for an allergy pill that claimed to be 54% improved. I’d like to know from what and to what? And worst of all, what happened to the other forty-six percent? Should I warn my friends and relatives about it? Where did it go and what does it mean? Today there are pills to sleep, pills to wake up, pills to make you stop itching and pills to make you forget you had an itch in the first place. Cold and congestion pills, pills to grow hair and pills to stop cramps. How can anyone keep up? By staying up all night and reading the literature about them, that’s how! (That’s one way to avoid needing a pill to sleep!)

Pain medications are in a class all by themselves. People are seen grasping their jaws in dental agony or lying in bed about to breathe their last. And then comes a voice stating that 82 percent of all doctors (including those who didn’t go to medical school) prescribe this extra strength 64% improved pain killer for 42% of those really bad headaches and/or toothaches. (I would get a headache just figuring out what percentages remain in this equation.) Give us all a break and either retire or move to another state!

Household products and appliances are the true prototypes in television advertising. They are part of its early history, dating back to the early fifties when people slept on Castro convertible sofas and listened to Elvis and Perry on RCA phonographs. Since they are the oldest ads around, their manufacturers have had the most time to figure out what will work and what won’t on an unsuspecting public. P.T. Barnum once said: "there’s a sucker born every minute." I think television advertisers live by this axiom. What were we getting before all these improvements and how many experiments were made on innocent consumers before the upgrade was established? It makes me feel like a rat in a laboratory. Don’t use this. You’ll go blind. Use this. You’ll only need glasses. This is safer; that is more effective. New and improved detergents, for example, have made washing dishes such an important issue that I, for one, am ready for paper plates.

Food and drink represents a pleasant part of our world. Too bad the ads don’t really reflect that. Instead, they speak to us of ice cream that must be eaten either to the melody of "Ain’t Misbehaving" or without any shame at all and pizza that must be delivered in order to taste good. The wine ads all reflect perfect times and relationships. The dinner with the perfect wine always leads to the best of all possible evenings. I often wonder where all these happy people go after they’ve had a few drinks. It certainly isn’t to my house.

Communications is another realm in which I have a significant beef. All the cell phone commercials promise speedier communications. What is the matter with us? Didn’t we have complicated enough lives before the advent of cell phones? And how much faster do we need to do business, relate gossip or have a fight over the telephone? It all reminds me of a couple dancing as fast as they can across a ballroom floor. The only problem is that the music is constantly getting faster and they can’t keep up no matter how hard they try.

Celebrity endorsements represent the biggest bone I have to pick with television advertisers. I think basketball stars are cute and talented, but I really couldn’t care less what brand of underwear they wear. Call me strange, but I truly don’t think that’s any of my business. The celebrity legs in the Hanes commercial make their lovely and shapely point, but it’s clear that the legs in question would be lovely no matter what kind of panty-hose their owner is wearing. Celebrities vacuuming floors, eating donuts, munching on cereal, answering the phone, and in general promising a new and improved world for all of us plebes irritates me no end. I don’t know these people. How do I know they’re telling the truth? They’re getting paid a lot of money to tell us a story. I don’t begrudge them their money, but I do not necessarily believe them either. It’s a waste of my precious time and makes me feel that I should have opted for that trip to the commode after all.

Allow me to end my diatribe with some hope for the future. At least were not seeing as many of those ads for every song made since the beginning of time anymore. I was getting tired of hearing the likes of Calvin Coolidge say that he had been dead for 85 years but had to come back to life to talk about this amazing offer. Every record ever made is available anytime, but today only can be purchased for $99.95. Limited offer, so hurry. Truth be told, I think I would rather go to the dentist than listen to another commercial. Don’t tell my dentist, but I’ve had it with all of them. And now I need to wash my hair and the dishes with new improved shampoos and detergents, have a snack with some polyunsaturated fat substitute, clean the counters with some new germ killer and oh, yes, at last, make that final trip for the day to the you know where!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002