TV commercials. You can’t live with them, and… well, we could all live very well without them, but we get stuck watching them anyway. In an age of declining live TV viewership, channels do what they can to stuff commercials into every possible moment of the few programs that do get live viewers (mostly sports.) Some of these commercials are kind of fun the first time and then get extremely grating through repetition. Some of them are kind of charming in their lack of budget and guile. And some of them just annoy the crap out of you.
This is a column, perhaps the first of a series, about commercials which I hate. And, because I’m an English graduate who now finds himself writing about television on the Internet, I will argue that the stuff I don’t like is actively damaging to society. Ads are by default annoying, but these ads are worse than most.
#1: Crave Frozen Meals
For some reason (presumably because they were paid a lot of money to do so), TSN aired this spot for frozen food during every commercial break of March Madness. Now, I can see the logic of this marketing decision: frozen food is mostly bought by young men living alone for the first time who are terrified of cooking. (This was once me, and I still have a box of frozen chicken fingers in my freezer right now.) These young men are also more likely to be watching daytime sporting events. But man, this commercial absolutely sucks.
There’s the smug, frat-boy smile of the spokesman as he makes terrible PG-rated jokes which the commercial nevertheless treats as edgy. There’s the glorification of what really sounds like lousy food. And of course, there’s the incessant gendering of a product that really doesn’t need a gender, but has one nonetheless: Crave is to be the macho, in-your-face counterpart to those feminized Lean Cuisine and Weight Watchers meals. When you need everything, including your microwave dinners, to reinforce your fragile masculinity, this is what you buy.
Beyond that is the somewhat baffling nature of such an aggressive marketing campaign for frozen fucking dinners. It’s like the ads for condoms, or toilet paper: look, everyone buys this stuff, but it’s not something we want to spend a lot of our leisure time thinking about. What’s wrong with leaving this to the quiet world of no-name brands and bland packaging? Surely we don’t have to feel proud and excited about everything we eat.
Why It’s Ruining Society: The concept of a bro-oriented frozen meal suggests the extent to which society caters to and fixates on the desires of young men. It expects very little from these men: they are supposed to be crude enough that they don’t want to eat any food that doesn’t have bacon in it, and stupid enough to laugh at the jokes in this ad. It represents the part of the patriarchy which enables and encourages men to be the worst that they can be. Plus, it’s really fucking annoying.
#2: Infiniti — The Rules of Luxury
For the most part car commercials completely pass over my head, as the idea of me having the money or the inclination of buying a Lexus seems self-evidently absurd. But this commercial really gets under my nails. It narrates a list of “rules of luxury”, associated with stuffy old rich people: don’t touch, don’t enjoy yourself, or at least don’t show it. In contrast to this, Infiniti suggests that buying their call will allow you to be part of a class of cool new rich people, who are all too happy to shove their wealth in other peoples’ faces.
This commercial, and so many others like it, posit a kind of societal superego that wants to stifle your fun, and offers you the pleasure of rebelling against that authority. In essence, it promises that you can enjoy the material splendour of the upper classes without having to even pretend to have the moral values and sophistication that were once associated with aristocracy.
The only problem is that these censors and killjoys, the shocked society matrons, are hard to find these days. Everyone, everywhere, is telling you to enjoy yourself, in both commercials like this one and the content they sponsor. In fact, there is almost a social injunction to be experiencing as much pleasure (ideally through consumer goods) as possible. But still, we see the same stock figure of the stuffy parental figure reproduced again and again, as an antagonist against which hedonist consumerism can seem revolutionary.
Why It’s Ruining Society: This pantomime of rebellion against snobbish authorities fuels everything from overenthusiastic defenders of franchise blockbusters to right-wing populists. When people feel that someone is always looking down on them, it stops them from honestly examining their consumption habits and whether or not they can actually be justified. Cars, which, this commercial is nominally advertising, are precisely a case in point: private auto transit is contributing to the oncoming climate disaster, but who needs to worry about when you can project the criticism onto annoying eco-nerds? The figure and personal character of the critic are a great form of defense against valid criticism.
#3: Amazon Echo — “Grandpa”
I couldn’t find a YouTube video of this commercial, but it’s the one where a man forms a relationship with his nonresponsive and possibly senile grandfather through the purchase of an Amazon Echo. Now, I’m a reluctant Amazon shopper, but I’ve never felt the slightest temptation to get one of these “personal assistants”, whose stated purpose seems to be a longer and less comprehensible way to search for things, but is actually a way to pay for the privilege of Amazon recording and studying your conversations.
I think this line of commercials know that the Echo isn’t a great product, so rather than point out useful features, it instead uses family sentiment. After all, you love your family, and an Amazon Echo will be in proximity of your family, so you’ll love it! There’s one about a daughter going off to college, and one about a girl who loses at soccer, and they’re all pretty bad but I picked this one because it’s the most cloying of all.
The narrative essentially suggests that technological synchronicity is an enhancement, or replacement, for human connection. Listening to the same song on your Alexa is a way to form a connection where words are unavailable. And Amazon will sell these connections to you for the low price of $150! As someone who sometimes finds words difficult, I should be sympathetic to this narrative, but it all seems so tangential and commodified. Honestly, I’m not sure the search string in question would even work, and the song isn’t memorable at all.
Why It’s Ruining Society: What could go wrong with a microphone in every home owned by a ruthless mega-corporation? If Jeff Bezos has his way, we’ll have these pieces of shit on Mars soon. Anyway, on top of Amazon and its back-breaking, bladder-ruining labour practices being the logical endpoint of capitalism, the ad cheap treacle and not something I want to watch between quarters of a Raptors game.
So that’s it for this listing of terrible commercials. I really just wrote this so that I could vent about that fucking Audi commercial, but maybe I’ll do another one — there are certain to be more irritating ads in the future, and capitalism isn’t about to stop ruining the world any time soon.