What TV ads tell us

5 minute read
601 SUV
Pass the fried chicken (and the diet pills):
What TV ads tell us about ourselves


I’d been overseas for many years and hadn’t watched any television, so it was a big treat when I returned and was able to just watch. (I’m a philosophy professor, and what modern philosopher could function without “Seinfeld” or “The Simpsons”?) But at first it irked me that a viewer had to pay for cable and yet still was exposed to ads. The whole point had been that cable was going to be ad-free. I hated this— the constant bombardment with advertisements, and having to pay for it, too!

But lately I’ve begun to view the ads as a wonderful object of study. If you’ve ever wondered why American society seems to be asleep at the wheel, why it’s distracted by trivial issues, why we’re making war all over the world even though most citizens can’t find even one of the countries we’re warring against on a map— TV ads will provide the answer.

Most ads, it seems, are for cars— luxury cars, SUVs and light trucks. The ads for luxury cars show handsome couples driving on traffic-free coastal highways, speeding along without a highway patrol car in sight. The emphasis is on opulence, ease, the feeling that I am special and I can afford this.

Who has made it, and who hasn’t

I wouldn’t mind a luxury car, but who could afford one these days? More important, why are automakers peddling these damn things in a time of stagnant wages? My old beat-up 1991 Saturn works fine. But a luxury car like the one featured in the ad will communicate to your friends and neighbors that you’ve made it. And I haven’t.

As for SUVs —one recent ad portrays a handsome young man driving his SUV out of a gray city with looming anonymous buildings, speeding to take himself deep into the great outdoors. That is, this petroleum-burning, pollution-spewing vehicle will remove you from the pollution and grime of the urban megalopolis into the pristine wilderness.

My favorites, though, are the ads for light trucks. The focus of the light truck ad is not really that pragmatic, despite a voice intoning “…can haul twice as much as any competing flatbed.” Rather, it’s all about manliness. A luxury car may buy you into the elite— but you’re still a wimp. Buying a truck, these ads suggest, will make you a man. The word “tough” is frequently invoked, as is the image of sweaty men doing real work— even as the actual numbers of industrial workers declines in this country due to outsourcing of manufacturing. It’s really a wish-fantasy: a light truck will fulfill your hidden desire to return to those days when “American” really did mean “tough,” and when you came home from work you were tired, but it was what David Letterman used to call a “good kind of tired”— not the tiredness of having stared at a computer screen in an office cubicle all day.

‘I lost 200 pounds in five weeks’

Obesity rates in the U.S. have increased rapidly, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the number of weight loss remedies have skyrocketed as well. In a given hour of TV, I’ll see at least three different ads dealing with weight problems. These ads tell us one thing: There are a lot of obese people out there, and somebody thinks they should lose weight, and lose it now. Many of the ads use the classic American technique of the testimonial: “I lost weight— and now so can you.” “I went from 200 pounds to 150… in just five weeks!” Feminists should be proud: most weight loss ads feature testimonials from both women and men. Weight embarrassment is for everybody now.

These ads reflect the American love of the “quick fix”: take this diet pill (or, in the more sophisticated version, this diet plan) and you’ll be slim in no time. In this age of outsourcing, it’s a plan or system that someone else has devised for you: Even the meals are made by someone else, and then packaged and delivered to you.

The unasked questions: Aren’t you obese, perhaps, because you’re driving everywhere in your SUV instead of walking? And, if you are obese, why are you sitting and watching TV? Why aren’t you in the kitchen preparing some healthy meals?

Exercise in the comfort of your home!

The close cousins of these weight loss ads are the ones for fitness equipment. Their selling point is: You can exercise in the comfort of your own home. Why go out? Why join a gym? Come to think of it, why interact with other people at all?

The point of all these torsion bars and Nordic ski track machines is for you to look fit, not become athletic. There’s a difference. Certainly, if you use this equipment on a regular basis, you’ll be in shape, and likely feel better. But the ad's emphasis — revealed by the heavy use of panning shots of women’s slim hips and men’s tight abs— is on appearance. You need to go around looking good. That’s what it’s all about.

OK, so maybe I should lose a few pounds or develop nicer abs. But just as my guilt-filled gorge is rising, I hear a voice: “Fried chicken for half the price! And the family pack includes frozen ice cream treats with chocolate chunks! Get them now…” So eating pre-prepared, deep-fried foods, filled with artificial ingredients, is OK after all!

Many of these fast-food ads are shamelessly geared to African-Americans, a group already plagued with a high incidence of a type of diabetes exacerbated by this kind of food. But who cares? I can always diet and get fit later, right?

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