I know! I know! It is possible to avoid television commercials. But I would just rather enjoy programs from my basic cable package without wearing out my remote or somehow wiring my TV and my computer together.
So, I see all 15 minutes of advertising inserted into each hour of TV programming. I am less bothered by individual commercial length than I am amazed by the sheer number of products crammed into one program break. My brain is regularly whipped through a dozen items ranging from denture cream and reverse mortgages to potato chips and toilet paper – both with ridges, it seems.
I started watching commercials during toddlerhood when I recognized no difference between advertising and programming. Viewing an episode from the 1950’s Ding Dong School now preserved on YouTube, I was shocked by how smoothly Miss Frances integrated cereal and vitamin commercials into her line-up of songs and games.
We Boomers grew up with Snap!Crackle!Pop!, chocolate candies that melted in our mouths and not in our hands, and Tony the Tiger. There have been pressing questions: “Does she or doesn’t she?” “Boxers or briefs?” and “Where’s the beef?” We have let our fingers do the walking, flown the friendly skies, had it our way, and been all that we can be.
In the process, we have become accustomed to all manner of spokespeople. Matthew McConaughey seductively hawks cars and cologne, Samuel Jackson inquires about our wallets, and Morgan Freeman’s voice never fails to inspire, regardless of product. We all know Flo, Mr. Whipple, several incarnations of Colonel Sanders, and the cereal-eating Mikey. Identical twins have sold us chewing gum, massively-muscled men have picked our vegetables and cleaned our houses – and John Cameron Swayze always insisted that a licking would not stop the ticking.
Spokesanimals abound, too: bunnies selling batteries and breakfast cereal, Elsie and her dairy products, the gecko lizard shilling for an insurance company, and a whole flock of sleep-counting sheep. I even have a sketchy memory of Farfel singing “choc’late.” Disturbingly, Charlie encourages us to consume his fishy relatives, while that Potato-Headish couple secretly snacks on – their own?
Even spokesboxes can find TV work selling insurance and home colonoscopy tests. Bubbles promise sparkly bathrooms, a cheery doughguy offers oven-baked freshness, and an entire fruit salad has made a living selling underwear. A few years ago, as the planets of our solar system experienced near celestial disaster, Mr. Sun delivered rejuvenating breakfast sandwiches and this line: “Now orbit!”
Clearly, television advertising mirrors changes in the greater society. Case in point: Many early television classics, including I Love Lucy, were sponsored by cigarette companies. Back then, we could also watch commercials for an entire array of wines and beers – but no liquors. Since then, there has been a reversal of sorts: a ban on cigarette advertising but a full promotional slate of fine alcoholic beverages.
Another change has been more than noticeable since the mid 90’s. After decades of pain relief commercials based on “plop-plop-fizz-fizz” and “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” we entered the era of prescription drug advertising, whose commercials drive me to distraction.
Pharmaceutical sponsors create lifestyle vignettes depicting family picnics, silver anniversary trips, or afternoons with grandchildren. During unfolding scenes of yummy food in sunny meadows, meaningful looks between mature spouses, and adorable toddlers being adored, voice-over announcers intone warnings that these products for depression and thinner blood may cause dizziness, dry mouth, diarrhea, or death – especially if we are allergic to the medications.
Unfortunately, we have come a long way, baby. Unlike the old days when we cared to send the very best and said it with flowers, it seems that every, single body part – even the private ones – now appears on our flat screens. Gone are the times when we ate the breakfast of champions and the other white meat while all safely nestled in good hands. Nowadays products relating to every conceivable, formerly-unmentionable, intimate bodily function and process are on full public display, right along with the ads for gummy bears and laundry detergent!
I am occasionally informed by commercials and continually annoyed by them and their incessant repetition. In my estimation, however, a good commercial should entertain me or make me cry.
Right now, I am eagerly anticipating the back-to-school promotions with parents gleefully pushing shopping carts through discount stores or dancing jubilantly in the street as the school bus pulls away. And I am currently tickled by the mad scientist, werewolf, and hooded skeleton discussing work and family on the subway ride home. When their zombie pal proudly shares it is his turn to provide the orange slices at soccer practice, I just crack up – although I am still not quite sure what the commercial is advertising.
However, I shed tears every time a soldier returning from deployment surprises the family or grown children drink coffee good to the very last drop back home in their childhood kitchens. And I sob to even call to mind Paul Harvey’s iconic truck commercial: “So God Made a Farmer.”
Like it or not, commercials have been around for a long time and are sure to continue pervading our daily lives. I guess it’s a good thing: they allow me to go to the bathroom, put a load of towels in the dryer, grab a cold drink from the fridge, and get back to my show!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.