Monday, June 21, 2010
Advertising, what’s the Message?
Take the damned pills!
This week, in an effort to keep up with the end of season happenings in two of my favourite series on the television, I succumbed to temptation. Damn but it was a struggle! Why you ask? After all, shouldn’t one always give into temptation, you know it may never come your way again? For those of you who may not realise it that simple statement about the surrendering to temptation is the foundation of all advertising. Well I must admit that this once I did, and after a long tussle with my better nature I succumbed to wicked delights. Eagerly and with much anticipation I took my chair in the living room with the rest of my family, grabbed an ale (home brewed chocolate stout of course ) and sat back to watch those programs on a free to air commercial TV channel. Now I have to admit from prior experience this is not my usual preference, and I shudder to think of the masses of advertising junk I have had to endure every few minutes just for the ‘privilege’ of viewing an ‘edited’ version of Bones and Castle. Previously I had steeled myself and refrained from the communal experience, instead viewing them on time delay so that I can rip through the adverts. However, as I said this time the flesh was weak and end of season episodes were too hard to resist. As my better nature had predicted the experience was painful, (don’t you hate when your conscious is right!) The supposed entertainment was more like a battle of attrition as the stories jerked and stuttered before the barrage of ads and I found myself having to improvise script or events to justify the abrupt changes in the plot. An old complaint, no?
Now I know that we’ve had decades of blitzing with both the commercial justification for barrage advertising and how our lives would be a consumer waste land without it. Advertising is, as they claim the bastion of democracy! Without it, our society would, thus heaven forbid be a bare finger’s breadth from communism and all the assorted godless evils that go with an advertisement free media. However, we have a few examples in free to air like SBS (which at least politely puts on ads between programs) and ABC (which thank the powers that be is still advert absent) that indicate that choice isn’t quite dead. For those desperate to escape the fate of a brain meltdown there is always pay TV channels which in the first flush of exuberance over a decade ago promised the ultimate in free choice of programs and an ad free experience! Oh well, we couldn’t expect it to last, that temporary belief in salvation was surely naïve or perhaps a symptom of early onset dementia, induced by advertisement overload.
While I’m sure all this ground has been covered before, no doubt countless times by irate viewers venting their spleen at being conned by the various media companies. Okay, its an imperfect world and you just know their public relations and or complaints department are going to issue the usual justification for non action; free market, adequate social responsibility, shareholder interests and so on.
So admit it, this form of complaint may give you a temporary release to that growing wrath and a brief rosy glow as you fire off that fiercely censorious email, but honestly it is fairly useless and it is not the purpose of this piece. The above section was just to remind you of the brain cell numbing afflictions you’ve had to endure to watch a favourite program. Arghh! No not another re-moisturising, re-hydrating re-toning product that absolutely promises that if I sell my first born in to bondage it will once more give me the lustres tone of a pre teen. Or, please, please no more! I promise to sign up for that extra extra special offer on the latest tummy flattening torture device as promoted by the fit and tanned De Sade devotee with the very white teeth and the fanatically focused smile!
Those daily afflictions aside there is another issue in the advertising onslaught on TV that I wish to address, that being the under-lying message that goes along with the product.
Back in the sixties a Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan stated in his 1964 book Understanding Media that ‘the medium is the message’, in the decades since we have come to see how this simple dictum has been interpreted and none so grimly amusingly as in the world of advertising. The follow is a brief example of one advert that has stuck in my mind for all the wrong reasons;
The advertisement begins with a view of the outside the family home, the aspect is grey and coldly forbidding, the weather has all the ominous hallmarks of a bleak winter day. Having set the general scene of wintery conditions we cut to the interior master bedroom.
Poor old pater familus, the implied breadwinner (even in this era of equality) is tucked up in bed, his face a picture of illness and suffering while his nose closely resembles a leaking shower nozzle with a broken washer. The close up of his eyes displays a deep blood-shotted-ness that tell us either he’s been on a monster of a Friday night bender or even worse horror of horrors, the rock of the family has succumbed to the seasonal flu! It is an ominous display that strikes a chord within all of us, a reminder of our human fragility before the microbial onslaught (more on that later). Each of us is automatically prompted to think ‘but for the blind lottery of fate and the wonders of modern medicine there go I’. The camera zooms in, focusing on his abject misery, this bloke is just a nudge away from the sort of state were a ‘concerned media’ spouse would whisk in and displaying all the solitude of an a caring wife aid his wavery scrawl on a life assurance policy, but that is the subject of a later comment.
So into this picture of despair strides the loving spouse and with hands on hips casts her disapproving gaze upon her stricken husband.
“What do you think your doing in bed?” The sub verbal comment ‘you useless malingering maggot’ is instantly appended by her glower and stance. Her stricken partner cowers in response to this demand and can only meekly offer up the following mewling excuse in the heavy nasally congested tone of the flu afflicted.
“I’ve got a cold and a headache and my nose is blocked!’ The camera angle switches back to his beloved, a glimpse of her heavy frown is all that is required too convey the impression that this paltry whimper isn’t going to be accepted. Out booms her reply;
“A cold? A cold! Rubbish, little Johnny has soccer, Felicity has that track meet with junior athletics, we got to do the week’s shopping and aunt Givenia and my sister are expecting us around to help Granma just out of hospital and settle in to her new retirement unit!” Poor hubby sinks further below the thin and inadequate shield of bedcovers and once more whimpers.
“But I feel awful, my head!” Close up shot to the pained expression and obvious signs of illness before once back to his beloved.
“Nonsense, don’t be a weak kneed spineless little sissy take -----! You’ll be fine!”
The next scene has our poor hubby looking phenomenally improved happily striding out to the large SUV followed by the eager kiddies. Thanks to the miraculous cure of ----- he can get out there and fulfil all his parental and familial duties due to the prompt tough love approach of his now smiling life partner. Taa Dahh happy ending, cut to logo of wonder drug and slid to next advert, conveniently on funeral planning.
Wonder Drug saves Day!
So you think that’s all there is to the message from that advert clip, well think again. This little excerpt contains a number of other not so subliminal messages that don’t require a Phd in psychiatry or sociology to figure out.
You know how they say a picture is worth a thousand words well watch this interpretation.
First its implied that its well into morning and hubby is still in bed, worse his wife has been up for hours getting the kiddies ready for their round of Saturday activities and clearly she’s unimpressed about his still recumbent lounging. Thus we have our first session of guilt tripping.
By being sick in bed hubby is automatically letting the family down.
See, that wasn’t difficult to interpret.
To add to this feeling of inadequacy the stance of his wife implies in the advert that he is suffering from a very minor condition and being a woose by letting a little cold get the better of him.
Okay here we have the play on the male breadwinner’s ego, and yes I know that we now live in liberated times where both partners can equally be the bringer home of the daily meat (vegetarians please read the humble tuber). However thousands of millennia of cultural conditioning (if not genes as well) have reinforced this ‘male’ image. Man the hunter and toolmaker as heroically scripted in a huge amount of fiction both on the screen and in literature.
So the upshot is hubby, who is feeling pretty low already due to the flu is susceptible to round two, that extra serving of duty, ‘blokey’ honour and guilt. Now he’s ready for the fall!
However at this point I need to insert a piece of real history just to prove the above statements, and show how insidious this advert really is. Over a decade ago I was working on a building restoration project at Pyrmont near the Sydney harbour and within casual viewing distance of the bridge. It was a very spectacular sight arching over the busy waters below and never failed to refresh my spirit while I worked. Now we come to a minor but necessary digression in the tale. For those of you who haven’t had the unique experience of driving in Sydney let me briefly lay out the facts the city is large, very large and stretches from the coast to the range of mountains a hundred kilometres to the west. If you want to cross this expanse be warned take a pack lunch and fortify your patience with a few calming pills or quenching ales (though be warned not enough to impair driving and survival skills) to take the edge of the stress of the traffic in the two plus hour journey. Anyway as fate would have it I had to travel that distance each day to return to where the rest of my family was staying in the Blue Mountains while I worked in the city.
Now returning to the crux of this divergence at the time I was working at Pyrmont I was also apparently suffering from a recurring bout of drug resistant pneumonia that in the end lasted for over six months. Now I’d done the right thing and seen the doctor about my cold/flu, who suggested a simple round of ---- to combat the effects. This advice did the trick, however that was only on one level, it did an excellent job of masking the symptoms of what was a very very serious illness and allowed me to merrily continue at my task each hour getting worse and worse (you know glimpses of pink lizards on the interior walls, funnel webs the size of terriers scuttling behind the furniture). Now remember the very brief segment of the advert where they say ‘and if symptoms persist see a medical practitioner’ well I did, and received the sage advice of double the dose of ----. So I did.
It was when I keeled over while sanding a door and woke up an hour or so later feeling well past second hand that I realised that this minor affliction wasn’t so minor. That wasn’t all, my belief in the credibility of the local witch doctor had suffered an irremediable dent and I really felt it was imperative to get back to the Blue Mountains ASAP!
Now this is were we re-enter the advert narrative, because I had to drive two hours through almost peak hour Sydney in the grip of pneumonia and a generous handful of ---- just like the firmly no nonsense wife was suggesting in the above mention advert.
Now many years later I can still remember the mantra of ‘I drive on the left hand side of the highway!’ ‘Red means stop! Green means go!’ Those nail biting phrases and a brief image of wrenching the steering wheel violently to the right to avoid a carelessly jaywalking telegraph pole are about my only memories of what must have been a very ‘interesting’ journey.
Thus we return to the advert and examine what exactly Mrs ‘No Nonsense’ was suggesting.
First, that dearest hubby stop shirking his duties! Be a man swallow those pills and get your butt into the drivers seat ASAP! Right, let’s think this through, so we’ve just put someone who may be suffering from pneumonia delirium, H1N1 or some similar reality warping illness behind the wheel of a three tonne vehicle and pepped them up with a fistful of pseudopheno whatevers and instructed them to get on with it! Take the kiddies to their social fixtures, no matter the cost! Don’t you want little Johnny to become a Wallaby? Or will you let your runny nose ruin young Felicity’s chance at getting into the Olympics in ten years time?
Now in the cold light of day, is this really the message the advert want to get across? Firstly this says dearest hubby is expendable, as are your kiddies, all to maintain your social standing amongst the local clutch of soccer mums?
Secondly masking the symptoms does not make the illness disappear, no matter how good the medicine. So in the midst of this suggested horrible winter day dear hubby is driving around from sporting event to family commitment and in the meantime is he getting better? Ahh no, probably not and his body’s natural defence system has been dealt a triple blow now having to cope with the illness, the drugs and the extra strains of city traffic.
Is this really what this advertisement wants us to believe is the correct course of action? I suppose it is and the fact that the matriarch of the family appears as fit as a horse is ignored in the whole narrative, the question has to be asked why isn’t she driving? More reasonably you have to ask why the healthy and safety of any family member is worth jeopardising for a round of Saturday events that in the greater scheme of things are transitory and pretty valueless.
But I guess that really isn’t the point, compared with the present affirmation of our society.
You can do it all!
Take the damed pills!
After Dr House does and look at him
I’ll just leave you to think about that one before we look at the next advertisement.
Ps Good luck to every one at the start of this flu season!