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Commercials Everywhere

This is “Super Bowl weekend.” What does that mean to me? I don’t follow professional football too closely, not the breathless coverage and hype. Sometimes I bet on the game, but not too often, there is probably less of an edge in this game than in any other one: the extra week off, the usually neutral field; every fan out there knowing the teams and their record, minimizing that. I did have one very exciting big win in 1996, when at the last minute, I decided to fly to Las Vegas and bet the Steelers +14 against the Cowboys, and under 57 or so points; the Steelers only losing by 27-17 in a game closer than that. Other than that, there is the year that I liked Seattle against Denver, and somehow talked myself out of betting them, and they absolutely dominatef the game. This year, I really have no strong feeling at all. I will turn it on with the sound muted, since I have no interest in the music of Rihanna. And more importantly, I hate commercials, and the Super Bowl is as much about commercials as football.

To run an ad during the Super Bowl costs at least a few million dollars. After the game, there are articles about which commercials were “the best,” that in quotations, because I hate commercials. Oh, I guess the one with the Clydesdales is well done each year (they may have discontinued that one), but I don’t like beer. The rest of them try hard to be clever or powerful or memorable, and I dislike them all.

For most people, commercials are the price of watching or listening to media. Some people actually like commercials, I have no real idea why. They do offer a chance to get up and walk around, or grab something to eat, or talk to your spouse or friends. I have never timed it, but my sense was that commercial breaks used to be two minutes or so, maybe eight minutes out of an hour show, but they have gotten ever-longer It seems to me that during football games, they are four minutes; I have seen ten or so commercials during a break.

It used to be that the commercial breaks during sports events were “natural,” occurring after a score or change of possession in football. But now they insert them at any opportunity. Even a supposed thirty-second timeout, or the slightest sign of an injury, or a challenge to an official’s call. “We’ll be right back”–five minutes later.

There is nothing I can do about this, unless of course I tape the game and fast-forward or skip the commercials, which I guess some do, but you miss the immediacy of the game. So I watch it and try to ignore or be out of the room for all the commercials.

Now, I think that a book should be written about the commercialization of American society. One cannot escape it. Television, radio, magazines, newspapers, the media, the billboards, everywhere you walk or drive or fly or look. There was a grimly amusing short story by the brilliant science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, written in the ’60’s or ’70’s. which imagined an America where one was literally inundated with advertisements. People knocked at your door and tried to sell you things. If you went outside, there were airplanes or balloons flashing ads, noises blaring. You could not escape. The protagonist in the story is so angry and upset by this, that he eventually convinces his wife to get on a spaceship and fly to another planet where one would be free of this onslaught, at least for a while.

And we are just about there now, except that there is no other planet to live on right now. We cannot escape, unless we want to forswear all television and radio, somehow manage to block internet ads, and stay out of malls. So most people figuratively shrug their shoulders, and put up with it.

Of course, there are commercials and commercials, in terms of degree of awfulness. The ones with jingles are very bad. Oh, we all remember the jingles, many from childhood and adolescence. “You’ll wonder where the yellow went/when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.” “You’ve got a lot to like in a Marlboro/filter, flavor, flip-top box.” So that means that the jingles worked? Well, I never smoked a cigarette in my life. I brush my teeth, but I use Crest. As they say, men are very loyal to a brand. So the repetitive jingles are working on other people, or they are just intended to irritate them so much, that they run out to buy something, anything, to get away from them.

Right now, we are seeing the auto insurance wars, with perhaps billions of dollars spent on trying to trick people into thinking that one insurance company is better than another. “With ____, you only pay for what you need.” Virtually every car insurance company offers that. Just like the billboards that are all over Southern California, advertising this or that law firm, say, “We don’t get paid until you get paid, ” or, “If we don’t win, you pay nothing.” Every plaintiff firm in this area of law gets paid by contingency fee. The ads imply that they are doing something novel, but they are doing what every attorney offers in this realm.

Back to the world of laundry detergents and toothpastes, it was not until Graduate School of Management that I learned that in my naivete, I had not realized that virtually all of the brands were made by the same company, Procter and Gamble. They were cannibalizing their own products, but not really, because by offering what seemed like competition, they were spurring sales, while monopolizing the market. Many a time, I had pondered whether All or Cheer or Tide were better, when in most cases, they had exactly the same ingredients!

But as bad as all this is, there is something worse now. And that is all the pharmaceutical ads which engulf the airwaves. I will say at the outset, that some of these drugs may help, and some may be necessary for different people. And I would never want to tell people that they should not try to find a medicine that might help, and hope that it alleviates or even cures. But most don’t, I would think. And the thing is, that assuming one can afford to see a doctor for a diagnosis, he or she can write a prescription, and can tell you their opinion on what might be best. That is no guarantee. But why would one want the manufacturers of the drug to try to sell you on it?

And the commercials, which are all over the cable news stations, are almost always the same. They show a man or woman or couple looking very sad and concerned. Then after they tell you about the drug, they show them happy, rowing on the lake, sitting outside looking at the stars, dancing. Take this drug and you will be happy. Then they rush in to mumble the side effects, which could be quite serious. Again, I would never say that one should not try them, or hope that they work, but the advertising is very questionable. And if the drug does not work, they have other ones. It is very unsettling, and one hopes that at least some of them work, with not too dangerous side effects.

And they sometimes almost invent medical conditions.. For some reason, I have aol mail, and they started running endless ads there a few years ago; hard not to see them, even if you don’t read them. And they had been doing this “TED” ad, and I did not know what it was, and most people probably did not, but the advertisements told you that it was Thyroid Eye Disease. I guess that is a medical condition, but it is probably rare But their goal is to make a person think that whatever eye issues they might have, could be TED, and then of course they have the drug for it, with of course the side effects.

Then, had you ever heard of “Peyronie’s Disease”? I never had, but they set up the audience by showing pictures of cucumbers or carrots, and showing one in the group as curved, not straight. And, yes, Peyronie’s Disease has something to do with a curved penis. When I saw that, I wondered why Pfizer or Moderna was advertising for something that would require surgery. But then they gradually moved to telling the audience that they had the only treatment which was non-surgical. If I had that condition, which I would guess is very rare, I would never take medication for it, because how could that fix it, without some major side effects?

The drug companies count on people’s fears and concerns, and are basically trying to get them to start taking a drug for every single issue, “I have moderate to severe plaque psoriasis.” They all say that, and people do not talk that way; but of course almost all of them are not patients, but actors. They could not pay me enough to act in something like that, pretending that you had some ailment, but now with this drug, you are happy. If I ran things, I would ban such ads. But they are becoming more prevalent.

Well, I did not want to go far afield with this, just to note how the advertising business has grown and grown, and is relentless and determined. I read a “management case study’ in one of my texts at UCLA GSM, and it was about the “soft drink wars,’ which were a very big thing around fifty years ago. Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, et al. One of the players, perhaps the head of one of the companies, said something to the effect that, “I want to see a Dr. Pepper going down the gullet of every single American.” That unpleasantly indelicate statement summarizes to me the avaricious and manipulative world of advertising. We could well do without it, but we can’t escape from it, unless we do what Howard Beale exhorted, and turned off our televisions. And our radios, and our phones, and our computers, and everything but the sounds of nature, which the advertisers haven’t yet quite figured out how to use to sell their products.

Enjoy the Super Bowl, do not watch the commercials, if you can escape from them!