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Why I Watch Commercials

05 why i watch commercials Why I Watch Commercials

I watch commercials. In fact, I love them. Commercials are a lot more than a seductive whisper (or a deafening shout) to buy-buy-buy! They’re also a way to gauge the changing norms of our culture and the values and objectives of a company. They’re also a free exhibition of amazing artwork, music and storytelling. Well, the really good ones are. And with the rise of web TV and online commercials, now is a great time to learn from these advertising masters and start applying their lessons to your own online advertising.

Cultural Barometer

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Advertising doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. And speaking of vacuums, they’re a perfect example of how advertising reflects our cultural norms and stereotypes. A Hoover ad from the 1960s depicts respectably-dressed housewives marveling as a man shows them the feature benefits of the product. See how it glides on air behind you, he says. It makes housework a breeze. Another ad tells the viewer to give her what she really wants for Christmas. Which, apparently, is not a cruise or a fur coat or even another bottle of “mother’s little helpers.” It’s a vacuum.

Cue the psychedelic music. With the sexual revolution the stereotypical role of women imploded, and has been evolving ever since. Now the vacuum ad woman walks in from a long day at the office and uses the vacuum to spot-clean a mess on the living room floor. Better yet, Dyson decided not to show any specific character using its products at all. The company focuses on its technology, and lets you the consumer decide who is going to clean up the dog hair and spilled Cheerios in your house. I let the dog eat the Cheerios, but that’s just me.

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The role of men, particularly as husbands and fathers, has also shifted dramatically in advertising. The stiff, tight-suited husbands of 1950s advertising disappeared in the 1980s—you may remember the rise of the dolt around this time. Television shows like The Simpsons and later Family Guy portrayed men as lazy, irresponsible, and in need of near-constant supervision from their wives. Commercials followed suit. Luckily, this trend didn’t last too long. Many portrayals of men in modern advertising are more complimentary. Men are breadwinners again, entrepreneurs, go-getters, as well as attentive husbands and happy fathers. Who can resist the dad chasing a rainbow with his daughter in the Subaru commercial?

So, if you care about how genders are portrayed in media, you should watch commercials. And if you have a dog or are apt to spill cereal on the floor, get a Dyson. Because they work.

Company Values

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When JCPenney chose Ellen Degeneres as its spokesperson for their 2012 ad campaign, the company got slapped back to the clearance racks by a lot of angry consumers. There was a boycott threat. GLAAD responded by launching a “Stand Up for Ellen” campaign. There was even a Gay Day flash mob in New York in support of JCP and Ellen. JCPenney could have fired Ellen and hired a new spokesperson. But they didn’t. Instead, JCP not only came out to support her, it also featured real-life couple Cooper Smith and Todd Koch and their two children in its Father’s Day ad. So, now you know. JC Penney’s supports gay rights. If you do too, or you just love a good flash mob, then the next time you find yourself needing a new pair of khakis, stop by the “Every Day Matters” store. Knowing a company’s values lets you be a more conscientious consumer.

Most Creative Minds

04 why i watch commercials Why I Watch Commercials

But maybe the best reason to watch commercials is…a lot of times they’re better than the shows they interrupt! Some killer writers, designers, and directors are working in advertising these days. They’re doing for advertising what Allen Ginsberg did for poetry. Blowing the doors off it. Creativity is essential to effective advertising. Even the most basic advertisers have to sell you more than a product; they have to sell you a concept, a lifestyle. They want you to believe if you drench yourself in this body spray, the girls will come a-running. If you drive this car, you’ll suddenly be a super-cool James Bond figure tipping back shaken martinis…and the girls will come a-running. Really great advertisers, like the ones here, want to sell you more. They want to sell you a story, and a dream. Great commercials can surprise you, entertain you, make you laugh, even touch your heart. Do not cue the Sarah McLachlan music—I’m not talking about those ads. But who didn’t get lost in the tranquil, enchanted car ride Volkswagen created to push its new Cabrio? A moonlit river, dandelion puffs like sparkling fairies, and the heartbreaking, haunting soundtrack of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” If you just raised your hand, watch this ad

If that didn’t impress you, maybe this will. It’s quite possibly one of the most beautiful commercials ever filmed. It never shows the product, there are no actors, and the entire point of the commercial is for the audience to be spellbound by color. 

Simple, right? Simply amazing. And how about the hilarious Allstate “mayhem” ads? Dean Winters may be the smartest raccoon you know, but the writers of this ad series are pretty darn clever, too. And they won’t nest in your attic. The reality is that advertising is full of creative people, and we’re lucky enough to live in a time when they’re free to explore their talents and push their medium to new heights. Don’t believe the critics who say that ad execs are soulless. Great advertising creators do more than sell you on a new vacuum, car, or pair of pants. They give you something in return. They give you a piece of their heart.

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