I spent the last week in America, and my hosts had 900-plus channels listed on cable, though some required payment, others were in Spanish, and many featured what can only be called niche programming, such as lacrosse from the high school. My hostess liked Chopped!, which is their version of MasterChef — less hectic though with more repulsive food.
But I liked the commercials, which I watched carefully since — even though our advertising industry regards itself as the world’s most influential — American styles will soon cross the Atlantic. One problem advertisers face is how to plug something that nobody hopes they’ll need to buy. Man is driving along an empty road in the far west. Steam starts to come out of the engine. By the time he reaches a filling station, it’s looking like the Old Faithful geyser. Is he fazed? No. As the voiceover says, ‘You’re at the age when life doesn’t throw you curveballs.’ He walks calmly into the garage where his manly hand grabs a bottle of water. The same manly hand fills up the radiator. What can they be plugging?
‘So why not ask your doctor about Viagra?’ Yup, it takes a real man to admit he’s lost his manhood. As the car (it has a long bonnet, naturally) powers smoothly back on to the road we hear the long, scary, obligatory and gabbled list of possible side-effects, including ‘seek immediate medical help for an erection lasting more than four hours’. The message: ‘you might die, but the pathologist will be very impressed’ rounds off the whole thing.
Many are designed to make the advertiser, especially if it’s a large and grasping multinational, sound as if it’s as cute as your favourite uncle. General Motors’ Chevrolet has a scene in a dealership in which a good-looking woman trades ‘you say eether, I say either’ and ‘tomayto, tomahto’ banter with the warm and charming salesmen. There is a brief mention of fuel economy, but the real message is that handsome, witty, fun-loving people drive Chevvies.
By the same token Frontier Airlines doesn’t tell you about its low prices, convenient schedules or inflight service, but asks you to vote for your favourite cute animal to decorate its tailfins. Dow Chemicals, nobody’s best-loved company, has a bizarre train-shaped mélange of colourful people gliding silently if happily past people’s windows or into busy stations, waving and smiling, symbolising how Dow’s noise-reduction technology makes the world a more delightful place. They’re not selling anything; they just want us to love them — a big ask in the case of Dow.
One of the weirdest has a young girl serving in a Burger King when David Beckham walks up to the counter and grins at her. She melts into a trance, and seems to hear him say, ‘You’re beautiful!’ Her supervisor comes to reprimand her, then sees who the customer is; he, too, falls into a faint. One American commentator asked if it was likely that David Beckham would ever walk into a Burger King (I don’t see why not) and I pondered once again how he could be regarded as the height of male beauty when he usually looks as if he’s just come off a long trip on an overnight bus.
Some are just weird. Why does one man go round the world in four weeks, visiting Paris, Rome and the Sahara desert, just to prove that his Gillette blade still works? And why does the ad for Just For Men — it tints grey hair — show a little boy with a moustache and beard, a very unsettling image?
But some of the commercials are funny and thus less annoying than the dreary ads we have for online insurance. There’s one set on a riverbank in a mountain wilderness in which a guy kick boxes a grizzly in order to steal its salmon. ‘John West: we endure the worst to bring you the best.’
And the classic Geico insurance ad shows a middle-aged man who has trained three guinea pigs to row a tiny boat wired up to a generator in order to power his computer. It took him eight months, he says, to teach the cox — ‘and it’s such a simple word, “row!”’ The tag line is: ‘There are easier ways to save money.’
Back in Blighty Titanic continues to slump on ITV, soundly beaten by the BBC’s Countryfile, Antiques Roadshow and Silent Witness. But that doesn’t matter: with co-production money and sales around the world, Titanic will make a huge profit. These days, with our flatscreen televisions, we expect cinema production values, something approaching cinema costs and cinema stars. And we don’t mind saving them to watch later, or buying them in a DVD box set. Nowadays even failure succeeds. I just wish our ads were more entertaining.