I don’t know at what point I stopped listening to the television and started hollering at it. By now, my roommates are used to my outbursts, and to the fact that I seem personally offended by every commercial for a product that promises me shiny hair or tells me that iced tea is the beverage of people who care about life.
“Oh, so drinking beer makes me sexy? Huh? Drinking beer gave me this gut. I’m shaped like a keg now, thanks to beer. Is that sexy? IS IT?”
Sometimes I’ll even leap to my feet, although it’s usually on my way to the fridge to get another beer. While I hate most commercials, I won’t deny their effectiveness.
I would like to think that my hypersensitive awareness of the insidious evils of advertising has made me a more intelligent consumer, but mostly it has just made me more annoying to watch television with. Last week my boyfriend complained that even when he is watching tv alone, he hears my shrill commentary in his head. “So all I really needed in order to find inner peace was vanilla-scented deodorizing spray! Who knew?” he’ll hear me snarl as he watches, even when I’m across town at the time.
I am particularly fond of spelling out the implied messages in advertising, and stating them with withering oversimplification. “If I buy that car, attractive women will give me coolly appraising glances when we are both stopped at a red light. Then we will drag race in the Alps. Oh, and I should be wearing ‘breathable’ contact lenses, because at some point, my eyes have apparently started breathing. Also, I should only use toilet paper that has been approved by cartoon grizzly bears that don’t wear pants. Gross.”
I’m certainly not immune to the power of suggestion, and sometimes that is fine. Watching someone on tv pour a tall frosty glass of orange juice occasionally makes me think, “Mmm, orange juice”, and I can handle that. I’m happy to think about orange juice any time anyone wants to bring it up. It’s delicious. However, things I don’t want to think about most of the time include but are not limited to: super-absorbent paper towels, erectile dysfunction, heartburn, older couples who have overcome erectile dysfunction and heartburn, David Caruso, itchy, flaky skin, and Mimes. (I don’t see a lot of mime-related advertising, and frankly I’d like to keep it that way.)
Perhaps this is what really bothers me. When you watch a show on television, you are choosing to be engaged by that show. It is probably a specific kind of show; hopefully not one that stars David Caruso or mimes. (I jest. I am in fact obsessed with David Caruso. David, if you’re reading this, email me.) In any event, while you get to choose the show you watch, advertisers get to choose the commercials you watch, and you have no choice but to give your attention to their topic of choice—unless you go instead to the fridge for orange juice, or mute the television. It is this lack of choice; this forcing you to dwell suddenly on acne medication or low-fat peanut butter, that I resent, and this is why I make trouble.
I would like to add that despite my skepticism and aversion, when a commercial actually manages to be entertaining, without being patronizing or smug, I’ll give it credit. I have been known occasionally to laugh out loud, and even offer a grudging, “Ok, that was funny.” So I’d like to think that I’m a tough but fair audience. Just don’t tell me that I should be giving more thought to whether or not my toothpaste kills all the germs.
(I reworked this one some since I last posted it a few days ago.)
As a child who spent most of the 80s sitting six inches away from the TV, my world was populated with many exotic and fascinating creatures, thanks to cereal and snack-food commercials. The myths and legends of Toucan Sam and the Quik Bunny were as real to me as any bedtime story.
Mind you, I had nothing against books—I enjoyed being read to—it was just that the beings I saw on television encouraged me to eat marshmallows for breakfast, something none of the characters in The Wind in the Willows ever did. And can you name a single fairy-tale inspired breakfast cereal? Show me Little Red Riding Hood Flakes, and I’ll show you a cereal that no child ever threw a tantrum in a supermarket aisle to make her parents buy. I’ll bet it wouldn’t have chocolate-covered Grandmother’s houses, let alone marshmallow wolves.
Snack-food mascots usually fell into one of two categories: they were anthropomorphic animals with crippling snack obsessions (Trix Rabbit, you poor bastard), or vaguely creepy people with questionable back-stories and crippling snack obsessions. (There was something off about dead-eyed Lucky the Leprechan. I can’t imagine any of the other cartoon mascots ever wanting to hang out with him outside of work). They sometimes had some sort of magical power—although often it was just the power of being chronically able or unable to obtain the object of their snack obsessions. Not the most enviable or inspiring power.
Having grown up with these rather petty food-related archetypes, I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Japan for three weeks in high school. There I was introduced to Anapanman, Japan ‘s most popular superhero. He has a giant round head, a big red nose, and small, kind eyes. “His name means ‘Bread Man’.” My host student, Mariko, explained. “His head is made of bread filled with bean-paste. He goes around rescuing hungry people by letting them eat his head. Then a new one is baked for him by his creator.” This was certainly a new spin on things.
The only remotely edible characters that come to mind from my childhood are the California Raisins. Even so, I can’t imagine them, as hip as they were, ever taking off their shades and letting themselves be gnawed on, even by the hungry. You didn’t mess with the California Raisins. Their success as spokes-food was also dubious; they didn’t make you want to eat raisins as much as they made you want to be a Motown singing raisin with tiny arms and legs and a slamming hat. Which is not beneficial to the raisin industry, although it is beneficial to my imagination.
It seemed that Anpanman’s premise was not to promote bean-paste filled bread, but to feed and empower the hungry. It was strange and exhilarating for me to see a food-related entity with its own liberal, humanitarian agenda. Rather than endorsing greed and selfishness, as the characters of my youth did; encouraging children to obsess over food and even withhold it from their others(those Trix commercials clearly scarred me), Anpanman gives up part of himself for the good and nourishment of those in need. Deep stuff for a cartoon superhero whose posse is made up of creatures with giant food for heads. (I particularly like his companion Tendonman, whose head is a bowl of rice with shrimp Tempura sticking out of it). And Anpanman’s lack of affiliation with any sort of brand name or sponsorship is a vital part of his appeal. A regenerating loaf-man who feeds the hungry? That really is magically delicious.
For me, watching televised sports is a lot like reading fictionalized first-person historical narratives. I’m enthusiastic at first, but after ten minutes I completely lose interest. “Hey,” I’ll think, examining a dusty book. “This is a chance to learn what it might have been like for a Minister’s wife in the time of the Puritans. What a great read this will be.” Or, “Wow, the first game of the World Series is tonight? Of course I’ll check that out. The whole world’s going to be watching.” But no matter what happens in the first ten pages or during the first two innings, my excitement inevitably dwindles and, eventually, I wander off to make a sandwich and browse internet personals in search of creepy, socially incompetent people with bad pictures that will make me feel better about myself.
True, the whole, “my good intentions are larger than my attention-span” thing is more frequently a problem when it comes to watching sports. I’ve irritated my share of friends by noisily picking all the peanuts out of the Chex Mix, tooting on my half-empty Corona bottle and attempting to make chatty, unrelated conversation without waiting for commercial breaks during heated sports events. It’s certainly harder to bother anyone else by dropping a fictionalized first-person historical novel on the floor as you trudge over to the TV for blissful delivery from the pain of conscious thought. But I’m sure it can still be done.
The idea of getting really involved in watching sports is incredibly appealing to me in theory. But in practice, I find the games themselves to be generally without drama. I reach more emotional highs and lows watching “Saved by the Bell” reruns than ice hockey; I experience feel more urgency when rooting for a particularly slow-moving parent sliding around in a kiddy pool filled with sour cream on “Family Double Dare” than I do watching a baseball player chase a ground ball. And the rules and stats that flash across the screen during games make me both sleepy and anxious.
Watching as pictures of players’ little heads and crabbed, unexplained numbers zoom across the television at random intervals tends to leave me scowling. (This may be due to the fact that, ever since graduating, staring at columns of numbers is something I do right before writing out heart-shrinkingly enormous checks and mailing them to The Student Loan Corporation). Worst of all is that I know I must be missing out. I have to be. How else can these games bring such joy, such pain, and such endless hours of chips-and-salsa-eating entertainment to so many of my loved ones? My inability to appreciate televised sports leaves a void in my soul, a void that can only be filled by VH1 celebrity-worship shows, Lifetime movies starring Antonio Sabato Jr. as an amusement-park owning single dad with a jealous stalker, and commercials where elderly people querulously use contemporary slang, with hilarious results.
Come to think of it, I guess it’s not a very picky void.