These new Blockbuster ads really piss me off. First, there was a commercial about how they'd decided to waive their late fees: hordes of people cheer in front of a Blockbuster store as an employee tells them that they are now free of the shackles of exorbitant late fees for exorbitantly overpriced movie rentals. Now, Blockbuster has commercials that encroach on Netflix's territory. Rent a movie from the Blockbuster website, and it will be mailed to you. When you're done, you mail it right back. The service is almost exactly like Netflix or Zip.ca, actually, except Blockbuster trumpets the system like they thunk it up all by themselves-and, because of this, you're supposed to roll over for a belly rub. I'm staying faithful to Netflix because they've never tried to stick me with a $70 bill for a movie I returned on time.
Ultimately, I suppose, my choice to remain a Netflix customer is hardly any different than my choice to be a Coca-Cola drinker rather than a Pepsi drinker. That's the sticky wicket named "brand loyalty," and I am a cricket ball named "starving consumer." Don't get me wrong, I consider myself on the bleeding edge; I gave Pepsi a chance with Crystal Pepsi, and I have an entire wing of my palatial mansion devoted to Betamax tapes, Mini Discs and laser discs. But these things did not last and Netflix is still here. More importantly than anything else, though, Netflix makes me happy.
Commercials have their own inner logic, which is slightly skewed. Pizza ads are a prime example.
My love affair with this cinematic service has been a metaphor for my cultural sensibilities. When I first became a subscriber, I loaded my queue with films by Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa and Jim Jarmusch. Strangely enough, I kept bumping these films back in order to watch The Cannonball Run again. The only hope I had of seeing Breathless was if I spaced out long enough for the film to make its way up to number one in the queue. Eventually, the junk factor of Netflix wore off, and I came to my senses, realizing that it's one thing to catch Smokey and the Bandit II on TNT, but it's another thing entirely to go to the effort of renting it (even if renting it consists of clicking around a website and then waiting for the mail to arrive).
At any rate, one thing I enjoy about Netflix is that, compared to Blockbuster, this service doesn't need to fool you into thinking it's great. A Netflix commercial depicts a busy mother sitting on the sofa, chatting with all of us out here beyond the fourth wall. She tells us how great it is to rent movies and have them delivered to you. And if your screaming brood of children and your hapless spouse keep you too preoccupied to return the movie in a timely fashion, well, don't sweat it.
See, there's no need to announce every change in your service plan like you're parting the Red Sea. This, I think, is a result of the inherent strangeness in the world of television advertising. Commercials have their own inner logic, which is slightly skewed.
Pizza ads are a prime example. Domino's, Pizza Hut and the like have proven that cheese can be inserted virtually anywhere in a pizza: on top of the crust, inside the crust and between two slices of crust. You can even order a cheese sauce to dip your crusts into, if the spirit moves you. Pizza Hut now offers a pizza with three different types of pepperoni, two of which are brand new strains recently discovered by the Department of Earth & Planetary Science at UC Berkeley. I like pizza just as much as anyone else, but there's only so much you can add to a slice before it becomes a very greasy, unwieldy sandwich.
McDonald's is also baffling. The company has an ad playing right now in which two hip dudes walk around a city, hang out in laundromats and such-you know, where the cool kids hang out-discussing how the new Chicken Selects actually taste good. This is one of those anti-advertising ads. Meaning, you're supposed to revel in the breath of fresh air McDonald's is offering: who would have thought that their product is actually as good as they're saying it is? But the conundrum McDonald's has created is eight-sided and doesn't fit in the square-shaped hole on the pegboard in my Happy Meal because (a) I'm a little frightened that even one of the hipsters is skeptical about the taste of McDonald's food, and (b) this hipster's skepticism comes from a very real place that McDonald's perhaps shouldn't want to advertise. The message is essentially "McDonald's: Our food actually tastes like food! Uh, and it's good!"
The subtext bothers me in the same way the "If you sprinkle when you tinkle ..." sign above the toilet at work bothers me. I recently saw an advertisement for Carquest, an auto-parts store, in which the announcer went out of his way to mention that the store now offers an environment that is well-lit, clean, organized and staffed by friendly employees. These are things that I thought were part of the basic, inalienable rights of retail consumers, but perhaps not always, I guess. So all of this leads me to believe that-like McDonald's, whose chicken strips don't actually taste like chicken, much less like good chicken-your standard Carquest retail outlet used to involve little more than a hobo selling busted fuel pumps out of his bindle, while his friends Turtle and Coalmine McGhee warmed their hands over a bonfire in a oil drum. Did someone really sprinkle that bad? Oh, yes, apparently Carquest was legendary.
Commercials are pretty stupid. That's what happens when you only have a small amount of time to advertise to a vast group of people, many of whom own TiVos.
Commercials are pretty stupid. That's what happens when you only have a small amount of time to advertise to a vast group of people, many of whom own TiVos. NASCAR broadcast ads, for instance, have locked in on their demographic. Not only are the stock cars covered with logos-a necessary evil in a sport that requires large sums of money just to keep the equipment up to date and in racing condition-but you can't go one commercial break without being inundated with ads for beer, auto parts and enhancement drugs for male parts. We all know the obvious joke I could make about NASCAR fans ... Suffice it to say that perhaps drinking less beer might reduce one's need for Levitra. In turn, a wiser advertising god would perhaps rethink promoting two products that counter each other's effects. True, we are free to choose our poisons as long as they are regulated by the government and can afford to advertise. Nothing makes much sense, though, when it's sandwiched between very expensive automobiles burning very expensive fuel for a very long time while very drunk people wait for someone to crash into a wall.
So what do we have here that isn't a goddamn muddle? Well, there are probably too many strains of the same product vying for our attention. Advertising is slowly becoming an exact science that will never truly appeal to the scattered and contradictory nature of human beings. With so many wonderful things to buy, we often end up owning stuff we never really wanted in the first place. And there's only so much you can add to a pizza before it's just gross.
PS You know the old adage "too much television rots your brain"? Well, my brain has some other muscles that it would like to flex before American Idolturns it into a doughnut. I'd like the regular readers of TV Eye to know that starting March 21st, I will be temporarily filling in for Paul Winner at The Score while Mr. Winner wrestles bears in Alaska. If you've enjoyed what I've been up to over here, you might also enjoy what I can do over there. (Unless you're the guy who suggested that I apply for the job herding homosexual sheep in Afghanistan, in which case, you're sure to dislike my thoughts about rock and roll music.)
In the meantime, TV Eye will be in the very capable hands of Audrey Ference, who will do her best to maintain the standards-dirty words, hostility and flowing streams of weary compassion-I've tried to impart in this space every other week. And if I know Audrey, she'll also breathe some fresh life into it. Same bat time. Same bat channel. See you back here in June, friends.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Tuesday.