advice from a fake consultant

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

On Making the Sale, Or, Hidden Advertising Messages Considered

So it’s Super Bowl time once again…and if you’re like me, you really don’t care all that much about the game—but you might actually pay attention to the commercials.

They’re significant productions unto themselves, and they set the stage for a full year’s worth of advertising as they migrate to the “small” TV market after the last whistle of the game has been blown.

Since lots of other commentators will analyze and dissect those commercials—and I’m one of those who likes to travel where others don’t—we will, instead, talk about the ordinary commercials, the ones you see every day of the year…the ones you might see 20 or 30 times a day, every day of the year, if you watch enough TV.

There are three in particular we’ll talk about today…and two of the three send a unique and particular message to the viewer. It may not be the message the advertiser intended—or maybe it is, secretly—but whichever it is, it’s a pretty fair bet that you’ll see each differently after we’re through.

The third? Well, we’ll get to it later.

"Of late I have found myself almost incapable of enjoying any poetry whose inspiration is not despair or melancholy…The subject of any European government to-day feels all the sensations of Gulliver in the paws of the Queen of Brobdingnag’s monkey—the sensations of some small and helpless being at the mercy of something monstrous and irresponsible and idiotic."

--From How the Days Draw In!, Aldous Huxley

You gotta have education to land a job these days, and one of the largest providers of that education is Corinthian Colleges, who operate a chain of “career schools” that include Everest College, who trains those who aspire to careers in the medical field, among others.

Their ads are a constant presence on daytime television, with the recurring theme being that the lives of those in the commercials were...lost…adrift…maybe even depressing…and that the experience at Everest was so great that now, thanks to the school, life is much, much, better.

Although I could not locate her on Internet video, another constant presence in the ads is the woman who comes on after the ads are through. “Hi, I’m Mary” she informs us in her perky voice, headset at the ready, “and I hope this commercial inspires you to call…”

And that’s when the hidden message appears.

Mary, the perky operator, has appeared on this commercial—and lots of others like it—for at least three years now…and never once has she been tempted to give up her operator job by a single one of the commercials in which she has appeared.

Medical assistant, massage therapist, fashion coordinator, video game designer, chef…not a single one of these schools is getting Mary’s money—and I assume that’s because Mary knows something about these schools that we don’t.

"Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket."

--George Orwell

If you watch enough television, you quickly become aware that there are a lot of people who are looking for other people…and to be blunt, it appears from the advertising that about 90% of them are men seeking “hot, sexy, single ladies” or something similar. (what would MySpace be without them?) apparently understands the mating drive of men much better than other providers of these services (or they understand perfectly that men are dogs)…but whomever you turn to for this sort of assistance, the message that gets sent is that thanks to their heroic efforts men can get women they would never get in real life…with virtually no effort at all…and that these women are just hanging around various telecommunications devices waiting for you to pick up your phone and…well, initiate a booty call.

There is one exception.

eHarmony has come to the plate with ads that are clearly not targeted at men. Instead, their ads focus on romance and marriage—and in them is a hidden message as well.

It’s the women.

Unlike the “I just came off the stripper pole” women that appear in the ads directed at men, the women in eHarmony are more on the…regular human…side. They’re not exactly mingers, but at the same time they are not the twins you might see in certain beer ads.

The men of these commercials are, of course, thrilled to give up their bachelor lives for the opportunity to be in the exciting relationships with the women who appear to be--again, to be blunt—trading up…or at least trading sideways.

The unspoken message is subtly different for the women than it is for the men. For the men, the message is: “pick up the phone and get a hookup”…but for the potential woman customer, the message seems to be: “even you could find love at our site…”

“Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.”

--Stephen Butler Leacock

Our final commercial of the day did not make the list because of any hidden message, but instead because of the amazingly awful performance of the actress involved.

I nearly get heartburn every time I see it…which is ironic, considering that the product involved is Prilosec, a heartburn drug.

If you haven’t yet seen the ad, let’s just say that the woman who is the product’s spokesperson is in no danger of lasting longer than Tucker Carlson should she ever find herself on Dancing With The Stars.

Just so you know, I looked it up: the number of comics who have stood in front of the brick wall and uttered that old line “have you seen how white people dance?” is exactly three less than the number of grains of sand on the beach at low tide.

Here’s something else I looked up: “Katie”, the character in the Prilosec ad, is actually in the picture next to that joke in the Comedian’s Brick Wall Reference.

Her bio reports that she was an instructor at the Elaine Benes School of Dance, and her performance is clearly influenced by that experience. The same ability to ignore rhythm and tempo is excruciatingly evident, she has the same “finger-point” move that Elaine so effectively deployed, and she and Elaine seem to share the same blithe ignorance of how unusual their portrayals are to the rest of us.

The really odd thing is, even if you watch the commercial with no sound at all she still seems out of tempo.

OK, so that’s about enough for one column, but before we go, a quick Super Bowl preview: see if Anheuser-Busch runs the ad featuring Conan O’Brien and Sweden or the one where the Clydesdale horse reflects on his life and times…or both.

If the experts are to be believed, that may be the only real mystery of the game.