They don’t have commercials on CBC Radio. That’s a proud boast of CBC and something its listeners treasure.
Still, there are times … such as Tuesday morning, 9:30-ish and I’m listening to CBC Radio. The content is a grim and detailed documentary about a massacre in Guatemala. A story of horrifying carnage, murder and the use of a sledgehammer, the rape of women and children.
After listening for a while, just after breakfast, I was thinking, “Right now, I could use a two-minute break to hear about Kia cars, Banff Ice Vodka or listen to McDonalds’s latest attempt to market itself away from its status as ghetto-food.” Now, some people say the commercial break would be utterly inappropriate. And others might suggest that if CBC Radio had commercials, the commercial reality might prevent it from airing such material at that hour of the morning.
Most radio and television exist to deliver eyeballs to advertisers.
Oh yes, those TV commercials. We see less than we used to see. Not because there are fewer. Because we record shows on the PVR and fast forward through the commercial breaks, hoping that there’s some kind of signal – such as the warning about swearing and adult situations – which tells us the commercials are over and it’s back to the show.
Cable channels such as HBO thrive because there are no commercials. Other cable channels have fewer commercial breaks. You pay money to avoid commercials.
Meanwhile, of course, commercial TV fetishizes commercials as we see fewer of them. This is an understandable ploy. There are commercials people adore or admire for their cleverness. Hence the ease with which celebrating Super Bowl commercials became a annual ritual. People actually hanker to see a few minutes of footage that’s selling them something they are meant to buy.
The CLIOS: World’s Best Commercials (NBC, 8 p.m.) is a one-hour special, hosted by comedian J.B. Smoove which features commercials nominated for a CLIO, the super prestigious ad industry award. This being NBC, you’re not going to see CLIO-nominated commercials advocating for Amnesty International or against sex-trafficking in Europe. You’re going to get the cutes. Plus star power, with commercials featuring Kevin Bacon, Will Arnett, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
Typical is the multi-award winning commercial for the Toyota Sienna Minivan, called “the Swagger Wagon” in the ad campaign. It is immensely clever but hardly groundbreaking work. The gimmick is that your typical minivan family act like swaggering rappers in one of those absurdly boastful, macho music videos you see on MTV. A mild-mannered Dad raps, “I love hangin’ with my daughter and sippin’ tea with my pinkie up!” and Mom does a mildly racy dance move. Typical suburban couple have a in-your-face downtown attitude. It’s like a sitcom idea that failed because nobody could figure out where to take the joke beyond, well, the first commercial break.
But it went viral and that’s solid-gold in the ad racket. People don’t accidentally see it on TV. They seek it out online and watch it two or three times. Toyota Minivan sales went up. Bonus.
There is little point in complaining about the prevalence of commercials on TV or about commercial TV shows that are little more that adoration of cute commercials. Even when you think you’re escaping advertising content, it’s there. On HBO’s True Blood, that case of beer being consumed by characters is prominently displayed to deliver your eyeballs to the product. There are no commercials on HBO, but even on shows on commercial TV, ones that have multiple ad breaks, characters now talk about buying a new car with all the details of their purchase made crystal clear to you, the viewer.
And for those of you who think you’re avoiding advertising by being on the Internet, pretty much everything on the web is also there to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, marketing firms and PR people.
There is no escape. And our mass acceptance of advertising is to blame. We are what we buy. Fact is, we often look on commercials – especially those really cute ones – as escapism. That’s human nature. And boy could I have used an escape from that searing CBC Radio documentary on Tuesday morning.
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