Thursday, 1 October 2009

American TV Commercials

I’ve just returned from a very pleasant trip to the United States and, I tell you something, I’m glad I didn’t fall ill over there. If I had succumbed to an illness that required drugs of some kind I am certain that I would have perished as a result of a horrific treatment related side effect.

Mrs PM and I arrived in Boston around ten days ago and, whilst unpacking, I switched on the TV and started to flick through the channels, searching for something to watch as a background activity. It took a while because every single channel had a TV commercial on it – I was beginning to think that Americans had given up on the idea of watching TV programmes in favour of an endless loop of adverts.

Of course, we have commercials in the UK but in the US, they have millions of the things. I was drawn away from the necessity of packing and sucked into the world of advertising American style. Mrs PM seemed immune and unpacked, making sure that her clothes were impeccably hung up or popped into drawers. I simply watched the TV like a hypnotised idiot.

Here are a couple of commercials that grabbed my attention:

First, a very scary man, with a beard that made him look incredibly sinister, tried to convince me that I could use his services to make sure that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) would not overtax me. I couldn’t drag my eyes from his beard; it was so perfectly coiffured in perfect harmony with his hair, that for a second I thought I was watching a talking doll. The expression on his face never changed and neither did the tone of his voice. Was he a robot? He certainly scared me into thinking that I should engage his services (otherwise I would have to pay the taxman millions of dollars) – and I’m not even a resident. But he was scary looking and I mean SCARY, so scary in fact that I later had a jet-lagged induced nightmare about him, picturing him as an immigration officer, accusing me of not paying my taxes.

Next came a dreadful advert for fast food with camera close-ups of seafood drowned in a weird looking sauce, all available for the cool price of $1.99, including a bucket of coke (and I mean a huge bucket). There were kids involved and parents smiling as they bit into this horrible looking gunk, with a catchphrase that made me cringe, a catchphrase that somehow stuck in my mind, causing me to suggest trying it for dinner later. Thankfully, Mrs PM hadn’t seen the advert so she replied “WHAT? ARE YOU MENTAL????”

Other products and services were being advertised with a phone number being drilled into the viewer’s skull by being repeated endlessly throughout the commercial:

Call 1-800-BUYJUNK. That’s 1-800-BUYJUNK. By the way, did I tell you that you need to call 1-800-BUYJUNK? If I didn’t then don’t forget to call 1-800-BUYJUNK. That’s 1-800-BUYJUNK. Have you called 1-800-BUYJUNK yet? Why not? Why haven’t you called 1-800-BUYJUNK? Are you insane? This is a once in a lifetime chance for you to call 1-800-BUYJUNK.

However, there was an advert that genuinely terrified me.

As you may know, I have suffered from hypochondria in the past (
read about it here). Imagine my shock at seeing a US advert for a drug that could cause more harm than good. For non-American readers, let me explain and give you a detailed description of the commercial. I won’t use the real name of the drug – instead I’ll make on up; for the sake of the description, let’s call this wonder drug Phawxx.

Picture the scene. A smiling middle-aged woman is sitting on a sofa, looking at old photographs. Then she starts to describe, in painful detail, the dreadful medical condition she has and how Phawxx has saved her life.

Phawxx has helped me live my life again,” she says. She is accompanied by music that, quite frankly, is so melodramatic that it either makes you want to sit there saying “AWWWWW” or (in my case) makes me feel like throwing up.

“Since I discovered Phawxx,” she continues, “I now have a reason to live. Suffering from Dragwart Syndrome is so debilitating it has made me question my very existence.”

“Dragwart Syndrome?” I ask myself. “What in blue blazes is Dragwart Syndrome? Is it some exotic disease I can catch in America? What the hell will happen to me if I catch that?”

I make a note of the name “Dragwart Syndrome” in my notebook, promising to look it up on the internet at the next available opportunity. I also start to plan to buy Phawxx – just in case.

She then goes into great detail about how the wonder drug, Phawxx, has made a difference. We see her in a sun filled garden laughing contentedly with her children; we see her lying in the arms of her devoted husband, both smiling adoringly and staring into each others eyes as if they are love struck teenagers. And the dreadful music plays on.

And then the warnings start. The commercial has lasted around six seconds until this point; the remaining twenty four seconds are devoted to the side effects of Phawxx. A voice over appears and then spends the remaining time warning you what can happen when Phawxx goes bad.

Always consult your doctor before using Phawxx. Possible side effects include: pregnancy, blindness, headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, deafness, hair loss and loss of toes. If your skin starts to turn crimson, stop using Phawxx. If your breathing becomes shallow or you fall asleep while walking, stop using Phawxx. In extreme cases, Phawxx can cause Dragwart Syndrome-related death. In some cases, you may grow an extra eye in the middle of your forehead. In others, your left leg and right arm may both wither and drop off unexpectedly. Do not take Phawxx if you have blonde hair, are Chinese, wear purple spectacles or own a cat. If you are male, Phawxx may turn you into a woman. Do not give Phawxx to children under the age of forty. Do not take Phawxx if you are receiving any other treatment for Dragwart Syndrome as the two treatments will combine and turn you into a fish. Ask you doctor about Phawxx.

And all the time, the voiceover man is telling us the ways in which Phawxx can mutate human beings, the nice woman is sitting in her comfy chair, smiling like an angel and laughing with her family. And the dreadful music plays on.

Of course, for any fellow hypochondriacs out there, Dragwart Syndrome is in fact a figment of my imagination (at least I hope it is).

I could go on all day about adverts on American TV but I will leave you with a complaint.

In the UK, on commercial channels, we are warned that adverts are about to come on. Let’s take the sitcom “Friends” as an example of how adverts are shown in the US and the UK.

In the UK a typical episode of Friends, a man will introduce the show and one set of commercials will appear about halfway through the show. A couple of commercials are also broadcast before and after the show.

In the US a typical episode of Friends will be split into about three hundred parts with commercials appearing every few seconds. Adverts will appear between the opening credits and the first part of the show, numerous times during the show and then just before the last scene and the end credits. For a foreigner like me it is impossible to know where the show starts and the adverts end. Even when Joey and Chandler are chatting, there are banners at the bottom of the screen advertising the next show to be ruined by adverts. Incredibly, just before the show ends, you get “close captioning for Friends was brought to you by Phawxx, the wonder drug for Dragwart Syndrome”.

Annoyingly, I was actually watching a sitcom I had never seen before and stupidly left the room and completely missed the final quirky scene.

“That was the best bit of the show,” said Mrs PM.

“Bollocks!” I said.

To be honest, I hate TV commercials as a rule. British commercials are awful but American ones are far worse on the whole. In Britain we at least inject some humour into them to make them a little bit interesting whereas humour is largely omitted from US adverts – either that or they simply aren’t funny.

If it were up to me, I would remove all TV adverts. The BBC is a commercial-free zone and it is small wonder that on the whole more viewers watch it than the other 3000 channels we get over here. The only things the BBC advertises are other BBC shows. That’s good enough for me.

I can do without “Just For Men” and “Phawxx the wonder drug” thank you very much, for my sanity at least.

This post was brought to you by The Plastic Mancunian. Warning - Do not read The Plastic Mancunian after consuming Phawxx as it may turn you into a baboon. Phawxx was brought to you by the weird and sordid imagination of The Plastic Mancunian and should not be taken ever - particularly if you suffer from Dragwart Syndrome.


Anonymous said...

You sound like a lucky man there in Britain. Here in Russia we seem to have the same situation as in the US. When I used to watch TV (that was about 6 yrs ago or so) they would also show ads right before the final credits. Like when you watch some show and it is about to end and there are the ads you keep wondering what you'll see after the ads - the end of the show or credits. And yeah if you leave it is likely the show and if you stay - credits.
Oh and the style sounds familiar too: either a happy old woman/family or some popular actor + horrific music + dreadful warning.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Aluajala,

I'm not surprised that Russia has the same advertising strategy as the US. I've been to Moscow and I recall watching MTV Russia there (the only channel I could understand) and I was surprised by the number of commercials.

You say I'm lucky in Britain but we are drifting more and more into the same way of advertising. For example, advertisers have now just been allowed to use product placement in TV shows.

It's only a matter of time.



Lidian said...

You are absolutely right about the medication commercials, I grew up in the US so have endured years of that kind of thing.

I live in Canada now and we don't watch TV much - except for things like DVDs of old TV shows. No commercials at all! It's much better that way.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Lidian,

I try my best to record shows these days so that I can skip through the commercials. In America, I imagine doing that is dificult because of the numerous ad-breaks.



Kath Lockett said...

Yeah those very rushed, voiceovers at the end of US drug commercials are clearly inserted to placate any anxious lawyers of Pharxxx or whatever else they're advertising.

WE don't have that kind of crap in Australia - yet - but have the same kind of fast-paced voiceover at the end of any government commercial or crazy deal (CONDITIONS apply. This $3 flight is only available between midnight and 12.01am on Tuesday 10th November for travel departing from Bahrain and ending in Vladivostok and is suited only for travellers who are prepared to stand the entire flight, go without meals nad not carry any identifiable luggage.")

An Eerie Tapestry said...

Agree with you near enough totally about American commercials; there did seem to be an awful lot of them when I was there (plus their Deal or No Deal is fifteen minutes shorter; what kind of travesty is that?). My girlfriend watches most of her TV on tivo these days so she can skip through the ads.

I suspect the long listing of their wonder drugs' side effects is necessary due to their litigious society; surprised they didn't warn that the advert itself might cause satirical blogging. Also, it might be more interesting if they did it with the essential products, telling you the side effects of things like McDonalds, Pot Noodle, or Lager.

I should also mention that I went for seafood in America and did indeed get a bucket of coke. In all fairness, you're not obliged to drink all of it (I think I did though), but it does save all the hassle of having to ask for a refill.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Kath,

In England, they tend to say "Terms and Conditions apply" but I can see that changing, particularly as there are a lot of "Had an accident at work? Did you get the compensation you deserve?" type ads appearing.



Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Mark,

Deal Or No Deal is the target of a future blog post actually. I hate the programme but in America, I accidentally caught a little bit of their version and was sucked in - it was dreadful!

Yes - the side effects of McDonalds would be funny, particularly if somebody were to successfully sue them for causing their obesity. Mind you, the portion sizes in America are enormous anyway so McDonalds wouldn't be the only ones to suffer.

I, too, was given a bucket of coke in one place I popped into. And I asked for a small one!!!



earthtoholly said...

Hi and welcome back, PM.

And welcome to our (Americans) world... I agree that the ads are just awful! I notice that you didn't mention that when the ads come on, the volume goes up and just about blows you out of your barcalounger, so you're constantly adjusting the sound. I also agree that they're not funny at all...just silly. And another thing about these drug ads...drugs are now introduced for vanity reasons. There's now a drug to help grow thicker, darker eyelashes! I'm not kidding. I don't think I'm willing to risk liver failure and blurry vision just to get longer eyelashes. Exaggerating a little, but you know what I mean. Do hope the rest of your trip compensated for the crappy television!

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Holly,

The volume thing happens in England as well. If you are dozing in front of the TV then when the ad break appears, you will definitely get a major shock when the first crappy ad appears.

I've been to America before so I knew in advance just how awful the ad situation was. I just kind of hoped that it had improved - if anything it has got worse.

A drug to grow longer eyelashes? LOL! That doesn't surprise me.

As far as TV is concerned, I have a future post planned about Deal or No Deal (which we get here too) but that will be about it about TV.

As for the rest of my trip - it was thoroughly enjoyable. I loved Boston - a fabulous city! And Cape Cod is beautiful. I will publish a few photos on "The Eye" in due course.




River said...

some of our Australian ads are at least a little interesting, until you've seen each one a gazillion times, but the ones I hate the most are the "info-mercials". They just go on and on and on and on, usually about life insurance, the latest in "new fool proof make-up", or some cleaning product/implement that obviously doesn't sell because they're offering a buy one get one free deal.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

Oh yes - info-mercials! I didn't see any of those in the States but we definitely get them here in England and, like Australia, they are terrible, treating the people who watch them as if they are brainless idiots. Mind you, I guess if you actually watch info-mercials regularly then you must be a sandwich short of a picnic.




Vodka Logic said...

In America we have and expression, 'if you don't like it turn it off'...

and most of us pay little mind to the commercials they are for snack and loo breaks.


Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi VL,

That makes perfect sense. The only thing adverts are good for are the chance to make a cup of tea or go to the loo. But, as Holly says, they do turn the volume up so you can hear the TV while you are brewing up.



Mik said...

Yeah coming from the UK to live in the US I had to get used to the TV. The commercials cut in when you least expect it.

I think they list every possible side effect that came about during the clinical trials for meds, that way they cover their arses if someone gets ill.

I watch BBC America a lot and PBS for the UK shows I miss.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Mik,

I can understand covering their arses but to me it sounds like they are reading out a medical encyclopedia. They could just say "If you take this drug, please read the warnings inside as it could do more harm than good."