While I was an undergraduate pursuing a degree in journalism, many of my friends in the Communications Department were studying advertising. We had a few courses together, and then we separated, as the remainder of my classes were aimed at teaching us how to dig up the truth, while the advertising sequence focused more on lying. (Journalists don’t learn lying until they reach the workplace.)
As a result of my limited academic study of it, I barely understand advertising. Many ads tout features that I don’t consider worth bragging about, and the things I think would make good selling points never get mentioned. For example, one of the reasons I like Junior Mints is that they are quiet. This is nice when you’re at the movies and you don’t want to disturb the people around you with your loud, crunchy candy. (Peanut M&M eaters, I am looking at you.) (Glaring, actually.) But do the ads for Junior Mints ever point out their silence? No. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an ad for Junior Mints at all. Maybe they don’t know what their best feature is and hence don’t bother saying anything. Well, now they know.
Meanwhile, I see ads for Carl’s Jr. that seem counter-productive. You folks in the eastern part of the U.S. don’t get these, so count your blessings. The fast-food chain seems to think its sandwiches’ strongest feature is not that they taste really good, or that they’re made with fresh ingredients, or that they are available at a reasonable price. No, what they believe to be the greatest asset of a Carl’s Jr. sandwich is that it is horrifically messy and drippy. “If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face” is their slogan. Well, I can think of lots of things that don’t get all over the place that do, in fact, belong directly in my face. Junior Mints, for example. And bread. Bread is a very neat, well-behaved food, and if I could live by it alone without contradicting the Bible, I would.
So Carl’s Jr. is way off-base there, and sometimes their commercials are so dreadful, with their images of men drooling barbecue sauce from their beefy, unshaven maws, that I wonder if the ads are actually being paid for by Burger King, to get people NOT to eat at Carl’s Jr.
I am also a little confused by the current commercial for the Ford F-150 truck, which has the vehicle being suspended from a crane by its rear bumper, and a man standing underneath it. This is to demonstrate how solidly the truck is built: Even if you dangle it upside-down, it doesn’t fall apart. The commercial is accompanied by this warning: “Do not attempt.”
My first reaction was: Really, Ford? I shouldn’t go outside to my industrial 40-foot crane and lift a truck over my head by its bumper? Then why did I buy the crane, Ford? Why did I buy the crane?!
But then I thought: Why not, Ford? If I have access to a crane and a Ford F-150, why shouldn’t I stand underneath it to prove how sturdy it is? Are you afraid I won’t get the same results? Afraid that if anyone actually attempts this independently, the truck will come crashing down? How many botched takes did you waste shooting that commercial? How many scientists in lab coats were crushed by trucks that fell apart as soon as you lifted them off the ground?
Then I had my final thought, which was: Is that really the most impressive thing about your truck? That it doesn’t fall apart? Not the way it handles, or how much stuff it can carry, but the fact that it was made with bolts? Huh.
Speaking of automobiles, there’s a commercial for Enterprise Rent-a-Car where a doofy-looking guy rents a car and drives it to his high school reunion, where two hot babes immediately sidle up to him and, eyeing his car, say, “Lookin’ good!”
My question is, what happens when the women learn the car is just a rental? Some women may be impressed by a man OWNING a nice car, but I assure you, no woman has ever been wooed by a man’s ability to rent one. Owning a car suggests money and status; renting one only indicates that you are 25 and have a credit card. Only the most desperate of women would claim these as their primary criteria.
Finally, there are the ads that don’t sell anything at all. I have mentioned these before, the billboards that advertise attributes rather than products — the ones for “Dependability,” “Honesty,” “Strength” and so on, always accompanied by a picture of someone who embodies that quality. They’re sponsored by something called Foundation for a Better Life, and I’m not really sure what that organization does, but whatever it is, it rakes in enough money to be able to afford hundreds of billboards. I wouldn’t have guessed more advertisements sullying our nation’s cityscapes would lead to anyone having a better life, but what do I know? I studied journalism.
Anyway, they have a new one that says, “Me, quit? Never.” It’s accompanied by a picture of a one-armed woman in a wetsuit, posing with her surfboard, which has a huge bite mark out of it. We are to gather that while riding the waves one day, she lost her arm and part of her surfboard to a shark. The principle being advertised is: “Rising Above.”
Now, first of all, that’s kind of awkwardly worded. Most of these billboards are for familiar, easily stated principles such as “Integrity,” “Persistence,” “Determination,” etc. “Rising Above” isn’t much of a noun. Try plugging it into a sentence. “I’ll say this for him: He had a lot of rising above.”
But semantics aside, let’s look at the facts. You’re surfing and a shark eats your arm and part of your board. You know what? I think you’re allowed to give up surfing at that point. No one will blame you if you hang up what’s left of your board with what’s left of your arm and never enter the water again. There would be no shame, no being looked down on by others. Being half-eaten by a sea monster is, I think, valid cause for finding a new pastime.
I mean, what are all the people supposed to think who were attacked by sharks and thereupon quite sensibly stayed out of the ocean for the rest of their lives? That they’re a bunch of cowards who lack rising above? I propose a billboard promoting the virtue of “Knowing When to Quit.” It would have a picture of 19th-century president James K. Polk, who in four short years met his every goal and thus sought no second term; or perhaps Kenny Rogers, who always knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Either way, I’m sure the billboard would be a huge hit and make tons of money for the advertisers, or something. I don’t know how these things work.
I don't usually see many TV commercials because I TiVo everything and skip past them. But there was some March Madness in my home prior to this, and so I saw my share of ads. In fact, I think all the ones referred to in this column were ones I saw during the innumerable commercial breaks that comprise the bulk of a basketball game's running time.
They Might Be Giants fans will surely recognize the reference to "James K. Polk," one of their more educational songs: "In four short years he'd met his every goal / He seized the whole southwest from Mexico / Made sure the tariffs fell / And made the English sell / The Oregon territory / He built an independent treasury / Having done all this he sought no second term." (And that's entirely from memory, my friends!) Every now and then I get a "Jeopardy!" question right because of my knowledge of that song. One time the clue basically boiled down to, "He was our 11th president," and I was like, "Dude, that's right there in the song: 'Mr. James K. Polk, our 11th president'!" None of the contestants knew that song, apparently, because none of them got it right. Ultimate Tournament of Champions my foot....
The surfer girl whose arm and surfboard got bitten is named Bethany Hamilton, and of course she has a website.