Viewed as still images, or generally out of context from their ordinary presentation, TV commercials are a bit alarming. Sitting there static, the Colgate actress appears practically predatory because her expression can be perceived as held and sustained. However, it is ordinary when taken as a micro-second in a more general sequence of behavior. So let’s be fair and think about what goes on in the depicted events of a commercial.

Let’s also stay simple and set aside second-order techniques like including a celebrity, using highly-associative imagery as when advertising sensitive products, and referring to pre-existing media like other commercials and movies/shows. I want to stick with the classic techniques which those usually modify, i.e., the skit or the dramatized monologue, whether testimonial or narrated. Here’s a good example of the latter:

No argument, I hope, that this same commercial has been made hundreds of times, adjusted by brand, by idiom of specific target audience, and by the idiom of a given year.

commercials1That third box is scary territory when considering movies or TV, and a considerable literature battles in there even as we speak. For commercials, by contrast, audience impact would seem straightforward: get people to alter their behavior toward the products or services.

However, as it turns out, commercials’ efficacy at that level is not monitored, professionally. You read that right. Advertisers do not assess whether their mini-films work by looking at the impact on real sales or use. They focus instead on recognition of the ads, using tangibles like whether they’re chosen to be shown at popular times or with specific shows, or some metric to assess number of views; or less-tangibles like memetic repetitions elsewhere. The reason is pretty clear if one takes a cynical view – because the commercial execs and production teams want to keep their jobs, they want to be assessed for making the things and getting them into the venue, not on how well the things do.

In other words, commercials’ success is rated more like, if not identical with, the success of actual shows or movies – how well they get into distribution, and whether your next one gets solicited. The advertisers merely kind of assume that this success translates into actual advertising efficacy, although I am aware of no data to confirm that. For my purposes, though, this is excellent because “commercials as mini-movies,” i.e., their success at selling themselves, is what I’m aiming at with this exercise.

Therefore what do we see specifically and only in commercials’ middle box, the text? Here are my bio terms for this post: investment and potential fitness.

commercials2You can talk all day and night about whether this list is “only” or “just” what humans do. Although I’m quick to call out any amount of such discourse as tap-dancing (as most of it is), I’m also happy to acknowledge that some or this- or-that human thing to do isn’t on the list. But my topic here is commercials – and as it happens, what goes on in the most common sort of commercial is on the list, so we’ll stick with investigating how and why.

The immediate insight is that commercials line up wonderfully not by product, but by combinations of items on the list,for instance, using toothpaste alone for a scattering of items:

Attend to your hygiene, meaning health, going either of two ways (the first gets a bit of nurturing in there too):

(honorable mention to a particularly good one)

(Switch any of these out for any health issue as long as it’s not too reproductive and stays close to the front of the digestive tract)

Be more attractive (by far the most common)

(Switch out the toothpaste for gum or hair products or whatever and it’s the same commercial)

Improve your nurturing for healthier kids (with the dad appearing at the end to clinch the point that he’s involved)

(Switch it out for breakfast cereal or laundry detergent)

Be socially included (note the bit about the alienated girl and the various cliques or subgroups of teen)

(Upgrade the ages by five years and switch out the toothpaste for beer to get another familiar and much-repeated commercial)

Combos are possible too, like health + social status., and mixed messages too, like this one dramatizing popularity more than health.

Choosing these from different periods, and acknowledging that each is rife with socioeconomic semiotics, only reinforces my point, because you can shift any of them in time and immediate social context and keep the investment topic precisely the same – which is, in fact, what the producers of toothpaste commercials actually do.

But how and why does it work? Bluntly …

That’s not too shocking, is it?

Yet you will find not one single undergraduate biology/behavior or marketing/advertising curriculum that says so. Not. One.

Announcing two weeks of break for my tired brain. You’ll see some announcements and book promotion at the scheduled times, but regular posting re-commences April 4.


One thought on “Drrrama

  1. Pingback: A tale I will thee tell | Man nor Beast

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