Somebody's gotta demand it: a Bill of Rights for TV Commercial Viewers
Here's my thinking: After all these years of making TV commercials and subjecting the public to them, Madison Avenue or the government should put some rules in place, some guidelines designed to make television ads more pleasurable to watch. And so if I ruled the world for a day, besides getting rid of gravity and making pie a health food, here are the advertising rules I would enforce out there in television land.
Rule One: If you're going to depict a slice of life designed to win us over and be charmed into buying your product, your characters need to have common sense all the way through the commercial.
Guilty party: American Express Open.
The ad: Oh, you've seen it. There are these two young entrepreneurs having dinner with some German (judging from their accents; I took French class) businesspeople, and as the meal ends, our two enterprising Americans try to settle up the bill. Unfortunately, the male American doofus pulls out a credit card that has some sort of superhero on it, and the businesspeople mock him for his card, never mind that it was nice of him to offer to pay for the meal. But that's not my problem. So these businesspeople leave, snickering as they go, and the female American is mortified over her business partner, who is completely clueless that they've apparently blown this deal.
My gripe: "Let me take care of this, OK," she said, or something like that. (I don't generally take notes when I watch TV ads.) And she tosses her admittedly very cool looking American Express business card onto the table, on top of his stupid looking piece of plastic. So what's the problem? If she were so smart, which she seemed to be, shouldn't she let her business partner take care of the bill? The big shot businesspeople have left the room. She doesn't need to impress anyone at this point, and besides, he screwed up the deal. Let him pay. Oh, sure, the TV producer wants to impress us with the card, but you know, you air this commercial 78,910 times, and I can't help but nitpick. Now I'm wondering about the financial acumen of this young woman and am completely worried about the decisions she's going to be making in their business.
Rule Two: Your commercial shouldn't make me feel inadequate.
Guilty party: Special K, Yoplait yogurt commercials and FreeCreditReport.com
The ads: Special K and Yoplait have those stunningly attractive women -- er, well, I hear they are -- I don't notice these things, especially if my wife happens to be reading this -- but, anyway, they have these svelte-looking models looking all aghast because they may have gained an ounce in the last day or two, and so they turn to these cereals and yogurt for help.
My gripe: It's evident, right? I'm left glancing from the TV and at the mirror and thinking, "You don't need this product, I do," and then because, as I said, I'm cranky, the next thing I know, I'm going to the kitchen to dwell on this issue over a bag of Doritos. But FreeCreditReport.com is the worst, though I give them points for improving. I haven't seen the guy lately, but they've had a spokesman, who looks like he's right out of college, asking, "Do you know your credit score," and then he starts bragging about how great his is. And I'm thinking, "You probably don't own a house, or have kids -- of course you have a better credit score than me." And then I want to slug the spokesman instead of log onto their web site. But kudos to the spokesman they've apparently replaced him with; he sings songs about how his life is in the toilet because he didn't realize the importance of credit scores. See, bring on someone that makes me feel superior, and I might buy your product.
Rule Three: No more statements that are completely illogical.
Guilty party: Focus Factor
The ads: If I hear that lady say one more time, "They're giving it away for free? It must be good," then so help me...
My gripe: Why on Earth should a product be good because someone's giving it away for free? I get it; the woman's suggesting that the company must have a lot of confidence in their product. But just because they're giving a product away for free doesn't mean it must be good. It might be a piece of worthless junk. And if you have to spend $4.95 or whatever it is on a shipping charge, it's not really free. It's not. Go look up the definition in the dictionary.
Rule Four: No more talking babies.
Guilty party: e-Trade
The ads: All I know is that there's that baby in the high chair, giving me advice on e-Trade.
My gripe: Honestly, I never listen to the ads. I just stare at them thinking, "How do they do that? Why do they do that?" It's creepy to look at, and didn't we see enough of the talking baby thing on that inane sitcom, Baby Bob?
Rule Five: No spoilers. As in, if you're showing a movie or a TV show, don't air too much information.
Guilty party: I'm especially talking about you, NBC
My gripe: The Peacock network often seems to show a little too much of their shows--and worse, they'll edit something to make it look like something terrrible is going to happen (i.e., to a character in ER) and then you watch it, and that terrible thing is actually a scene taking up maybe 12 seconds of airtime, and wasn't so terrible after all.
And, you know, I'm sure that there are more rules that we should demand. I still haven't figured out what bugs me about the seemingly affable Video Professor and that new Glade spokeswoman (she seems nice enough, but she's so into Glade that it's a little scary), but that should be enough to get Madison Avenue going or Congress started, as soon as they wrap up a few other things that they have on their plates. Anyway, it felt good to get this off my chest.
Oh, and by the way, I should probably mention that there's actually a web site you can go to vent about TV ads: Commercials I Hate. Apparently, someone actually has even more time to waste than I do.
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). And he really needs to get TiVo.