Monday, March 18, 2013

TV Commercials Then and Now

Television commercials are more stressful now than they used to be.

Current TV advertising is dominated by ads for prescription drugs that deliver dire warnings against a smorgasbord of medical conditions, followed by a list of side effects that is almost darkly comic in its length and escalating severity. These spots are frequently interrupted by ads from attorneys inviting you to call them if you’ve been seriously injured in an accident.

In the Comfort TV era, the worst conditions imaginable in a TV commercial were Ring Around the Collar and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Ah, the good old days. 

There’s a strange phenomenon that happens with commercials from a bygone era. They used to be an unwelcome and annoying interruption. Now they deliver a nostalgic rush that can be more potent than what we feel watching the shows they used to follow.

Part of this has to do with the simple novelty of seeing them again. The shows themselves have rarely been out of circulation, from first run to syndication to DVD and online streaming. But there was no perceived home video market for commercials. Seeing them now is like seeing someone you knew as a kid after 20 or 30 years. Even if you didn’t know them well, it’s a treat to be reminded of happier times. 

Some DVDs have picked up on this – there are season sets of The Donna Reed Show and Here’s Lucy that present one episode with the original commercial breaks. Buyers would be outraged if that was tried with a current show. 

Besides the products advertised, commercials have changed in two significant ways since the Comfort TV era. First, there’s a lot more text on the screen during each ad. As advertisers know most viewers mute or fast-forward the fruits of their labor, this is an attempt to get a message through the silence and accelerated image.

For those who leave the sound on, the other current trend in TV advertising is to scream at the viewer, which I guess is deemed necessary to draw their attention away from their cell phone or computer or whatever else may be going on in the room. Next time you watch TV, keep track of how many commercials feature someone yelling.

When you look back at the commercials from the classic TV era, you may notice one other difference – they actually tried to tell you why their product was good. Whether it was a car or a camera or a new type of pain reliever, the objective was to promote the benefits of the brand, and suggest to the viewers that their life might be better if they tried one. 

Selling a product no longer seems the point of most modern advertising campaigns. Instead, the objective is to be funny, or shocking, or titillating, or outrageous enough to get people talking or achieve the ultimate dream of going viral. If that happens, the hope is that brand messaging will take care of itself.

This is especially noticeable during the Super Bowl, the Olympics of television advertising. You can sense the desperation from the modern day Mad Men, aware that their client has just paid $4 million for 30 seconds of TV time that most viewers will likely ignore. They offer us supermodels and pop stars, chimpanzees and slapstick comedy. Whatever product is being sold, the real message is exactly the same; Please, for the love of all that’s holy, notice me.

But does that work? Did laughing at a funny Budweiser commercial make you switch beers if you prefer Coors? Did you buy a website domain because Danica Patrick looked hot in the GoDaddy ad? Probably not.

Which commercial received the most positive feedback from the last Super Bowl? The “God made a farmer” ad from Dodge featuring the vintage narration of radio commentator Paul Harvey. It didn’t yell at you. It didn’t blast out music or feature anyone doing anything remotely silly. By doing what television commercials used to do, it got your attention. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A vintage Dove commercial featuring Lynda Day George is definitely representative of the old school. Check out the following URL:

  3. Many believe that television advertising agencies are capable of producing great ads.

  4. They wouldn’t upset the appetite of anyone eating in front of the television. They didn’t contain content that had to be muted if there were children in the room.
    Prior to the late 80's prescription meds couldn't be advertised on TV. I've always hated seeing \/!@6~@ (and it's ilk) pitched during football games. I wouldn't care if it was touted during The Tonight Show, but it's very uncomfortable watching the NFL with kids in the room and have to hear that infamous litany of side effects.
    That said, the creator of another long running (1963-2010) and famous commercial series has passed: Richard D. Trentlage who made the world wish they were an Oscar Mayer wiener.