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Mad Men, Crazy People And Invented Lies

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by Tom Steward

When I’m put in mind of advertising – which this week’s return of Mad Men for the final time has done – I think about two great gags in two terrible movies. The first is the direly offensive mental illness comedy Crazy People in which an advertising executive played by Dudley Moore is sent to an institution after writing honest campaigns for clients’ products. These include ‘Buy Volvos. They’re boxy but they’re good’, ‘Jaguar: For men who’d like hand jobs from women they hardly know’ and ‘United: Most of our passengers get there alive’. The second is Ricky Gervais’ tedious The Invention of Lying about a parallel reality where everyone tells the truth. So the TV spots for Coke have spokespeople saying ‘it’s basically brown sugar water’ and bus ads for Pepsi read ‘When there’s no Coke’. The use of real brands suggests this is as much a creative solution to product placement as a satire of it (and The Invention of Lying has plenty of unchallenged advertising throughout). On one level the joke is simple irony; ads tend to be dishonest so inverting this is subversively funny. But on another, the gag rests on the fact that these are legitimate alternatives to deceptive advertising. The twist in Crazy People is that the public prefer this style of advertising, and Dudley Moore is quickly hauled back from the institution. Depicting the products self-critically doesn’t make them off-putting in any way or at all harm the brands, and real advertising executives know this.

...except Dudley Moore

…except Dudley Moore

The delivery chain Domino’s Pizza based an entire campaign around apologizing for the poor quality of their product, even including negative comments from social media in their ads. Dated electronics store Radio Shack launched a series of ads called ‘The ‘80s want their store back’ in which various celebrities from the spandex decade, such as ALF, Hulk Hogan and Cliff from Cheers tear the antiquated shop floor apart. Where these campaigns differ from the ones in Crazy People and The Invention of Lying is that the former insist things are going to change, while the drawbacks of the products advertised in the latter are inherent, tolerable and even desirable. The notion that ad executives can pull off this complex interplay of tone and address is at the heart of Mad Men’s somewhat utopian vision of the advertising industry. Yes, only a handful of creatives who work at an agency containing the names ‘Sterling Cooper’ seem to get it, but from the beginning Matthew Weiner always insisted that the art of advertising was to turn disadvantage into a unique selling point. In the pilot, Don Draper tells the Lucky Strike owners that federal rulings on the dangers of smoking put them on a level playing field with their competitors since no-one can brand their cigarettes as safe anymore.

In honour of Mad Men and its comic forbearers, here are a few of my own campaign slogans telling the truth about a brand in a way that makes you admire their forthrightness:

Peroni: Disgusting with anything but pizza.

Taco Bell: We do to Mexican food what Robocop did to Officer Murphy.

Wells Fargo: With ATM charges like this, you know your money’s safe.

McDonald’s: There’s too many reasons to hate us, so save yourself the trouble.

Cox: The alternative is just as bad.

Little Caesar’s: Working around the craft of pizza-making since 1959.

Amazon: We’re going to send you a package anyway, so you might as well order it.

Disneyland: Once upon a time…when infant mortality was higher.

Carl’s Jr.: Women lose rights in every bite.

Uncle Ben’s: For when convenience beats out white guilt.

Nescafe: What’s the use of ethics if you’re not awake to have them?

Amtrak: Inconvenient and expensive but what else would we do with the tracks?

Stella Artois: For the continental wife-beater in you [this is only marginally more honest than the brand’s real slogan ‘Reassuringly expensive’]

Chik Filet: You have homophobes in your family whose chicken you eat!

Google: The thing you type because it’s the thing you type.

San Pellegrino: Brine never tasted so good.

Apple: You buy it, you break it.

Starbuck’s: Hatred for us distracts you from worse inequalities.

PayPal: We won’t tell you how we make money if you don’t.

Bud Light: It works better as a light than a beer.

Esurance: We stopped John Krasinski from making more shitty movies…you’re welcome!

Yahoo: You have an email with us to get an extra Twitter account.

Twitter: Keeping Yahoo in business since 2008

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The Second Sets

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV advertising, TV Criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by Tom Steward

When it comes to certain aspects of American popular culture, I feel I’m in a Twilight Zone of opinion. The stark commercialism, gross sentimentality and tasteless sensationalism that many Americans take for granted remain horribly apparent to me. And so it is with the casual objectification and sexual mapping of women’s bodies in American media. Watching David Fincher’s Gone Girl at the weekend, it occurred to me than even in a movie about how women suffer under men female bodies are still routinely exploited. What alarms me just as much as its ubiquity is how little it is commented on. There are many similarly horrific depictions of women in the British media (The Sun’s ‘Page 3’ for example). But whereas in Britain I felt the right people said it was wrong and the wrong people said it was right, when it happens here I’m not even sure if anyone cares!

Who's the commodity?

Who’s the commodity?

On television there are a number of ad campaigns that are content merely to have semi-nude women comporting in erotic poses and engaging pseudo-sexually with the objects around them. They are pornography in the raw, images of pure titillation designed to elicit perverted gazing and deployed without a hint of irony or subversion. Some of these are for businesses like Hooters where female objectification is ingrained in the brand, and would be somewhat expected, but others such as fast-food chain Carl’s Jr and electronics outlet Radio Shack have taken it upon themselves to invent this associative imagery. I’ve seen clips from these commercials appear in articles and videos attacking the media’s treatment of women – and I don’t discount those as notable protests – but what I don’t see is a recognition in everyday discourse of how problematic these campaigns are but rather a blind eye to or complicit acceptance of them.

I’d like to believe that the pornographic impulses of advertising account for the way that women appears in these commercials but looking at the programming around them, television must shoulder some of the responsibility. On the ABC ballroom reality competition Dancing with The Stars, group numbers featuring the female dancers invariably call upon the imagery of the strip club and the peep show, turning each of their bodies into platforms of sexual consumption for the cameras rather than a medium of artistic expression. Two recent TV awards shows even thematically incorporated the treatment of women’s bodies as sexualised objects. The Emmys had actress Sofia Vergara exhibit her body on a revolving pedestal for the sake of a half-baked pun about ‘giving viewers something compelling to watch’. The MTV Video Music Awards united female performers Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea by having them each ‘twerk’ during their respective performances.

The turn in American media towards over-sexualisation is not lost on everyone in television. On their eponymous Comedy Central show, sketch comics Key & Peele recently featured a razor-sharp piece of pop satire in which a Minaj-like artist is confronted by young female fans on a cable music television show who are confused as to how her feminist polemic equates to her lyrics, which all revolve around women demeaning themselves sexually for men. The artist is then revealed to be a man in a wig (which, of course, he already is!) who is embarking on a dastardly scheme to convince women that overt sexualisation is the same thing as empowerment. The skit reveals a sad truth about how the attractive façade of feminine authority and independence attached to the most successful women in the media offers not sexual freedom but further bondage, and might as well be from a man.

Key & Peele have a real knack for unearthing the contradictions in mainstream American culture, so we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that they pick up on these gender problems. Vergara and The Academy got roundly panned, as did Seth MacFarlane two years ago for a song about female star nudity when presenting The Oscars. It fascinates me that criticism is reserved for the higher end of television – like awards shows celebrating the best in the popular arts – and directed at instances that have some level of play and self-knowledge about them, while the same when done in the name of entertainment and spectacle, like the VMAs, does not warrant reproach. Of course, a knowing objectification of women is not much better than an oblivious one, but by dwelling on the more self-conscious examples, we threaten to leave the habitual exploitation of female bodies unchecked and trickling down into the mainstream.

Reunited…and it feels so dud!

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV Acting, TV Culture, TV History, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2014 by Tom Steward

Last week, comedy legend Bill Cosby confirmed publicly that there would be no reunion for his hit 80s family sitcom The Cosby Show. This was a relief since the franchise had already been stretched thinner than Tyler Perry on Slimfast with a deluge of spin-offs and sequels and yet still remains dear to audience’s hearts. But where is the demand for TV reunion shows coming from? There’s never been more old TV available to viewers. A large chunk of cable is devoted to re-running classic programmes and internet TV services archive a range of older series for instant access. This reminiscence fuels the public’s nostalgia and brings archaic programmes back into cultural circulation, which in turn makes them ripe for reunion rumours. Classic shows have become so popular on some channels and services that they are now a part of their brand identity and company executives try to capitalise on this by creating new episodes under their banner. There’s also never been more ways to make and watch television. TV can now be made solely for internet distribution, or pass freely between broadcast TV and online video. This gives programme-makers a wider range of options for content and delivery, which makes reunions more attractive since it doesn’t necessarily mean going back into full-scale production any more. It also makes the reunion less official and thereby received more generously, with fans enjoying it as an indulgent treat rather than criticising it for not standing up to the rest of the canon.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

Bill Cosby issues a threat to any comedians considering a TV reunion.

But is a TV reunion ever a good idea? Some programmes are so completely synonymous with a moment in time that to attempt to revive them in any other era is absurd and the effect like an out-of-body experience. Often, so much time has elapsed between finale and reunion that cast and crew cannot – whether due to age, health or simply lost touch – re-capture that which viewers loved so much. Whether or not fans and former viewers are willing to buy into a reunion can come down to the motivations behind it. If a reunion is a genuine attempt to create new fiction based around familiar characters and situations because of interest in continuing the story, then audiences tend to give it a (finite) chance. If the motivations are purely monetary and a cynical attempt to exploit a commodity by prolonging it unnaturally, then how can its devotees feel anything but used? Larry David’s semi-autobiographical sitcom Curb your Enthusiasm faced the problem of reunions head-on. In the show, the cast and crew of celebrated sitcom Seinfeld reject the prospect of 10-year anniversary show on the basis of how pathetic and desperate it would make them all look. Larry selfishly convinces them to do it so he can cast his ex-wife and win her back, and we see parts of the reunion episode in the season finale. David gave Seinfeld fans what they wanted without desecrating their favourite show while demonstrating he was well-aware of the dangers of reuniting.

Just don’t ask about the finale…

Seinfeld staged another reunion this year with a trademark dinerlogue between protagonists Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza shown on internet TV service Crackle as a video short for Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and on Fox at the Superbowl half-time. Again, the makers of Seinfeld made a big deal of reuniting but had deniability if it didn’t take, a sage move judging by the decidedly mixed reaction. Internet TV reunions have had fairly ambivalent receptions in general, not least Netflix’s revival of cult sitcom Arrested Development. Coming seven years after the series finale, this was a reunion sought after by fans following the show’s abrupt cancellation after only three seasons. Virtually all the cast returned and the fifteen-part series played on longstanding themes, storylines and characterisations with a new ‘story-maze’ concept complimenting Netflix’s instant delivery of all episodes. The innovative storytelling was necessary, but the rest felt too much like fan-fiction, a grotesque re-imagining of the original deviating from and souring its memory in unpleasant ways. It brought critical derision on the stars, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and Netflix executives, the latter appearing to be cashing in more than creating. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that people want reunions more than they ever want to see them happen. That’s why commercials are a happy medium for reuniting TV shows. The Danone Full House cast reunion and Radio Shack tribute to 80s TV shows bring programmes back and then move on to the next – hopefully new – show.

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