Back in the day, television pioneer David Sarnoff used to say that the purpose of television programming was to entice people to watch the commercials. That was its entire function, and that function–keeping the US economy humming–was the entire moral basis for television. In 1961, Newton Minow, chair of the FCC, said “keep your eyes glued to the set . . . and what you will observe is a vast wasteland.” And he never even heard of the Kardashians, or Jersey Shore, or Teen Mom. But Sarnoff’s response was, in essence, ‘so what?’ The purpose of TV is to entice people to watch commercials. That’s it. As long as commercials got watched, it didn’t matter if programming was morally obtuse, or offensive, or moronic. Programming didn’t matter. Ads mattered.
That long-standing business model for network television is broken. The idea that you wait until a certain time on a certain day to watch certain shows; that’s long gone. That’s what we all used to do–I can still remember, Wednesday nights at 7:30 we watched Lost In Space. Not anymore, not when you can just TiVo instead. There’s even a term for what used to be normal: appointment viewing. And when you record shows to watch later, you can fast-forward the commercials! Yay! In fact, that’s a lot of the pleasure of it.
What this means is that we should be in sort of a golden-age of commercials. Ads have to be so clever anymore, because we’re used to not watching them. And right now, my wife and I have this ad campaign that we absolutely can’t get enough of. If we see that we’re fast-forwarding past these ads, we’ll stop and go back. It’s the Direct TV ad series.
Here’s the first commercial in the series. It establishes the template. It begins with some poor schmuck who is unhappy with his cable company. Over six preposterous scenes, his life falls completely apart. Here, a guy, frustrated with cable, makes an annoyed gesture. His daughter sees it, imitates it, gets kicked out of school, begins dating ‘an undesirable’, marries said ‘undesirable,’ and the guy who began it ends up with a grandson wearing a dog collar.
Following the template, we get this logic–frustration leads to a racquetball accident, which leads to having to wear an eyepatch, which for some reason, proves irresistibly provocative to thugs. Post hoc propter hoc, ad absurdum, ad infinitum.
I don’t remember the order in which they appeared. For the most part, they center on a single character whose life falls apart because of his miserable cable company. But what’s so wonderful about the series is how ridiculous the logic is. Like this, in which a guy tosses his TV remote angrily, leading eventually to living alone with a housefull of stray cats. What I love about this one is the actress playing his wife, slowly backing away from her remote-tossing husband. Or this one, which suggests that self-help seminars lead directly to trips to Vegas, bad luck at the tables, and selling one’s hair at a wig shop.
Then there’s the Phil Shiffley ad, in which some poor schmuck, after witnessing a murder and faking his own death, has to suffer the ultimate indignity–having to attend his own funeral as a guy named Phil Shiffley. It’s really wonderful–yes, it stinks to have to fake your own death, and have to live, in disguise, on the run from the Mob, but what’s really awful is having to go by the name Phil Shiffley. That’s the last straw!
The acting in all the commercials is great, especially considering they’re all non-speaking parts. I love the fist of death commercial mostly because the poor schmuck is so perfectly cast, running along rooftops in an ill-fitting superhero outfit. All because of his cable company. There have even been spoof ads, this one by a church with, may I add, a commendable sense of the ridiculous.
I have no idea if this ad campaign is working, if DirectTV is experiencing a boost in sales as a result of it. I sort of don’t want to find out. I just love watching them; the authoritative voice, the notion that cable company frustration really can only have one disastrous outcome, the Fist of Goodness, Phil Shiffley. The commercial model for television is long past defunct, but advertizing itself has found a way to survive. Clever preposterousness.