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Behind a TV commercial the blood, sweat, and tears; Thirty Seconds, By Michael Arlen. New York. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $9.95

By Hillary JohnsonHillary Johnson is a free-lance reviewer. / June 9, 1980



It was a monumental achievement, the result of thousands of hours of human effort and perhaps millions of dollars of corporate money. It was a 30-second television commercial for the phone company. And because Michael Arlen has managed to write 211 dumbfoundingly interesting pages about this short but dear work, it may become one of the best known -- or at least understood -- half-minutes in television.

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Of course, Arlen has used this single commercial to explore an entire industry, and that's the real fascination of this book.Profuse with ironic and heartfelt monologues delivered by ad agency types, directors, film editors, stage mothers, animal trainers, and other players of the advertising world, Arlen's story explores a pervasive element of the capitalist culture that is often taken for granted, and hardly ever so scrupulously examined.

By the time the commercial makes its debut, sandwiched in between midnight patter on the Johnny Carson show, the reader is nearly in awe of the amount of talent, and, presumably, intelligence that, over a period of two years, has beeen poured into these 30 seconds. A never posed but implicit question in "Thirty Seconds" is the rationale -- even the morality -- of such resources being devoted to a project that might strike many as an empty endeavor.

"Tap Dancing," as the AT&T commercial came to be known by its creators, is composed of a series of vignettes designed to make tube-watchers think long distance telephoning is a way to have fun and feel good about themselves simultaneously. It begins with a shot of an aging professional tap dancer backstage somewhere having a phone conversation with his granddaughter . The little girl is practicing her own fledgling tap routine while speaking to her grandfather. It's very cute, as so many of the creative consultants who figure in this book would say. In fact, much "Tap Dancing" is cute.

A Professional hockey player without his front teeth calls HIS SON AFTER WINNING A GAME. The little boy smiles; he, too, lacks front teeth. Two young women standing on their heads in a yoga pose converse happily by long distance connection; a freshly shorn Marine recruit calls his father, who turns out to be a barber. A rodeo cowboy calls his girlfriend, who just happens to be a professional jockey.

There is no dialogue, just the "reach out and touch someone" theme song, a lyric that several top-level executives of the N.W. Ayer Company deliberated over for nearly a year. The preparation for this elaborate 45 feet of film involved location scouts, producers, directors, musicians, writers, film editors , actors -- in short, all the elements of a major feature film -- and all the expenses. Roughly 10,000 feet of film was exposed in the production of "Tap Dancing."

Most of those involved in making "Tap Dancing" were unlike the characters of the commercial, and their lives seemingly distant from the sentiments the commercial tries to evoke. They are highly paid careerists who wear designer shirts and jeans and interrupt their long day's work only for pit stops of Perrier water and catered canapes.

But all these people take their contributions seriously. Like the man who composes lyrics to commercial jingles: "You need sincerity, and you need the research capacity of the mind, and also you need conciseness -- I would say that conciseness is the essence of the craft -- and then you have to make it all lovely."

Or the actress with a Masters in Fine Arts who describes the agony of a day's filming for a fast food restaurant commercial. "By the end of the day I reckon I've chomped away on fifty stone-cold greasy hamburgers, flashing this big happy smile each time, and I'm telling you, that may not be Shakespeare but it sure was acting."

Possibly the most disturbing vision of "Thirty Seconds" is the telephone company's calculated, sometimes condescending conception of its patrons. And then there is the advertisement, itself. The point is to soft sell, to appeal to the emotions. "What we have to remember is that the phone company is a regulated monopoly," the executive added, "and so from a commonsense or public relations standpoint, it's not in the position of being able to beat consumers over the head, the way some companies do. In other words, there has to be a sort of subtle, good taste kind of thing."

"Tap Dancing," no matter what its basis in reality, is the end result of that logic, and watchers of commercial TV can learn a lot about a calculated commercial art form the'll be seeing a lot more of.