TV's insipid commercials, decoded
A semiotics professor explores the strange new world of subcomedy, from Progressive Auto Insurance to Omnaris nasal spray.
Advertisements are one of the canaries of American culture. And, judging by the six hours' worth of TV ads I watched recently, American culture is being debased by an insidious form of comedy.Skip to next paragraph
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This supposed comedy has taken the shape of a celebration of the "blah," a passing off of the insipid in place of actual comedy. I watched scores of commercials. All of them were designed to make me laugh. None did.
I'm a professional semiotician, a reader of signs. Three commercials in particular deserve to be decoded.
There before me, hawking the nasal spray Omnaris, is a platoon of tiny men dressed in physicians' white coats. Overhead, like a subplanet, is a giant pink nose. It takes maybe half a dozen of these doctors-cum-soldiers to hoist aloft a giant spray canister, looking like a NASA rocket booster. The bitty men shove it right up to the nostril above them. "Mission accomplished!" one shouts.
Suddenly dark, hard globules of you-don't-want-to-know-what come plummeting from the huge nose onto the Little Men. [Editor's note: The ad doesn't show this, but, viewed in real time, the spot can create this impression.] One of them cries out: "Incoming!" That's the tag line, the corny add-on that ends so many of these presumptively comic ads, aiming for one last grin in the hope you'll recall the spot.
Let's pause here to remember the classical definition of comedy reconstructed from Aristotle's writings: Comedic art inheres in our pleasure at encountering humans worse than the average – the Ignoble. The comic actor puts onstage the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The effect of all this Ugliness? Scornful laughter, mercifully separating speaker, spectator, or reader from the Ridiculous.
But this Omnaris ad doesn't reach this threshold. The white-coated men are too minuscule to be Ignoble. "Incoming" is a cliché from war movies. The globules offend taste. This spot's narrative is beneath contempt. I call it, and its kindred ads, the subcomic. This subcomedy is plebeian and quotidian – never too funny to be distracting.
Now Progressive Auto Insurance is onstage. A youngish, nervous man in a blue dress shirt is in a sterile, cold-seeming superstore starkly illuminated in white. The walls and display cases, with their identical blue-bound white boxes, resemble the spare simplicity of Apple stores. Flo, the chirpy Progressive woman, dressed in a white apron over white pants, half-sneaks up to the man: "Hi, may I help you?" She looks and acts in this auto insurance hospital like a loony private nurse.
Man: "Hi, I'm looking for car insurance that isn't going to break the bank."
Flo: "You're in the right place. Only Progressive gives you the option to name your price," each word accented. "Here" – suddenly pointing at him, as if it were a gun, a large blue-and-white labelmaker.
Man (confused, looking at the "weapon" now in his hand): "A price gun? So I tell you what I want to pay?"
Flo (rushing, hustling him): "And we build you a policy to fit your budget."
Man (now giddy): "That's cool!" He uses the price gun on a nearby product. "Ahh … I feel so empowered."
Flo: "Power to the people!" – fist in air.
How could the angry fist of 1960s protest end up being a marketing tag line? How could the slogans pasted on the walls of Paris – Nous irons jusqu'au bout, we'll go all the way – turn into a woman so euphoric you want to apply duct tape to that blabbering mouth?
What were once vibrant, challenging speech and actions have morphed into humor without depth in order to be intelligible to all. Using artist Jeff Koons's work as a whipping boy to make a point about present culture, the late French semiotician Jean Baudrillard said in 1990: "It's a wax museum! It's just mush! You see it, then forget it." The idea is all the more relevant today. Mr. Baudrillard, like every maestro semiotician, excelled at interpreting a sign as something that makes us know something else. That "something else" he discerned was the near future: us, present time.