TV's insipid commercials, decoded
A semiotics professor explores the strange new world of subcomedy, from Progressive Auto Insurance to Omnaris nasal spray.
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Baudrillard attributed the advent of this banality to the work of pop artist Andy Warhol, who was able to situate himself at the forefront of our postmodern condition. Warhol was shilling for a new world without passion, profundity, personality – but with just a touch of the aesthetic to lull people into feeling (until the great recession) that their suburbs, kids, cars were "so-o-o beautiful." Were he alive now, I think he would acknowledge our world, ads and subcomedy included, as his stillborn offspring. For that is banality: everything expressing nothing about desire, death, destiny.Skip to next paragraph
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That is the way it went, a torrent of structurally identical ads that put me in a daze. Until a bronze light brought me to attention. It came from three women made entirely of thin bronze pipes: heads, chests, limbs; swirl and "pouf" signifying skirts. Happy female voice-over: "I don't always let my bladder problems or the worry my pipes might leak compromise what I like to do. Like hunting for bargains, not always bathrooms." Bargains/bathrooms is alliteration, a common, cheap turn of rhetoric, which is to say aesthetics. The shopaholic ladies glide to various luxury destinations. In a shoe boutique, a bronze salesman aids them in trying on bronze shoes. Glittering in the background are giant couture bronze shoes Sarah Jessica Parker would die for. Next up: a (bronze) palm-lined rooftop swimming pool, surrounded by bronze buildings.
The director of this ad for Vesicare has imagined an entire city, every detail made of bronze, down to the last treacly touch. The first pipe metaphor, OK. But ad nauseum? The overreaching leaches almost all the jest from the gag, making the residue accessible to everyone and a challenge to no one. People don't want to be challenged. They (are trained to) want to watch, slightly smiling, in a stupor.
These subcomic ads trace an arc of ever-thickening, dark and sulfurous clouds over every one of us. The Omnaris platoon is a placeholder for an entire army ready to pacify anxieties over the Other by quarantine of the monster or outright execution. The suburbanite in the blindingly white Progressive Store: He's a stand-in for the species Milquetoast Suburban Householder. Vesicare City connotes a venue (your venue) peopled as it is by the Standardized, the Regimented.
The Omnaris doctor-soldiers speak to our increasing reliance on specialists and technology to rid ourselves of evil. Think of all the alien-virus-terror/counterterror-cop-FBI-Special Force shows and films out there. Unmanned drones quietly strike Al Qaeda operatives. We no longer fight crime with cops but with CSI units! We don't blow our noses anymore: We fight the nasal battle with Omnaris!
Progressive signifies by connotation that suburban men, settling down to make households, are powerless, ashamed, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by our new world of sterile postmodern marketing, not to mention assaults on their gated little communities. Their mantra: "I didn't know that!" Ditto for the women.
And the Vesicare Bronzed? They are stripped of every aspect of the Person, their actions just maniacal pursuit without any object of desire. The citizens of Bronze City signify citizenry of all cities. All of us mindless, mechanical, just there. Things.
Using subcomedy to catch you unawares, "creative" ad directors hold this distorting mirror before you: Under fatal threat ("Incoming!"), the nation has to be militarized, yes? – you, just a civilian, knowing nothing about anything, everyone else just like you, a void.
The joke's on you.
Marshall Blonsky, the author of "American Mythologies," is a cultural critic who teaches semiotics at New School University.