Televison commercials these summer doldrum days are often more exhilarating than television programming. But they come in for peculiarly abstract and devastatingly subjective criticism in two new programs airing this week. Alive From Off Center The fourth segment in the series ``Alive From Off Center'' (PBS, Mondays, 10-10:30 p.m., check local listings for day and time) concentrates a slightly out-of-focus lens on television -- its programming as well as its commercials.
This would-be avant-garde series has proven to be a bit ``apr`es garde,'' since few things outdate themselves faster than self-proclaimed avant-gardism. Too often what has been seen in this series might well have been considered ahead of its time 20 years ago, and one begins to wonder if avant-gardism is, perhaps, a permanent form rather than a changing condition.
This program is dedicated to ``what TV might look like in the hands of artists,'' and most of the work has been done by artists who grew up watching TV. It shows in their work because, in most cases, they seem to be unaware that nothing could be more preposterous than the real TV.
So, a phony deodorant commercial and a parody of a PBS artist documentary by William Wegman are less amusing than the television material they satirize. A segment titled ``Made for TV,'' by Ann Magnuson and Tom Rubnitz, tunes in on one day in the life of a TV set, capturing many of the trashiest aspects of the pop culture which TV often promulgates. The segment is so accurate that it strikes me as sad rather than funny, frivolous rather than critical.
TV, it seems, creates its own instant mass culture as well as its own instant avant-garde. And sometimes they prove to be the same thing. The 30-Second Seduction
Advertising agencies are getting nervous. They spend around $20 million a year on TV commercials, and suddenly they are faced with a new disturbing factor: the two ``Z's.''
Zipping (from one station to another now that there is so much choice and remote control makes it so easy) and zapping (taping shows on VCRs and then fast forwarding when the commercials appear) are the two newest problems for TV advertisers.
These facts and other truths behind the TV pitch are the vital topics of a hard-hitting, incisive special that few commercial stations would ever dare to air: ``The 30-Second Seduction: Television Advertising -- a Consumer Reports Special'' (HBO-pay cable, Thursday, July 25, 7:30-8 p.m.; July 28, 31; Aug. 3, 6, 9, and 2).
According to this Allan Goldstein-produced special, advertisers are discovering that the enormous amount of ``on-air clutter'' carried by a myriad of channels makes it imperative to offer more these days to capture the attention of audiences and arouse the imagination of the viewer-consumer.
Often, humor is the sweetener to get the consumer to accept the sell. According to the Wendy's advertising agency, ``Where's the beef?'' attracted much more attention than a hard sell could have lured. What advertisers most often try to do these days is reinforce the name of the product in the mind of the viewer and make him feel good about the product rather than merely sell him on it.
In the case of commercials for most designer jeans and many cosmetics, the documentary points out that sexually arousing techniques involving mood and emotions -- ``everything but the inherent merit of the product itself'' -- are often used to sell the product.
None of the above, of course, rules out manipulation and outright dishonesty. For instance, the documentary focuses on one comparatively new aspect of TV advertising production: food styling.
How does an agency make milk look delicious? It uses lots of Elmer's glue in the milk to avoid a bluish cast.
How to make a roast chicken appeal to the appetite? First, stuff it with aluminum foil, then spray it with delicatessen cosmetic paint.
Fruit gets a vegetable oil coating to make it seem shiny and crisp.
According to Consumer Reports, many people are under the false impression that the Federal Trade Commission will protect them from false advertising. But the truth is that the FTC does not have authority to pre-clear television ads. It is only after there have been complaints that investigations are made.
``In 30 seconds, you can be sold anything from an emotion to a pair of jeans,'' warns Consumer Reports in this unique, bold half hour of solid consumer tips. ``A great commercial is a 30-second seduction . . . and you are the one they're after.''
``The 30-Second Seduction'' is an example of invaluable public service television which pinpoints a unique potential programming path for future pay TV. This program alone is almost worth the cost of an HBO subscription. Almost. That's my own form of ``truth in advertising.''