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.

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.

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.

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.

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