Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for August 9th, 2010

Bad Commercials: How to Damage the Narrative.

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We all see commercials on television every day.  Someone thinks up these commercials, writes scripts for the commercials, casts actors in the commercials and shoots the commercials.  Which means someone is trying to frame the narrative in a constructive, preferably positive, way.

But what happens when you get a bad commercial, one that not only fails to frame the narrative in the expected way, but actually brings up a terrible reaction?

I’m not the only writer who’s thought of this issue; there are blogs and blogs of information about bad commercials out there.  Here are just two:

There’s even a Web site posting that claims even bad commercials, those which you can only describe as “cringe-worthy,” are good for you:

My contention is far more humble.  I have watched much live television lately (Milwaukee Brewers baseball games, mostly) and cannot fast-forward through commercials, so have been forced to deal with three horrible commercials.  I am uncertain how to put up video links, so I will describe the commercials instead — if I later get video links, I will be happy to update this post.

The first, and worst, commercial I’ve seen during the Brewers telecasts is one for Motorola Droid phones.  There’s this thirtyish nebbish, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, rather frazzled man who’s still at work but is about to take a break.  He looks at his Droid phone, which has Blockbuster pre-loaded as an application (or “app”), and suddenly he can see his three-inch cell phone clear as day due to eyes that look to be straight out of the original “Terminator” movie.

Now, why doesn’t this commercial work?  (In a writerly sense, why does this narrative fail?)  Simple.  First, the guy is at work.  Yes, people check their cell phones at work, but very, very few are going to be watching movies at work — and if they do, they most likely would be doing it as a work exercise so could use a better computer.

For the record, I also thought the guy was too intense, too focused and too driven to watch a movie at work; when his eyes bug out and turn into reddish-black orbs that expand outward, I felt disgusted and almost lost my lunch.  The visual image that Motorola was trying to convey was that their little three-inch phone is more than powerful enough to play a movie — but what I got instead was a picture of an insecure, unsettled man who’s about to throw his job away because the telephone has messed with his brain.

Big thumbs-down to that.

My second least-favorite commercial during Brewers games is one for Miller Lite Beer.  (There are several for Miller Lite I don’t care for, but this is the worst of the lot.)  A couple is sitting in the park; the guy (he’s African-American, as is his girlfriend) is extolling the virtues of his beer.  (Very common in beer commercials.)  Then, when his girlfriend asks why her boyfriend loves her (as he’s been saying why he loves his beer for most of the minute commercial,) he can’t come up with anything.   As time starts to run out with the commercial, he tells her that he likes her hair (though he says “I like what you’re doing with this,” twirling a piece of her hair in the process), he loves “all her teeth,” and asks in desperation why she loves him.

Of course, she says, “You’re my soulmate.”  (Odd soulmate to have, IMO, but I’ll go along with it for the case of argument.)

What is his reply?  “Ditto.”

The narrative intended to be framed here is simple: if you drink Miller Lite, you’ll love your beer so much it’ll crowd everything else out of your head.  But what I got instead is, if you drink Miller Lite, you’ll turn into an insensitive, inarticulate jerk.

So these folks get a big thumbs-down as well.

The third is less offensive, but just as annoying.  It’s for a local car dealership, Porcaro Ford in Racine, WI.  These commercials (there are a series of them) always start out with someone using the “Dragnet” theme — “dum-de-dum-dum,” then one of the guys starts talking about what a crime it was that a lady customer had gone somewhere else.  But now that the woman has come in to see them (it’s all rendered in cartoon format, too, which I find cheesy rather than amusing), she has her pick of cars and Porcaro will give her top dollar on her trade whatever she picks.

The narrative here is that Porcaro is honest — they won’t “rob” you (their whole thing about how they’re “working robbery out of the Racine division” tips you off to that aspect), they won’t cheat you, they’ll give you “top dollar” — but also that they’re so relentless that they won’t leave you alone.

Now, why would I get that out of a simple 30 second spot or at most one minute spot?  Simple.  This commercial is played over and over again, as are the other two I mentioned during Brewers telecasts.  And because they’re played multiple times per game, and there are 162 games in a season — well, let’s just say these commercials go from mild dislike to active hatred to visceral disgust in a matter of days.  And the longer I see them, the less likely I am to get a Miller Lite beer, purchase a Droid phone from Motorola (much though I know Motorola needs to stay open and employs many people in Northern Illinois), or most especially go to Porcaro Ford.

These commercials, as marketing, are probably reaching someone.  I can’t imagine who really likes these commercials, though I can see a guy being mildly amused by the Miller Lite commercial and perhaps if you’ve only seen the Porcaro Ford commercial once, it might not annoy you.  (I can’t figure out for who, or what the purpose was, or even why that Droid commercial was aired once, much less multiple times.  Sorry.)

But as an exercise in framing the narrative, they have failed.

What are the worst commercials you’ve seen?  And do you think most commercials actually hit the target, miss the target, or are somewhere in between?  (In other words, do most commercials actually frame the right narrative?)

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 9, 2010 at 3:11 am