Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Bad Commercials: How to Damage the Narrative.

with 15 comments

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

15 Responses

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  1. You could do what I do.

    Whenever I actually watch live television, I mute the commercials and walk off to get some water or something to drink. When I come back, if they’re not over I pickup a book and wait for them to end.

    No commercials which annoy me, and then I can keep up the illusion of not watching dumb TV when someone asks me if I saw “such and such” commercial.


    August 9, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    • For a counter example – of a commercial that framed the narrative well – remember the Nescafe ads from the ’80s starring Sharon Maugham and Anthony Stuart-Head as neighbouts becoming “more than friends”


      August 9, 2010 at 9:39 pm

      • I loved that commercial, Andrew! 🙂

        Yes, that one definitely framed the narrative well. I think People magazine and other magazines like it wrote whole articles about the actors, the plotline, and of course all of that was free advertising for Taster’s Choice/Nescafe.

        Barb Caffrey

        August 10, 2010 at 12:53 am

    • I thought I answered this one, Jason, but I guess my machine ate it. ;-(

      Anyway, I prefer the “mute button” option. Unfortunately my Mom’s option is to watch the commercials, and as it’s her TV, she gets to dictate what’s going on. (I feel like I’m a teenager again, except without the dreams of breaking away to keep me going.)

      I prefer your strategy to mine, which basically is to think about how much I hate the commercial until it’s off the air — excepting the very rare commercials I actually don’t despise. (I like a few, now and again. But of course those are the ones I only see once or twice.)

      Fox Sports WI has a new spot that says, “We are — Fox Sports. We are — Wisconsin.” As if people are yelling it at a pep rally, or at a football game. And I have to say that I wonder who thought _this_ up — doesn’t Fox Sports realize half the people who watch baseball are women? (I know the Brewers don’t. The Brewers had a “Baseball Basics for Women” presentation/class/seminar this year, as they did last year, and me telling ’em they were sexist — much less my brother, and many other male fans out there, bless ’em, who don’t know me at all but have female baseball fans in their lives who are just as knowledgable as themselves if not moreso — didn’t make ’em change that noxious title.)

      Barb Caffrey

      September 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm

  2. I remember a commercial lo, these many years ago, from a hardware store called HQ, which showed them in a WWI type plane, dropping bombs on their competition. I always wondered what they were thinking. IIRC, that chain didn’t last long, so I expect that I wasn’t the only one.


    August 9, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    • That definitely sounds like a commercial that failed to establish its narrative, Betsy. 😉 Thanks for remembering it and discussing it here. (Btw, have you seen that Droid commercial I mentioned in my blog post?)

      Barb Caffrey

      August 10, 2010 at 12:54 am

      • No, I haven’t. I don’t watch much live TV nowadays, and that particular commercial hasn’t come across Hulu anytime I watch yet.


        August 10, 2010 at 2:56 pm

      • I googled until I found it. For some reason Motorola doesn’t have commercials on their site.

        It didn’t strike me with the furor it did you. I found several other ones before I found this one, and could see that they were going for a alien/robot invasion theme, including at least one other that showed a human eye morphing into the android eye. (Though that was all it showed, we didn’t see the person attached.)

        Now, why on earth seeing someone’s arm, for instance, turned into a robot arm would make me want to buy one of these phones is beyond me.

        As a side note, I’ve been seeing some billboards around with the “Droid Does” phrase on it, and wondered what female deer had to do with anything. That’s probably just the weird way my mind works, though.


        August 10, 2010 at 4:32 pm

      • So, you’d say this commercial didn’t anger you, but didn’t frame the narrative well, either?

        I’d agree with that if I’d seen it only once. As I said in my initial blog post, the problem I have with these commercials isn’t just how they sound/look/act on one viewing — it’s that with multiple viewings, they get worse and worse. (The Brewers games are now often in HDTV, meaning those commercials also are in high def. I don’t think that helps anything.)

        I guess what Motorola is going for is the extremely high tech aspect — that they have “cornered the market” on such things — and that’s why these odd “film noir” style commercials hearkening to any one of a number of films (the original “Terminator” is the best known, rpobably). But I don’t think it helps them any.

        Barb Caffrey

        August 10, 2010 at 4:53 pm

  3. ROFL, Jason, to your comment (especially about “keeping up the illusion”).

    Mom’s remote is iffy about muting things. I don’t know why it doesn’t work very well in that regard . . . anyway, usually what Mom does is change the channel between innings, but as you’re probably aware, many of the channels take breaks at the same time. It’s unusual to have a commercial on at the same time on a regular station (CBS, ABC, FOX, NBC) as the Brewers game (live TV), but it does happen.

    What did you think about my whole “framing the narrative” thing with regards to commercials? I rarely see any that actually live up to their narrative — the Super Bowl spots, maybe — but I see a lot that fail miserably. (Wish I could ignore ’em.)

    Barb Caffrey

    August 10, 2010 at 12:50 am

    • Well, I don’t understand, for example, why a horse farting and creating a big ball of flame will want to make me drink a certain beer type.

      You tell me a beer doesn’t taste like ass and I may drink it. As it were…


      August 10, 2010 at 1:47 pm

      • ROFL! I never have figured that one out myself, Jason!

        Barb Caffrey

        August 10, 2010 at 2:29 pm

  4. I doubt this’ll qualify for your damaged narrative theme, but the photo below shows a print ad that totally missed its intended audience:

    cheater knitter

    (Someone on posted this months back, in a “How could they be so stupid?” type post.)

    For non-yarn-crafters out there:
    The afghan she is holding is crocheted.
    She’s holding knitting needles.
    There are many different styles of knitting. None of which involve jabbing the needles through the stitches, and holding them like chop-sticks.

    This is totally ignoring whether any of the yarns going to the storage thingy match any of the colors in the afghan, or other such picky details.


    August 10, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    • Betsy, that definitely qualifies as a damaged narrative. Thanks for finding it, and explaining what’s so wrong with that picture. 😀


      Barb Caffrey

      August 11, 2010 at 3:22 am

      Apparently I couldn’t spell yesterday.


      August 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm

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