Sunday, June 25, 2006

Car commercials, self-image, and the suspension of the laws of physics

Car commercials really interest me, in an academic sense. As I have said before, I like to really watch commercials not for what they are trying to sell us, but for the message that they are trying to get across. Of course, most modern television advertising in the first place is not about the product itself. It is about a feeling, a state of mind, a concept. Anyone who doubts that this works only need walk into a Starbucks. All it takes is a state of mind and some granite table tops to sell a four dollar cup of coffee.

This approach seems to be used quite a lot on several products at the opposite end of the cost/durability index; razors and automobiles. I’ve spoken earlier about how advertisers try to get young males to buy their products by making them into sleek racing machines, into a “complete system”. Of course, there are women thrown in for good measure. Automobiles advertisers really need to make use of this approach because of the expense and longevity of the product they are selling. They have to pull out all the stops to get you to believe that you are special, someone worthy of everyone’s attention (including the women) in the entire world.

How they try to convince you of this is becoming more and more surreal. High priced cars are now somehow able to slow down time. The world literally stops dead in its’ tracks when you drive by in the brand new 200X (insert automobile name here). Every single person within viewing distance is captivated while you drive by with a knowing, smug half-smile on your face. These fancy machines have the ability to mesmerize all who see it. The results are a population of zombies who live on a different time scale than everyone else when you drive by.

Another favorite trick is the inherent coupling of this particular automobile and an exciting, dynamic lifestyle, usually associated with the rugged wilderness of the western United States. How many automobiles currently are or have been named for a place in the west? Tacoma, Tuscon, Montana, Durango.... (Personally, I am waiting to see an SUV or truck named the Bakersfield. I think that would be a winner.) If you own one of these conveyances, you will be transported to far off realms of intense beauty and solitude. You will become adept at white water kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing, even if the only reason you get off your couch on the weekends is to go down to the convenience store for another six pack before the big game comes on TV. These machines are capable of actually transforming you into a dynamic and interesting person that you somehow believe has really inside you all the time, and only needs a little impetus to come springing out.

The intent of this, as it goes without saying, is to convince you that YOU will also be worthy of the attention of the star-struck when you drive one of these machines. You will be unique, elevated to star status equal that of any movie star. (I find this point pretty ironic, because nothing would make these companies happier than to have every single person in the United States have one of these. Or two. How you can be unique and different when every single one of your neighbors is also as unique and different as you are rather defies explanation. And Webster’s.) You will become special and worthy of everyone’s attention, admiration, and yes, envy. Everyone will be envious of you. You, Bill Patterson of Topeka, Kansas, who works as a bank teller and who only leaves the city to go visit your mother in Kansas City every few weeks. If you buy one of these, you are no longer the dull boring person that no one pays attention to, except when your mother nags at you about getting married. You will be a brand new person who can command everyone’s attention, who controls the laws of physics just by the act of driving through the neighborhood.

When you really stop and break down the message commercials are trying to get across, I think they are very, very insulting and condescending. I suppose the fact that these commercials work says something about the gullibility and self-image of the television watching population in this country, as well as the absolute power of repeated and pervasive suggestion on a person’s psyche.

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