April 13, 2012
Advertising has become unbelievably invasive so slowly and gradually that I think most people are unaware of it, but I wonder if there will be a tipping point. Even as advertising becomes more invasive advertisers remain admirable. Sometimes they’re even the heroes of TV shows, living glamorous lives. And, hey, they are people who do creative stuff and get paid huge amounts of money for it. So what if they’re rotting our brains and taking human artistic expression, one of the most beautiful things there is, and ruining it by using it to make us buy junk we don’t need or want? And supposedly advertising has become more sophisticated in modern times, although, really, it doesn’t seem like it’s that much more sophisticated than it was in the days when merchants would throw things at random people and yell "Eat it!"
Advertisers have been selling us the same tired, stupid ideas for decades now: all women care about is being thin and fashionable, men are dumb slobs who will eat and drink ourselves into coronaries, our pets are smarter than we are, go ahead and wreck your car because your insurance company will buy you a new one, and we all need energy drinks to get going in the morning, get through the day, and stay up late until we take a pill to help us sleep. The difference is now this advertising is everywhere. I don’t want to blame my generation for everything but I think it started when we started paying ridiculous amounts of money, or, technically, asking our parents to pay ridiculous amounts of money, for Jordache jeans and Guess t-shirts. And we all knew that cheaper jeans and t-shirts would be just fine. We even all admitted we were really paying mostly for the label, which was idiotic because we were paying companies for the right to use our bodies for free advertising. I don’t know of any other place where this works. Billboard companies, for instance, don’t pay for the ads they display. It’s the other way around. And obviously just using our bodies as walking billboards wasn’t good enough. There are advertisements for candy bars on gas pumps, because nothing gives me a craving for caramel and peanuts like the smell of gasoline, and the airport security bins you put your shoes in have ads for shoe companies, because nothing washes away the annoyance of walking through an airport in your socks than the suggestion that you could use some new shoes.
And for years now we’ve been putting up with annoying little advertisements that pop up in the corner of the screen in the middle of shows we’re watching. The other night I was watching a movie about people trapped in a cave and at one point I noticed a couple of tiny people I hadn’t seen previously in the corner of the screen waving flashlights around. Who are they? I thought. And then I realized they weren’t part of the movie. They were an advertisement for a TV show about detectives that was coming on after the movie. Because, you know, I couldn’t be trusted to do something like look in the TV guide or wait until the movie’s credits were rolling, when they’d inevitably cram in "Coming up next." over the closing theme music. And apparently the ads in the corner aren’t working well enough, which would be a good thing, but instead it’s only encouraged advertisers to up the game. The other night I was watching a television show and right in the middle of it half the screen was covered with an ad for the show that was coming up next. Or was on another night. Or was on another channel. I don’t really know because I changed the channel, but I doubt that will work.
In fact I’m not sure how much advertising really does work. I used to think I still get spam emails because somewhere some bonehead actually decided to buy a free subscription to Fishin’ Weekly after getting an offer in his inbox, but I think it might be simpler than that. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result. By that standard advertisers all belong in the loony bin. I came to this conclusion when I heard about an unbelievably invasive advertising campaign. A well-known brand of toilet paper hired "ambassadors" to stand in bathrooms and talk to people about how much toilet paper they used, or-and I swear I’m not making this up-"What was the most enjoyable part of your bathroom experience?" If a stranger asked me that because they were just curious or doing anthropological research or something I’d probably be happy to answer, but I draw the line at being ambushed by an advertising campaign. And I say this as someone who’s had some pretty strange experiences in public bathrooms. Once as I was coming out of the men’s bathroom in the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville four women came up to me and asked if they could come in. If you’re thinking that stories like this usually start with "Dear Penthouse" let me explain that this particular men’s bathroom is famous for its elegant art deco décor. In fact it’s so famous that I think they should stop making women sneak in to get a look at it and just offer guided tours, but only after I’m done washing my hands. And once while I was washing my hands in a bathroom in a New York airport a very elderly man asked me, "What kind gets rid of them?" Starting with the fact that I didn’t know what "them" were there were more things wrong with this question than I could count, but I just said, "Green" and left with wet hands. As disconcerting as this experience was I’d still prefer it to someone in the bathroom advertising toilet paper.
Besides if the advertising agency that came up with the ambassadors program really wanted an effective selling campaign they’d take the toilet paper out of the stalls and replace the ambassadors with someone selling toilet paper by the foot. And that idea is so insane that I’m sure some advertising company is considering it right now. And if you’re wondering what toilet paper company it is that came up with the ambassador program I’m not going to tell you. I’m not advertising for them unless they pay me. For a little more, though, I’ll even wear one of their t-shirts.