Ad slogans are jarring at life's finer moments


We went to see a movie the other night, and a bunch of commercials got in the way: real estate companies and car dealerships and clothing stores, a whole series of viewer endurance tests longer than a PBS fund-raiser and even more boring. For this, we paid $15 for two tickets, plus $11 for two Diet Cokes, a box of Goobers and a small popcorn? To sit through this sea of commercials, we have to pay them $26, when they should be paying us?

Then, the other day, the mail arrives with the latest credit card bill. The debt alone could invoke depression for the rest of the decade, and I've barely commenced my holiday shopping. But there's something else inside the envelope, unrelated to my bill: separate advertisements, tempting me to spend more money that I do not have on more products that I do not need.

Then, last Sunday, I'm driving my car. I turn on the radio and catch the last two minutes of the Baltimore Ravens game. The Ravens are up by seven, but Seattle's got the ball. The drama's pretty thick. The Seattle quarterback goes back to pass. A Baltimore linebacker sacks him. With the crowd roaring in the background, the radio announcer is yelling, in a singular breath of enthusiasm, "They've got him in the backfield, and that'll be another dollar off, the next time you go to Pizza Hut!"

Excuse me? Do not remind me of Pizza Hut, please, at that precise instant you want me to bask in the sheer joy of a hometown athletic triumph. And do not slip enticements for unneeded products into the same envelope in which the purchase of other unneeded products has now produced a bill that could satisfy the national debt. And do not force-feed commercials inside the sanctity of a movie theater when I've just plunked down $26 as payment for attempting to withdraw for a few hours from this unrelenting world of commerce and money and adult cares.

We seem to have turned a corner in American life, in which certain age-old pacts between advertisers and consumers have been broken.

Advertising's fine in its place. But, for generations, the place was pretty well defined. On radio, it separated the songs or the patter, and if you didn't want to hear it, you changed the station. On television, it separated the programs, or segments of them. Same idea: You don't like it, change the channel. Or leave the house and go to the movies, where you paid money for the ticket, but it guaranteed there would be no commercial pitches.

In print, it's even simpler. The eye goes where it wants to go. It goes to the advertisement, or it leaves it alone. You don't want to read it, you simply turn the page. Free will prevails.

But the advertisers, knowing this, and wishing to compete in the ferocious free market environment, are now taking up all manner of attacks that can have the precisely opposite effect of what they're intending.

So, like Santa, I'm making a little list.

It's all about who's been naughty and nice. You want to bug me when I've just sat down with $26 worth of movie tickets and snacks, and I can't escape, then you're going to face payback when I'm looking for merchandise or service.

Don't advertisers understand? It isn't enough to get our attention. We've got to remember their name in a positive way.

Pizza Hut, for example, makes a perfectly nice product, and they're decent corporate citizens. And somebody came up with an interesting promotional device that's gotten them lots of free publicity: Every time the Ravens tackle the opposing quarterback in his own backfield, it's a dollar off every customer's next pizza.

But football is a drama, and, just like the dramas on television, there has to be separation between the commercials. Just because the quarterback's eating the football, it doesn't mean we have to have pizza shoved down our throats in the same bite.

When Alan Ameche scored the sudden death touchdown 39 years ago this month in football's most fabled game, no announcer yelled, "Touchdown Colts - and we'll meetcha at Ameche's for the Powerhouse with the No. 35 sauce!"

Nor, when Gino Marchetti grabbed some quarterback, did any announcer sing out, "Everybody goes to Gino's/And Gino's got Y.A. Tittle in his own backfield."

Give us our moment of undiluted joy; let us exult a little between the corporate pitches.

As for that other annoyance - enclosing ads for products in envelopes containing credit card bills, or utility bills, or any kind of bills - where's the logic? You're telling the recipients they've got this big payment to make. They're automatically depressed. They're feeling overwhelmed. The last thing they want to see is the prospect of another bill to pay.

And that's the message for the day, as all of us holiday shoppers hit the stores to buy products we don't need with money we don't have, advertising or not.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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