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A look at some recent TV commercials

The following commercials were broadcast during the first two commercial breaks in the network Seinfeld TV show on February 26, 1998. Since this was one of the top rated shows on television these may be fairly typical of commercials people see often.

Taco Bell

A basketball game is shown. A voice says "How easy is it to win the 'take a shot at the final four' giveaway? Let's just say anyone can score." The player who has just made a successful shot is seen to have an unfamiliar face. A chihuahua speaking with a Mexican accent says "What did you expect, Shaquille O'Neil?" A normal voice says "Just buy a medium or larger drink at Taco Bell and you have a one in four chance of winning one of millions of great prizes, like a trip to the final four, a ski boat, or $250,000 in cash."

This ad obviously isn't intended to tell you anything about Taco Bell's main business, selling food, although it provides some name recognition and familiarity with the talking dog which is seen on other commercials. Mainly it is promoting the contest, which is itself a marketing ploy. While they talk about having one in four chance of winning, the chances of winning the big prizes they mention must be infinitesimal or the company would go bankrupt. All the expenses for these prizes (as well as the expenses for the commercial and the materials used in the contest) have to come out of the profits from selling the food. If it is like previous Taco Bell games, most of the prizes are food prizes which cost the company little and may help them sell additional food if you buy other items when you come back to redeem the prize. The main intent of the commercial is to get people to form an exaggerated idea of the value of playing the game. I suspect that the chance of dying in a car accident on the way to the Taco Bell substantially exceeds the chance of winning $250,000 when you get there.

The movie The Wedding Singer

This consists of clips from the movie and some quotes from movie critics. Obviously both the clips and the quotes are carefully selected to provide the best possible impression of the movie. We learn that it is a comedy that is now playing and is rated PG-13, and we're told the names of the actors. Since there were some favorable quotes, it apparently wasn't universally panned by critics, since at least a few had good things to say. When looking at quotes about movies, I look for the names of the best known reviewers. Advertisers like to include them if they said something good. If the better known reviewers aren't quoted, it's probably because they said bad things. Of course, the reviewer's opinion doesn't always agree with yours or mine anyway.

Qualcomm Digital Telephones

A man wearing a white shirt and tie awakes in a bedroom of what might be an old mansion or hotel, holding a wireless telephone. The picture is in black and white. As he gets up there are some strange happenings and soon he finds himself on a balcony overlooking a cheering, flag-waving crowd. He raises his arms in triumph, suggesting a scene from a South American revolution. We see that a man on a nearby balcony is the apparently the real hero the crowd is cheering for. A voice says "Qualcomm digital phones - a revolution - in technology." The whole point is apparently to stress the idea of "revolution". There is no information about what this telephone does that might make it preferable to any other. All we have is name recognition and an empty suggestion of revolutionary technology.

Mazda 626

We see assorted cameras turning and zooming without human operators, and we see views of a car through camera view finders. The narrator says "Road and Track called Mazda 626 the best kept secret in its class. But when you have a car that's this striking, it's bound to attract a lot of attention. The all new Mazda 626, complete with built-in zoom. See yourself in the Mazda 626 for only $219 a month." Naturally the car looks good, since it has been highly polished, and is shown from carefully selected angles with carefully prepared lighting done by expert advertising photographers.

The endorsement by Road and Track sounds complementary ("best kept secret in its class"), but says nothing specific. In addition, Road and Track relies on advertising from car companies, and so it might be inclined to make favorable remarks about Mazda if they are loyal advertisers. The commercial tries to create a favorable impression of the car, but really tells us nothing except the monthly payments (and we don't know whether that's for purchasing or leasing).

House Rules TV Sitcom

This shows some humorous scenes involving some of the characters on the sitcom and makes a few brief remarks about the premise of the show. It would be very difficult to know whether you would enjoy it based on what you see, which does not even seem to include actual clips. It does tell us the nature of the show and when it will be broadcast.

Alamo rental cars

There is bouncy music and whistling and a man singing "don't worry, drive happy" in a West Indies style. We see scenes of people acting silly in cars in vacation surroundings. The narrator says "Renting a car is part of your vacation, right? So Alamo thinks it should be part of your fun. That's why every time you rent from Alamo you get our guarantee of unlimited 'smilage'. And with Alamo's great 'drive happy' deals, you've got lots of money left for the fun stuff."

I have to wonder what a guarantee of unlimited 'smilage' actually gives you. There is an attempt to give the viewer the impression that renting from Alamo helps you to have more fun, but there is no hint of why it would be any more fun than renting from anybody else. Outside of a vague claim of "good deals", we are told nothing useful.

My experience with Alamo was that it did have some of the cheapest rates, although it also had very expensive collision insurance. In addition, its lot was not very near the airport and the lines were often very long, so getting the car was more time consuming than it might have been with another company. This was quite a few years ago so things might be different now, but wasting extra time picking up the car could detract from the "fun stuff" on vacation as much as saving money could add to it.

Peter Pan movie on video

With scenes and music from the animated movie in the background, the narrator says "On Tuesday, March third, you'll believe in magic again when Walt Disney's masterpiece 'Peter Pan' comes to video. Take your family on a trip to Neverland. Filled with fantasy and adventure in a special 45th anniversary limited edition you'll want to own. Walt Disney's Peter Pan on video. Hurry, this timeless classic is available from Disney for only 45 days."

The use of the words "masterpiece" and "timeless classic" mean little coming from people who are selling the movie, but create a very positive image. The label "special ... limited edition" also creates a sense of importance. The movie is probably offered for only 45 days so they can concentrate the advertising during a shorter period of time while preventing people from postponing their purchase, since often postponing means never buying at all. Since Disney re-releases its animated movies from time to time, it probably doesn't want the tapes continuously for sale since it would interfere with later sales of theater tickets.

Miller beer

The commercial shows a dog wagging its tail and we are told "We know how dogs react when they see something they really like." We are then shown a strange looking bearded man who picks up a bottle of Miller Lite and starts "wagging" it with his hand, spraying beer around in the process. They find a use for this behavior by putting drumsticks in beer bottles which results in the man playing drums for a musical group.

These Miller ads employ bizarre humor presumably to make the ad as memorable as possible to improve brand recognition. They imply the man "really likes" the beer, but of course the ad actually provides no reason to think the beer is better than any other.

Veronica's Closet situation comedy

This employs clips selected from the upcoming episode of the TV show and lets you know when the show is on. It probably serves to get people curious about how the strange happenings shown in the clips fit into the show's plot. Since it offers actual samples of the product (carefully selected to be the most enticing, of course) it at least provides a little bit of useful information.

Infiniti

The camera slowly circles a shiny car while classical music plays in the background. A voice says "It's kind of like an Italian suit." Then there are a bunch of fast action shots of the car performing, while Beach Boys style rock music plays. The voice says "It's kind of like a French bikini." Then we are told "The new 1998 Infinity I-30. Own one and you'll understand."

The ad tries to create the impression that the car is both stylish and exciting. Of course, it doesn't have to be either stylish or exciting for them to say what they do. The same approach could be used for any car. Since there are pictures of the car, you do get to see what it looks like (with the best possible lighting and viewing angles). Other than that, you learn nothing.

Guinness beer

This commercial is in black and white. A well-dressed, confident looking man moves up to the bar in a crowded tavern.

The words "The Nod" appear on the screen. We then see the man nod to the bartender and a glass is seen being filled with a dark beer. We are given a view of the man's ear as we hear the shoosh of foam (bar and beer sounds are heard throughout the commercial).

The words "The Cascade" are shown. Foam pours down the side of the glass. We are shown a close-up of the man's eye.

The words "The Wait" are shown. We see different people's faces.

The words "The First Sip" are shown. The man is seen licking his lips.

A voice says "Why man was given five senses."

The words "Guinness. The Perfect Pint." are shown. The use of black and white photography and unusual close-ups seems to be intended to create an image of sophisticated taste and fine art. The beer's marketing is clearly targeted at people who want to be high class and tasteful; we might even suspect for those who choose their beer more for the impression that it makes on others than for their own enjoyment. In any case the ad tells us nothing about the quality of the product.

Pontiac

A pretty woman says "It's a question of what do I get for my money?"

The male announcer's voice says "For $249 a month..."

The woman says "For my money I want a car that's engineered to last."

Announcer: "Pontiac Grand Am..."

Woman: "It's about being a smart car shopper. About knowing the right time to shop."

Announcer: "Now smart lease a well-equipped Grand Am GT for only $249 a month." At this point there is a screen shown for about five seconds with a lot of text mentioning extra costs and conditions. You'd better get this on videotape if you actually want to know the particulars.

Woman: "It's about enjoying the car buying experience and doing business with courteous people who deliver what they promise."

Announcer: "Built for kicks. Built for keeps. See your Pontiac excitement dealer today."

Throughout the commercial there are pictures of the woman talking, the woman with the car, and the car by itself.

I would assume that a "smart lease" is the same as a lease, and that an "excitement dealer" is a car dealer. As usual, everything is suggestion, nothing is substance. Is there actually any reason to think this car will last particularly long? Or that it will be exciting? Or that this is the right time to shop? Or that a Pontiac dealer is more pleasant to do business with or more trustworthy than any other? Of course not. We get pictures of the car and a price. Beyond that, all we get is image.

General Thoughts on TV Commercials

While there are certainly some commercials that make specific claims about their products, this sampling suggests that the main strategy is just to create a positive impression of the product or perhaps only make the name of the product more familiar. Assuming that the people who pay for these ads are getting their money's worth, it means people are actually more likely to buy these products because of the ads. How many of us think that we can be manipulated this easily? Probably not many. How many of us actually are manipulated this way? Apparently quite a few. When we make the choice to purchase one brand instead of another, how often is it because of images created by advertisements that actually tell us almost nothing factual?