Tag Archives: commercials

Link Dump: #17

Welcome to a new year at Pussy Goes Grrr! We’re celebrating with a kitty from The Great Mouse Detective, one of the most underrated items in the Disney catalog. As you may have noticed, posting has been scarce lately. As usual, it’s because of that curse called “real life”; Ashley is about to start a new semester, and I’m neck-deep in my horror-themed comps project. Therefore, dear reader, I’ve got a question for you: what do you want? What would you like to read more of? Comment below! Reader feedback is like sweet manna from heaven to us unpaid writers. And seriously, thank you for reading. You’re the reason this blog is here.

With that, let’s start another year of kitties and Link Dumps! We’ve got werewolves, sex, politics, and more:

  • Fun fact: while working in Mexican television, Guillermo del Toro directed and starred in an Alka Seltzer commercial. And it’s scary.
  • The Hathor Legacy has a post about the Bechdel test; it’s snarky and painfully true.
  • In the aftermath of #MooreandMe, Jaclyn Friedman clears up some myths about enthusiastic consent and how it’s like, you know, a good thing to get clear, expressed consent when having sex with someone.
  • A homophobic pastor who wanted to save children from the gays was also a pedophile?! I know, it’s shocking (and ironic).
  • You may have heard about a new edition of Huck Finn with the N-word removed; Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post has this to say. Neil Gaiman adds this: “It’s public domain, so you can make Huck a Klingon if you want, but it’s not Mark Twain’s book.”
  • According to the wacky, math-loving fundamentalists at ebiblefellowship.com, the world’s going to end on October 21! Good to know.
  • Self-promotion time! So: I wrote a graphic novella, which was drawn by a talented team of collaborators. It’s called Spring Lake Massacre. You can read it online and, soon, buy physical copies. I’ll probably be plugging this a lot more in the future.

For this week’s weird/creepy search terms, we have the very accurate “maggots scare the hell out of me.” Yes, maggots do indeed scare the hell out of me. Especially all those maggots in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. From the “Incredibly Specific, but Unrelated to This Blog” files, we’ve got “tightly woven wicker paper plate holders.” Yes, those exist. No, we do not have them. Somebody searched for “blow up fanny videos,” which really can’t mean anything good, and finally, we’ve got the very blunt “fuck i don’t know.” I think we can all sympathize with that one.

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Filed under art, Cinema, Feminism, Literature, Meta, Personal, Politics, Sexuality

As seen on TV: the style and politics of infomercials

Prepare yourself to enter a strange world. A world where human hands are incapable of accomplishing everyday tasks without creating huge messes. A world where said hands and said messes are in black and white. A world that can only be converted into color by the arrival of some miracle product. This is the world of Direct Response Television, the form of advertising more colloquially known as infomercials. [Infomercials, according to Wikipedia, are specifically long-form ads roughly half an hour long, according to the advertising industry. However, I’ll be using the term in its more general sense here.] Inspired by this amazing video posted by Geekologie, Ashley and I have been studying dozens of informercials in an effort to understand what, exactly, is going on here.

Infomercials are fascinating. Despite offering a diverse array of products, most infomercials follow a surprisingly rigid formula. They have a number of tried-and-true methods that, I assume, have been found to lure in the most customers. But when you look at them outside of this context, they’re just absurd, logically and cinematically. For a good demonstration of these techniques in action, let’s take a look at the Better Burger Maker ad.

Here’s how the infomercial tells its story:

1) (0:00-0:04) We see this hapless, B&W sad sack trying, and failing, to eat a hamburger. His face shows a disappointment with the burger itself. “Burger toppings are tasty, but what a mess!” The mess is presented as a normal part of the burger topping experience, and not as a result of the bearded man’s incompetence.

2) (0:05-0:14) “But not anymore!” Suddenly, the world flashes into the color, the problem (which you didn’t even know you had) is dispelled, and a faceless woman can easily “stuff, stuff, stuff [her] way to the best-tasting burgers ever!” This is the moment of almost spiritual transfiguration, fundamental to the power of the infomercial. The music swells, and the world changes forever through the Better Burger Maker.

3) (0:15-0:35) The ad then explains at length how the Better Burger Maker does what it does, through a mix of industrial and pseudoscientific jargon that puts up a smoke screen of authority. Sensory overload is the infomercial’s main tool, so while the all-knowing narrator talks about the “unique patty press design,” we see a computer-generated schematic, alongside numbers and words like “Infuses” and “Patent-Pending,” all of which sound awful science-y.

4) (0:36-1:06) The next segment combines ideas from the previous three: we see an emphatically happy family enjoying burgers; endless recipe ideas including the curiously bourgeois “ultimate gourmet burger”; and reiterations of how flawed life was before the Better Burger Maker. The question of whether you should buy it is out the window – instead, you must ask yourself when.

5) (1:07-1:20) To strengthen the Better Burger Maker’s credibility, we get some vox populi testimonials from a the customers of a “popular cafe,” the Carousel Cafe, which looks eternally rooted in the late ’80s. White people of all genders and ages add to the consensus: “We love it!”

6) (1:21-1:47) This is it, the final push for the customer to buy now. The constant flow of voiceover and images becomes crucial, as they must overcome all doubts with their sheer repetition. Only $19.96, you’ll also receive, but wait, call now, free, order now – how can you resist that kind of salesmanship? Especially when it’s coupled with dozens of different hamburger variations. We conclude with a slant rhyme over a gleefully munching family: “No matter how you stuff ’em, you’re gonna love ’em.”

(The remaining 12 seconds, when broadcast on TV, would normally be filled with instructions involving what telephone number to call and what credit cards they accept.)

Granted, this isn’t the narrative structure for every infomercial (and be sure, this is a narrative), but it does contain the general style and motifs that underlie the construction of most infomercials. The contrast between the customer’s lives “before” and “after”; the excessive repetition of the offer; the establishment of the voiceover’s godlike authority; the excessive repetition of the offer; and the message that by not buying it, you’d basically be ripping yourself off. Infomercials are dependent on an appeal to schmuckery. But it goes beyond that, and here’s where I’d like to delve into my broader theory about the sociopolitical meanings of infomercials. To that end, I give you the Smart Spin.

Infomercials sell products for all kinds of needs, but I’ve noticed that they cluster in three gendered categories: kitchen (female), home improvement (male), and fitness (male and female). All three basically point to the infomercial vision of the American dream. The message is that right now, your life is imperfect. You spill things. You can’t crack eggs. Your tiny cookies are so lame. This dysfunction isn’t specific to your household – “we’ve all done this” – but it does mean that you’re as pathetic a homemaker as every other hassled, lower-middle-class mom. Incompetence is the norm. (The home improvement ads say the same thing to dads.)

The miracle product, however, transforms your drab, normal home and unhappy family into a full-color utopian ideal. To buy the product is to teach yourself and your family to smile again, to give your children the childhood they really deserve. There’s an enormous class angle to these ads: one of their central purposes is to let middle-class consumers with upward aspirations feel like they’re rich without spending much money. They talk about how low the price is, but remind viewers that the value is much greater, allowing customers to feel like they’re really taking advantage of something. (This is an old con artist trick: flattering the mark into thinking they’re so smart, even while you’re taking advantage of them.)

Infomercials play on your desires. Sure, we can see that these products are all just unnecessary junk when we’re viewing them critically, but when they’re watched passively amidst the stream of TV programming, they engage you on numerous levels. That junk is transformed into a fundamental lifestyle alteration – the one step for you to go from Willy Loman-like drudgery to household perfection, with a little extra added in FREE! Your life goes from ordinary to extraordinary, and only for the tiniest of investments. Marital discontent (possibly caused by dissatisfying burgers) and the pains of childhood are cast aside as the family unit is solidified through the miracle product. No more embarrassing nonconformists here: you’ll all wear matching tops (or Snuggies) as you find, at last, your common cultural ground.

Overall, I get pretty Stepford Wives vibe from the brave new world envisioned by infomercials. As evidenced by the Smart Spin ad, there’s this sense of regulation and normalization as positive forces. No more unusual or idiosyncratic containers; everything is Smart Spin now. It’s technology overcoming human imperfections – knock it over all you want, it never spills. Infomercials portray true happiness as this white suburban two-child nuclear family, where adult gender roles are strictly segregated, and it’s all contained snugly within the womb of consumerism. I would go so far as to call it fascist.

For me, this view of infomercials is strengthened by way we see these very generic actors modeling “happiness.” They give us a crude pantomime of what life with the miracle product is like, yet they never speak. They’re always spoken for by the absolute authorities: the narrator and the text. Infomercials gush out of the screen with one unanimous voice, often (and strangely) in Seussian rhyme, dictating to you the nature of your life, and how it could – nay, should – change. There’s no consideration that maybe I don’t want the product, or that maybe I’m capable of cracking my goddamn eggs on my own. Because there’s 1 dream on parade here, and it has no room for abnormal thoughts or behavior. All other activities or desires are subordinated to how our houses, our kitchens, and our selves look – what kind of facade we’ve put up.

Infomercials prescribe a single path, and it’s an appealing one: from boredom to fun, from sadness to happiness, to failure to dreams fulfilled. But they’re not just selling some wave-of-the-future with a $40 value, yours free. They’re selling all the meanings and values that the product is visually associated with. They’re selling superficial economic mobility, being a better mother, getting work done without doing any work, giving your kids a life that’s right out of the TV, and the American dream (at least, the dominant iteration of it). They’re selling everything you’ve always been taught to want, finally in a condensed version that even you can afford. Maybe you’ll have to give up all individuality, but won’t it be worth it? Just wait till you see the look on your husband’s face as he takes a bite of that burger.

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Filed under Media, Politics, Sexuality

Happy holidays: a visit to the mall

‘Tis the season. Etc. I’m sitting once again in the public library trying to write while surrounded by, well, the types of people who use the computers in the public library. It’s late December. In 1-2 days, it will be Christmas. And how does Christmas most visibly manifest itself in America? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t involve money, sales, price tags, advertising, and merchandise.

Much has been said, endlessly, over several decades, about the notorious “commercialization of Christmas.” And, I guess, I’m here to add a little to this fretful discourse. Much hand-wringing persists every December; many remarks about what we’re celebrating and how dollar signs have replaced Christmas trees, or Santa Claus, or whatever it is the speaker holds sacred in the first place (also, at times, baby Jesus?).

My perspective on this came as I was wandering around the malls in this area. I have an affinity for malls, which Ashley and I were discussing last night: they’re simultaneously communal locations where people can gather, and also hubs of economic exchange. You can go to a mall to be around others, but the central purpose is always to spend money. Clothes, jewelry, other necessities, even food (hell, even “courts” of food!) – to quote Homer Simpson, “For an evening or a week, there’s no place like the mall.¬† Food, fun and fashion – the mall has it all!” (It’s telling that malls would be emblematic of Homer’s hedonistic, spend-happy attitude toward life.)

So I spent some time at the Ridgedale Mall, currently thriving and crammed with rushing consumers, as well as the Knollwood Mall of St. Louis Park, MN, which is slowly dying. Go into either of these places at any time of year, and you’d see them bustling with people who want – nay, need! – to buy things. Visit them a few days before Christmas and you see crowds of people desperate to buy massive amounts of gifts. The socially encouraged need to spend is so heavily compounded by this one time of year when everyone needs to spend more than ever.

One curious phenomenon is window shopping. Stores like to dress up their front windows to show what kinds of products they have to offer inside. So you can peer through, yearn for what you see, and then go in and buy some of it. I’m always a little disturbed by the mannequins. They’re intended to look appealing – for example, see the ones with the silver and gold skin. Clearly they want to give off a feel of affluence, yet all you wonder is, Where did the head go?

The sad truth, of course, is that when the heads are still attached, the mannequins fall into the eerie territory of the uncanny valley. That’s pretty obviously the motivation behind the headlessness. So the fact is that there’s no way for mannequins not to be unpleasant on some level: it’s an attempt to represent human beings wearing clothing without actually having human beings. Either you have a headless doll, or else one with a plastered-on smile, or else one with no face at all, which is prime horror story material by itself.

Maybe I just overthink these things, but mannequins seem to open up all kinds of weird avenues: Pygmalion-and-Galatea fantasies for the consumers, voyeurism, being able to dress up and look at a woman without a subjectivity of her own. After all, these mannequins are being posed with their hands at their sides, passively modeling. And do I even want to get into the issue of their uniform body sizes, suggesting that every woman should imagine being this life-size doll, proportioned like this, wearing these clothes?

Some of the images I found in the Knollwood Mall, a place that’s rapidly running out of stores, felt almost like grotesque self-parodies. Consumerism is a fickle mistress/master/whatever gender word you want to apply to consumerism. There were escalators, no longer in use. There was no food court; instead, they had the “snack shack”:

So barren, so desolate, so unintentionally comical. There’s not much of a shack in sight, unless those white lines painted on the wall are supposed to represent the framework of a building. And aren’t “shacks” pretty shabby buildings in the first place? It feels like a rip-off on top of a rip-off, as if they’d had a sign saying “Crumbling Building Containing Food,” and instead there was just a big box of food, with no roof or door of any kind.

Usually when I encounter a vending machine or two purveying liquid or solid nourishment, it’s without much fanfare. The vending machines are pretty self-evident. Their very presence itself says, “We’re vending machines. Come put coins or bills into us, but don’t try any really crinkled or torn dollars, because we won’t accept those.” In the case of the “snack shack,” however, these two vending machines are clearly trying to be something. I.e., a replacement for a restaurant.

What’s sadder? A temple of money in full bloom, or one in decay? At the former, I was being buffeted by dozens of eager consumers, streaming past kiosks and potted plants, arguing with family members, carrying shopping bags, being barraged with free samples by the folk managing those kiosks. At the latter, I saw a few shoppers, looking dazed and tired, with no opportunity to have their children meet Santa Claus. I also saw a sign advertising advertising.

So at once, this sign is making us aware of the frequency with which advertising enters our lives, and implores us to contribute. Unfortunately for the advertisers, this sign is not being seen every 10 seconds by someone with a product to advertise (and I personally doubt whether it’s actually being seen every 10 seconds; I know that for a few minutes, I was the only person seeing it). I guess I find it a little humorous that a sign should appear both so desperate and so self-aware.

“Advertise here!” it seems to say. “Please, I’ll let you in on my little secret if you do!” Advertising is about creating awareness of a product; this advertisement is about creating awareness of how often awareness is created. It’s fascinating, and a little sad – it’s like a lost puppy, a sign without anything to sell. As if it’s forgotten what it’s like to shill for a specific company. Let’s pray that for Christmas, that sign gets what it so obviously wants: something to sell to people, whether every 10 seconds or every 10 minutes.

So that’s my little visit to the yuletide abyss that is the mall, a place designated solely for shopping, yet one engineered to feel strangely like home. Carols are wafted in over the PA system; a large and jolly man is dressed up in red and white. Tinsel is strung with care by people employed to string tinsel with care. Then the shoppers come, because they must. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t really be Christmas, now would it?

For an evening or a week, there's no place like the mall.  Food, fun and fashion - the mall has it all!

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Filed under Body, Personal, Politics