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Television ads getting cruder

By T.J. Ray

Having no knowledge of the psychology and gimmicks of advertising, I am not in a position to offer surgical comments on their makeup and effectiveness. I do, however, have a gut-level response to TV commercials.

Around Super Bowl time I try to pay attention just to see what the obscene dollars spent have purchased. Each year I’m amazed that some small corporation has spent its entire annual budget on one commercial—you know, the one that runs when I go to the kitchen for a drink.

General observation: TV advertisements are getting cruder and cruder. Many of them now use words that are obvious substitutes for very obscene expressions. It would be enlightening to hear some mother explain to her 5-year-old what it means to “frick” someone. Just as the language is getting rougher and rougher, so is the inventory of what is being pitched on the tube, often with smirks on the faces of actors pretending they just did something wonderful.

Do you find yourself automatically tuning out when certain TV spots appear? One of my “go for some tea” ads is for an insurance company. One of these normally features Flo in an odd situation. The ad offers very little about the insurance itself, depending as it does on cute staging for Flo. It’s as though the commercial creators were instructed to find bizarre contexts to thrust her into.

Not all offensive ads feature a semi-person such as Flo. Many rely upon cartoon characters to make their pitch. Such is the case with two on my hit list. One features a lizard character, who represents the Government Employes Insurance Company (Geico), an auto insurance company. It is the second-largest auto insurer in the United States. The Gecko’s voice has a distinct British accent, aimed (I suppose) at giving the pitches a feeling of sophistication. It would be interesting to find data to show the relative power of ads in American or British brogues. As with the Flo flow, there is very little information offered about the product, which is handled mostly by phone. One has to wonder what Geico spent to be allowed to land a helicopter on the deck of the USS Wisconsin in one of their ads.

Easily as offensive as a lizard pitching a product is a quacking duck doing the same thing. The Aflac character speaks for the American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus. Like the gecko, he shows up in odd surroundings meant to amuse the viewer and pitch the product name, but not giving any solid information about products. Frankly, I wish the fascination with the similarity between “gecko” and “Geico” would go away. And I say that despite the fact that the duck is so popular it was invited to attend a Daytona 500 race — showing up wearing a custom-made press credential. A corporation that qualifies to be the Most Ethical one year, and in the Fortune 500 Best 100 companies for 16 years, and Most Admired Company for 13 years should be able to market its services without resorting to a cartoon duck.

Fortunately, my old television set has a mute button on the remote device. This trio of pitches and come-ons cause it to be pushed many times in an evening of watching.

T.J. Ray, a retired professor of English at the      University of Mississippi, can be reached at
tjmaryjo@bellsouth.net.