There once was a time when, if you wanted to watch a show, you had to sit through a series of advertisements. Every eight minutes or so, a block of them would pop up. Usually there would be four, and they would last for about 30 seconds each, which equates to a two-minute segment of your TV life gone. If you were really unlucky they would directly follow the opening credits of your favorite show. This meant that if you were watching Saved by the Bell or The Simpsons in the '80s or '90s, you had to wait for these ads to conclude before the show even started. Painful.
Commercials. You don’t see them much anymore. Why would you? With DVR’s ability to zoom through the breaks in cable, and their complete absence from streaming services like Netflix and HBOGo/Now, commercials are an afterthought in 2017. Sure, during the first Sunday in February we get our one night to witness commercials. We spend the next morning reading about which ones caught the nation’s attention, but then they slide back into obscurity.
Some applaud the absence of commercials from our lives. “Surely the time spent watching commercials is a complete waste,” say the advert-haters. Last year, #Netflix made the rounds boosting about the public service they were offering America by presenting their programs commercial free. Without the burden of commercials, we all have 6.5 extra days per year to, well, watch more Netflix probably. It’s not like anyone used their six and a half days to cure cancer or perfect cold fusion. As with many aspects of life, quantity of time is not the issue. It is all about quality.
More Than A Minor Annoyance
Though commercials seem like nuisances, they have given much to us over the years. All they ask in return is that you immediately leave your home to purchase whatever goods or services they are peddling. It’s a fair trade when you think about it. After all, these companies spend millions of dollars creating these 30-second art pieces. The least we could do is honor our side of the arrangement.
In the simplest way, commercials offer us a break, a chance to run to the bathroom or to get a drink from the kitchen. They allow our brains to process the information provided during the prior eight minutes. We can speak to the other watchers in the room about their take on the events witnessed. What was that? Did they live or die? What does it all mean?!
Commercials leave impressions on us. Commercials unite us. Not everyone has seen the entirety of Breaking Bad, The Wire or Lost, but everyone knows commercial slogans and jingles. “Pizza, pizza,” “Can you hear me now?,” and “Wasssssuupp?” have infiltrated every part of pop culture, leaving a lasting impression on the viewer. They create cultural singularities that everyone can enjoy.
Commercials have been such a staple of media and culture that episodes of TV shows use the catchy qualities of commercials as plot points. Take the killer from Scary Movie or "The Chicken Roaster" episode of Seinfeld for example. In the latter, George inserts his last name into a jingle so people in his life will remember the neurotic fellow favorably. Before you know it “By Mennen” becomes “Costanza,” and the ear worm digs into your brain. For the record, I have no idea if Mennen makes mustard gas or mustard, but when I hear “By Mennen,” I want to buy Mennen.
The Bad And The Ugly
Of course, not all commercials are worthy of praise. Being yelled at by a fool in a cowboy hat or being told that “these prices are so low, they’re crazy” will never appeal to me. I have no room in my head for the uninspired or the commercials that attempt to do too much with too little. You can’t change centuries of racial divide in a 30-second spot. I’m looking at you Pepsi Co.
I won’t let a few bad apples ruin the whole bushel, though. Commercials are an indelible and irreplaceable part of media consumption that can work in 21st century, but they are lagging behind the times in pathetic ways. It is a golden age of TV, but commercials remain unchanged since the networks began their broadcasts. Without change, people will continue to ignore, skip and bypass commercials with all of the conveniences modern technology allow us.
Since I have many fond memories of watching commercials and using commercials to connect to others, I will extend an offer to the commercial producers, writers and ad executives across the nation: If you create a commercial with the sole intention of being entertaining or provocative enough to leave a positive association of your product in my mind, I will watch it. I’m buying if you’re selling. Can you deliver?