"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 April 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Harmful Additives



As it turns out, watching

commercials in a movie theater

isn't quite as satisfying as

you'd expect. Sure, the acting's

both sharper and subtler than

the usual multiplex

scene-chewing, but spots that

look great on TV appear muddy or

washed out on the big screen,

and their rapid-fire editing and

accelerated plots can be hard to

follow in their new setting.

Miss the first few moments of a

30-second sex farce and you've

missed the whole thing. Even

worse, the absence of regular

programming robs commercials of

the volume boost that gives them

their trademark histrionic snap.


Still, the rare opportunity to

watch 90 minutes of pure

commercials makes aesthetic

shortcomings mostly incidental;

the hundreds of TV addicts who

left their living rooms to

attend a recent showing of

World's Best Commercials 1996

liked what they saw: cola

adulterers, Dennis Leary playing

the Smugly American for overseas

consumers, vengeful elephants,

boot camp for pizza deliverers,

a vagino-sensitive King Kong

(don't ask). A toilet paper

commercial featuring a jerk

screaming on his cell phone

while repurposing lunch boasted

a punch line of such pithy

metonymy - Recommended by

Assholes - that it had the crowd

whooping like I hadn't heard in

a movie theater since Animal




All in all, it was an

advertiser's dream - people

actually paying to watch

commercials, and loving every

minute of it. There were more

laughs in those 90 minutes than

Farley, Sandler, Shore, etc.

have managed to coerce in their

entire collective screen

careers, and a fair measure of

affecting, serious moments too:

limbless land mine victims,

tortured pets, cigarette

aficionados sucking air through

puckered throat holes even

Cronenberg would be hard-pressed

to eroticize. If it didn't

necessarily all coalesce into a

transcendent narrative vision,

well, how many movies do that

anymore anyway? Commercials

focus on an art we tend to find

far more compelling these days:

The art of the deal.


Indeed, why simply sit back and

watch a good story when it's so

much more entertaining to assess

how various commercials are

attempting to sell us? In this

light, it's odd that notions

like "seamless advertising" have

proven controversial;

entertainment-oriented TV shows,

movies, and documentaries

specifically designed to promote

the products and services of

advertisers would give viewers

myriad new opportunities to

practice armchair media

analysis. Such programming would

also have a significant positive

impact on the creative side of

the equation: The necessity of

delivering a persuasive sales

message would give focus to

screenwriters who too often

lapse into superfluous character

development, rote car chases,

and other pointless plot




Most importantly, it would open

up a whole new realm of story

possibilities. After all,

haven't we had our fill of TV

shows and movies about rogue

cops, renegade lawyers, and

other high-glamour

professionals? In that regard,

advertainment pioneer Harmony

Entertainment appears headed in

a promising direction; one of

its first projects is a

made-for-TV movie about postal

inspectors that's scheduled to

air on Showtime. Without the

support of a corporate Medici

like the US Postal Service, that

dry concept would have never

seen the light of day - and yet,

isn't it time the heroic

letter-sniffers got their

dramatic due? Another project

Harmony has in development - a

western-themed show designed to

sell an as-of-yet-unidentified

car brand - sounds slightly more

traditional. Frankly, I'd prefer

more mundane advertainment

epics: the trials and travails

of a photocopier salesman, a

research chemist's intrepid

efforts to discover a profitable

hair-restoration drug, a

restaurant group's passionate

crusade to bring reasonably

priced onion rings to cities all

around the world.



Until such fare arrives, the best

source of TV advertainment is

provided by Five Star

Productions, a Florida-based

company that produces and

syndicates a variety of

magazine-format TV shows.

Translated from the euphemistic

marketing argot, a

"magazine-format show" means one

that is based on a subject

around which Five Star can

aggregate the largest possible

number of potential sponsors and

partners - so far, this means health, the

environment, and technology. To

get coverage on one of these

shows, you simply pay a

"pre-production fee" (US$50,000

to $150,000, according to one

potential client) and then begin

work on story development with

the company's production staff.


Unlike infomercials, which are

required to reveal their

commercial status with at least

a brief disclaimer, Five Star's

shows - which make no effort to

sell you anything in four easy

payments of $19.95 - are

permitted to take a somewhat

stealthier approach. Some of its

"partners" are explicitly

identified as sponsors, but

others remain unnamed.

Ultimately what Five Star offers

is the marketing equivalent of

lap-dancing: technically legal,

but not exactly the most

straightforward means of



And this, of course, is the

primary appeal behind its shows.

Each one's a fast-moving

compilation of slick soft sells;

the viewer is constantly

challenged with trying to figure

out exactly who's pushing what.

Sometimes it's fairly simple to

discern a sponsor, sometimes

almost impossible. For example,

in one episode of Today's

Environment, a segment on the

dangers of moving hazardous

waste turns into a not-so-subtle

endorsement for the Illinois

Central Railroad. That's an easy

one, but what about the segment

on the benefits of telecommuting

- who sponsored that? IBM?

Microsoft? Intel? It's pretty

much impossible to tell. Making

this game of spot-the-sponsor

even more compelling is the fact

that Five Star distributes video

news release versions of its

segments to 700 TV newsrooms

around the country for potential

broadcast at 6 or 11. It's not

necessarily the news, but for

budget-squeezed stations, it

will do.



Is this the future of TV then?

Well, think about it this way:

If there's anything TV viewers

like more than a good

commercial, it's a good mystery.

Advertainment delivers them


courtesy of St. Huck

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