Play It Again, Enterprise-Boy!
April 23: Philip Michaels
April 24: Gregg Wrenn
April 25: Ben Boychuk
April 26: Greg Knauss
April 27: Jason Snell
May 1: A Loyal Reader
When you make a TV show, your goal is to please people the first time they watch. If a show holds up in re-runs, it might become a cult favorite. But if a show isn't good the first time you watch it, it soon will be banished to the cancellation cornfield.
Records are different. Usually when I like a record the first time I hear it, it becomes insufferable after a few more plays. Stuff that works the first time might seem bouncy and bright at first, but eventually you're going to want to toss that Spice Girls CD into the trash compactor. This album will self destruct in 10 plays...
Unlike most stuff on television, commercials really only succeed when they've got repeatability. Oh sure, Apple's "1984" commercial made a big splash and got only one really big play; but with the exception of ads so noteworthy that people write news stories about them, you've got to play for the repeat audience. The great ones perk you up the first time, but contain enough nuance to make them interesting and funny upon repeated viewing.
Take Jerry Seinfeld's commercials. Seinfeld likes to make those American Express ads so much that he's going into the ad business when his much-adored sitcom goes off the air next month. Pretty soon when Jerry poses the question, "Who are the ad wizards who came up with that one?" in his stand-up routine, the answer will be, "Me! I am!"
I can't get enough o' them Seinfeld AmEx commercials. He can fall off his boat, travel the English countryside, trade quips with Superman (a personal favorite) and I'll watch it again and again.
Next on the spectrum are commercials that start out as innocuous enough spots, but over time build into monstrosities so awful that changing the channel is the only recourse.
My personal favorite of this lot is an ad for Enterprise Car Rental. It starts out simply enough: A woman and her daughter are stuck at a garage because their car has broken down. She calls Enterprise, which sends a friendly agent to the repair shop to pick them up, give them their rental, and get them wherever they need to be. Problem solved!
But upon repeated viewing, the Enterprise commercial really starts to grate. First you notice the woman's monotonous delivery: "Hell-o? Entur-prise? I'm at theee repair shop? I need to rent a car?"
Then there's the repair shop itself: Behind the woman there are a couple of cars, to give you the sense of a garage. But to make it clear for all of us, there's a banner right above her head printed in giant plain black type on a white background: "REPAIR SHOP." Do you think the prices at the generic Repair Shop are lower than at garages that have ponied up the dough for a name, a logo, and perhaps even a sign printed with colored ink? Obviously this woman's a smart shopper.
And the final nail in the irksome coffin of Enterprise -- and I swear here before the eyes of the Web that I'll never, ever rent a car from Enterprise -- is the guy who comes to pick the woman up from the garage. He's a chisel-jawed fellow with a nordic complexion, and he doesn't say a word -- because, you see, actors who speak are paid more than actors who don't. So instead Mr. Enterprise just steps into the frame and smiles. He sits in the car with the woman and smiles. She turns to him and says, "This is great!" He looks back at her and... smiles.
On the extreme are the ads that you hate from the moment you lay eyes on them. But that pain is doubled by the knowledge that you won't be seeing those commercials only once -- no, they'll be haunting your days and nights for months and years to come.
When the Energizer Bunny came into the world, a lot of folks thought it was a cute idea. It was part of an ad campaign where different battery-operated toys equipped with the Energizer were locked in mortal combat with toys powered by sad-sack Duracell products. But as soon as the Bunny appeared in a commercial all his own, I knew we were in for trouble.
A month of trouble. Two months, maybe. If I got really unlucky, I might have to deal with the Bunny for a year.
Of course, more than a decade later, Eveready has changed its name to Energizer and adopted the Bunny as its corporate symbol. The Bunny keeps going and going, and none of us have the power to stop it.
I have no quarrel with many bad commercials. I often enjoy taking in a particularly awful commercial, giving it the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment, and then moving on to the next target.
But when a bad commercial won't go away... that's when I begin longing for PBS and the BBC, for Bravo and Turner Classic Movies and HBO and C-SPAN and just about any other commercial-free outlet I can think of. Because right now, I can wake in the middle of the night and draw up a complete storyboard for the Enterprise "Repair Shop" commercial. I can, on a moment's notice, recite the complete lyrics to Dodge's insidious "California's Truck Stop" campaign. (Them Dodge trucks an can out-tough, out-hustle, out-work, out-muscle, out-tow, out-gun, out-work, and out-fun, you know.) I can still sing awful commercial jingles from my youth. My poor wife can even recite the entire contents of a commercial for the children's game Connect Four, including the immortal tag line, "Pretty sneaky, Sis!"
So go ahead, bad commercials. Steal my life 30 seconds at a time. I won't complain. But stealing space in my brain -- permanent space -- I simply can't abide.
There. I can't believe I ate the whole thing.
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