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'Tis The Season To Be Creepy

Well, we made it. Though the hustle-and-bustle, the stress, the noise might have seemed overwhelming, we soldiered through these last couple of weeks. Oh sure, at times, all the outside distractions threatened to drown out what truly matters this time of year. But you and I managed to shut out the constant clatter, to focus on the true meaning of the season until it was time to put away the presents, take down the decorations and ready ourselves for a brand new year.

Yes, we've survived another round of holiday-themed TV commercials.

It's not that television commercials are terribly pleasant any time of year. One look at the growing popularity of TiVos, ReplayTV and other devices that promise to give commercial interruptions the same treatment formerly enjoyed by out-of-favor Soviet agricultural ministers, and you can see that our collective tolerance for a few words from our sponsors has reached record lows. And it's no wonder why -- commercials tend to be grating, repetitive and patronizing. They blast forth from your TV at what seems like eight times the volume of that Will & Grace episode you've been enjoying, and they increase the incidents of accidental exposure to Carrot Top exponentially. Necessary evil or no, commercials are the bane of the television landscape, from the mightiest network to the lowliest basic cable channel.

Ah, but during the holiday season -- that's when TV ads ratchet things up from a mild bout of gastroenteritis to a full-on outbreak of intestinal flu. Why should commercials take on an especially hateful quality round about Christmas as opposed to the other 11 months of the year? Because the basic conceit of advertising -- that your life is essentially devoid of meaning and until you exchange legal tender for the service and/or product in question and that people will point and laugh at you if you fail to realize this essential truth -- finds itself at odds with the whole peace-on-earth-goodwill-toward-man jazz we fancy ourselves subscribing to during the holidays. So at the one time of year we're more likely to be thinking about other people than ourselves, advertisers have to change tacks. And that new approach can be summed up thusly -- you give your loved ones crappy presents.

There's a radio commercial that's been getting some play here in the San Francisco region. It's for Office Max or Office Depot or some big-box retailer with the word "Office" figuring prominently in the title, and it features a bunch of carolers singing about how every present you ever given -- that sweater, those mittens, that Neil Diamond CD -- has been awful, that your friends and relations despise you for it, and, really, isn't it about time you gave the gift of office supplies to mark the birth of our Lord and Savior? Setting aside the fact that giving Aunt Jenny a ream of copier paper instead of a sweater doesn't, at first glance, appear to be improving matters much, the radio ad essentially preys upon our worst fears and appeals to our basest instincts. Forget that Christmastime instinct to think about the less fortunate or to let the special people in your life know how much they mean to you, the ad seems to say. Really, the holidays are about buying other people's love and affection. And you? You, my friend, are falling down on the job.

Would that a single radio spot touting the healing power of office supplies be the exception rather than the rule. It's not. Instead, you can't turn on a TV this time of year without hearing about how you're blowing -- blowing it big time! -- and only a substantial outlay of cash stands between you and the crushing guilt of knowing you're solely responsible for inflicting your loved ones with the worst Christmas in recorded history. The Grinch, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Old Man Potter, whatever studio executive greenlighted that horrible Adam Sandler animated movie -- when it comes to ruining the holidays, my man, those cats don't have nothing on you.

We could be here until next Christmas detailing the commercials that perverted, ignored or otherwise missed the point of the holidays. In the interests of time, then, we've narrowed it down to six ads, listed in descending order of odiousness, that deserve a carton of stale candy canes and a hearty helping of past-its-prime figgy pudding. Instead, we'll settle for a stocking stuffed with lumps of coal -- all the better for administering the crunchy beatings on the guilty parties.

6. Pier One Imports

Kirstie Alley, in her triumphant return to television, scares the bejeezus out of harried shoppers by hectoring them into beating feet down to the local Pier One outlet to pay top dollar for gaudy baubles and wicker-based products. Alley apparently portrays the Ghost of Bad Career Decisions Past, a racoon-eyed specter swaddled in form-concealing fabrics who materializes before downcast shoppers to show them what life would be like if she were never cast in Cheers. Apparently, life would involve appearing in terrible commercials and blocking out the sun.

The Intended Message: It's just not Christmas without wicker knickknacks and showy whigmaleeries!

The Message We Took Away: Maybe it's time to cut Shelley Long some slack.

5. Lexus

You've probably seen this ad before, since Lexus uses it every year -- happy, well-to-do couples in matching sweaters are celebrating the holidays in their vast country estate. They're hanging the diamond and gold ornaments, sipping glasses of twenty-year-old port, and eagerly awaiting the brace of goose that the servants are preparing for dinner off in the scullery -- at least, that's what they might as well be doing, for all the relevance this commercial has to my life. And just when it seems that the happy couple's perfect lives couldn't get any better, a footman dressed in silk and lace prances into the room bearing a pillow that holds a set of car keys. The woman squeals, grabs the keys, and runs to the mansion window where she espies a brand new Lexus, fitted with one of those giant novelty bows, sitting in the driveway. Cut back to the husband and wife giggling about how fortunate it is that they aren't poor and dirty.

I hate these people. I want to dance over the smoldering ruins of their once-perfect lives. And I suspect you do, too.

In fact, the only two things keeping this particularly galling paean to excess and ostentation from taking the top prize two years running are 1) a second year's worth of broadcasts has dulled the ad's assault on my sensibilities and 2) Lexus has apparently excised the part of the commercial where two contemptible parents buy a brand new Lexus for their idiot teen-aged daughter. I have little doubt that there are many, many teenagers out there with much better rides than my '91 Plymouth Acclaim -- I do not need Lexus rubbing my nose in it.

The Intended Message: All the beautiful people will be getting fine luxury automobiles this Christmas.

The Message We Took Away: When the class warfare begins, Lexus drivers will be first against the wall.

4. Circuit City

So Circuit City is running this promotion where you can stop by one of the stores and record a message of thanks to be sent to our fighting men and women. I've got no beef with that -- the troops deserve all the well wishes and thanks of a grateful nation that we can give them. In fact, if any happen to be surfing by right now -- and you know, after establishing a base camp at an undisclosed location near the Iraqi border, I'm sure the first thing our military forces will be doing is logging on to find out what me and my cohorts think about Dinotopia -- well, thanks for all you do.

Rather, my problem with the Circuit City ad is with one of the sentiments expressed during the segment in which we see a host of Circuit City patrons offering up their thanks and appreciation to the folks serving our country overseas. One of the well-wishers is a particularly dense young lady who stares unblinking into the camera and smarms, "You don't even know me, but you're risking your life to protect my freedom." Then, presumably, she hops into the Lexus her parents bought her for Christmas last year and speeds off to the soup kitchen to thank all the hungry people for reminding her how good she has it.

Yes, missy -- none of this has anything to do with standing up for an ideal or serving the greater good or defending a democracy that, while imperfect, is better than any other form of government going today. No -- it's all about you. You and your freedom to be a self-centered ass. That sincere expression of thanks will surely provide comfort from the lousy pay, imminent threat of bodily harm, and sneering contempt that the intellectual elite regularly showers upon our fighting men and women.

It doesn't? Oh. Um... how about a GameBoy?

The Intended Message: Next to sending a message to the troops, the most patriotic thing you can do this holiday season is to buy a mess of consumer electronics goods.

The Message We Took Away: God, people suck.

3. Those damned diamond commercials

So this guy and this gal are walking in this stone courtyard. The ornate buildings and fancy fountains lead me to conclude this is supposed to be Rome or, at least, some other exotic European locale, though for all I know, they're visiting the State Capitol in Trenton, New Jersey. Anyhow, the guy suddenly starts hooting and hollering and generally making a spectacle of himself. "I love this woman," he screams at the top of his lungs, as passersby avert their eyes and his mortified lady friend frantically tries to find the nearest hole to crawl into and hide. Having been summarily shushed, our hero whips out a diamond so large, it must have taken the slave laborers weeks to completely unearth it. The woman, who up until now had been regarding her beloved with a "Did you just fart?" look, suddenly couldn't be happier with her life partner and coos her love and devotion as she nuzzles her swain.

I may actually hate this couple more than the pair of fops from the Lexus commercial.

There are many, many horrible advertisements urging you to shower your loved one with expensive jewels -- a personal favorite is the one where a simpering man explains to his newborn baby that since his wife gave him the greatest present of all (unprotected sexual intercourse?), he's going to get his wife a rock big enough to require its own system of tresses and supports -- this one may be the most wretched. Let's ignore the fact that the hero of our story probably dropped a fair amount of coin to fly himself and his special lady to Rome or Prague or Trenton or wherever the hell they are. Let's ignore that his sincere-if-unsettling expression of love and devotion is met with shame and indifference by his main squeeze. Instead, let us focus on the central theme of this particular ad -- telling her "I love you" is all well and good, fellas, but if you really want to cinch the deal with the gold-digging hussy, best to pony up for a diamond or two. It's enough to make you want to give away your earthly possessions and flee to the nearest monastery.

And how effective are these ads, when I can spell out in great detail all the repugnant things I've seen, but I can't for the life of me identify who the commercial is supposed to be for? Satan, I'm guessing, but I'm probably wrong.

The Intended Message: Diamonds are a girl's best friend.

The Message We Took Away: They also apparently enjoy a close, personal relationship with scoundrels and greedheads.

2. Radio Shack

Say what you will about the soulless demimondes in the diamond commercials or the nameless corporation that wasted their advertising budget -- at least those nitwits appreciate their present and the blood money used to purchase it. Not so in the recent ad for Radio Shack in which several individuals receive DVD players for Christmas only to find, in a heartbreakingly tragic twist worthy of Dickens, that the thoughtless oafs who gave them the gifts didn't stop at Radio Shack for adapters and cables. Unable to connect their DVD players to their television sets, the main characters in this little morality play do what anyone might in a similar situation -- they break down sobbing in tantrums worthy of five-year-olds while an especially maudlin cover of "Blue Christmas" plays in the background. The gift-givers stand by looking stricken, as you would too if you just blew a lot of money on a fancy electronic gadget instead of just spending a couple of bucks on a Hardee's gift certificate only to find out that you're the jerk responsible for ruining Christmas.

Sadly, the commercial ends before we find out how the problem is resolved. I like to think, if the commercial bears any resemblance to real life, that the assorted gift-givers -- saddened that their loved ones have been reduced to bawling by their thoughtless present of adapter-free DVD players -- head straight to Radio Shack to pick up the necessary accessories. Then, they return home and use the newly purchased cables to strangle the ungrateful bastards.

Radio Shack is named in the ensuing wrongful death suit.

The Intended Message: Before you give that DVD player, make sure you've purchased the necessary accessories from your friends at Radio Shack!

The Message We Took Away: Why even bother buying anyone presents if this is the reception you can expect?

1. Jaguar

By far, the worst commercial of this past holiday season -- and quite possibly, the most soul-crushingly sinister 30-second spot to appear on television ever -- comes to us from the Handmaidens of Evil at Jaguar. In case you've missed it, a husband and wife are out for a drive in their high-end luxury automobile. All of a sudden, a Jaguar pulls up next to them -- it's sporting the same kind of oversized bow featured in the Lexus commercial. (I wonder if the same company manufactures those oversized bows, or if you have to go to a retailer who specializes in Jaguar-specific bows? "Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am, this oversized bow only attaches to BMWs... you want a Jaguar-compatible bow, you have to go to JagBow World off Route 79.") Then, another Jaguar with another oversized bow pulls up. And another. And another still. Soon, the husband and wife are surrounded by Jaguars and oversized bows and happy couples. Everyone got a Jaguar for Christmas! Except them. And, judging by the look the husband receives, this turn of events is quite unacceptable to Wifey.

"Hurry," the announcer urges the audience as the wife fixes her husband with the "Where's my Jaguar, putz?" stare -- "you don't want to be the only person on your block to be without a Jaguar this Christmas. The judging eyes, the pursed lips, the unkind words, and the slamming doors -- all this can be avoided if only you buy a Jaguar. Dip into the kids' college fund. Take out a second mortgage. Sell your blood if you have to. But don't, under any circumstances, tempt the wrath of your significant other by going Jaguar-free this Christmas. I'm only telling you for your own good, buddy -- I've seen this destroy too many other good men."

Or words to that extent.

I don't think I need to go into any great detail about what makes this a terrible ad. All the life-denying elements we've already discussed are here in glorious detail -- the shocking ingratitude of the Radio Shack commercial, the crass consumerism of the diamond ad, the appalling self-centeredness of that twerp in the Circuit City spot, those thrice-damned oversized bows.

So what makes this the worst ad of the bunch?

Because, as of this writing, it's still on the air.

The Intended Message: Buy your wife a Jaguar, putz.

The Message We Took Away: Screw you, Jaguar.


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