How can I begin to explain the fundamental role commercials have in our everyday, media-centered lives? A good start might be to define exactly what commercials mean to me, but even that would be an arduous task. They’re a life-preserver for conversation, a spectacle begging for cynical commentary; a longtime ally of the standup-comic community. They’re the obnoxious younger cousin that bursts into completely uncalled-for song, the creepy-in-a-charming-sort-of-way-family-friend that drops by unannounced to bring you tortilla chips and dish soap. But most people would likely define them as simply, “stupid.” Sure, this is inarguable, but that’s beside the point.* (*This article has to be longer than 90 words.) Picture the state our society would be in without commercials featuring business-class neanderthals to remind us that GEICO could save us all 15% or more on car insurance; how civilization would crumble like so many toppling dominoes if we weren’t told to ask our doctors for oh, oh, oh, Ozmepic. A parallel universe in which the one agreeable concept preventing The Union from civil war (i.e., a nationwide distaste for Limu Emu & Doug) doesn’t exist.
I’ve tried to tackle these dystopian hypotheticals over the last couple of weeks, searching for a common thread to connect my irrational obsession with insurance commercial mascots to some bigger, more relevant picture; and ultimately grappling with the realization that such a connection might not exist. However difficult this is for me to admit, Flo from Progressive might not be the most powerful figure of feminism in the twenty-first century, despite her success in a male-dominated field. Nor did Zoopals, the “as seen on TV” product consisting of paper plates designed to look like various animals, define my generation, as I had incorrectly suspected. Plus the realization that most people probably don’t care or even know about the commercials I find so offensive, because cable TV is basically exclusive to hotels and retirement homes now.
With increasing doubts and an approaching draft deadline, I was scrambling for something, literally anything profound hidden within my unending neural catalog of advertisement-related outrages and nostalgia. My notes became complicated with must-include references, from Danimals and creepy Baby Alive commercials, to the insulting Crypto ad that must’ve paid Matt Damon 0.0001% of Elon Musk’s monthly allowance. And of course, my undying contempt for the series finale of Madmen (I’d like to teach the world to write/ a happy damn ending). I couldn’t explain my simultaneous adoration and loathing for commercials—I mute them, change the channel, and yet they’re my favorite subject. For nearly three hours one Sunday, I sat staring at an open document all but blank aside from the following quip:
Who could forget Wendy’s unforgettable classic in which a gaggle of older women inquire the location of “the beef,” to which Arby’s would later confirm that they, in fact, have “The Meats”. Although, so far as I can recall, nobody formally asked them for their Meats, nor had any interest in eating them.
Clearly, zero progress was being made. Watching compilations of old Life Alert commercials, I strongly identified with those helpless elders floundering for help on their laundry room floors; like them, I knew this dilemma couldn’t be solved on my own: After hitting the same obstacles again and again, I needed to put my metaphorical medical-emergency necklace to use and consult a group of qualified experts for their advice. Which, unexpectedly and conveniently, arrived to me in the form of victims-that-happened-to-be-in-my-general-vicinity-as-I-complained-aloud.
We were all huddled on the freezing concrete, eating coagulated lunches and cursing the school for failing to invest in outdoor heaters, when someone made the unfortunate mistake of asking me how journalism was going. Following my incoherent stream of nouns and conjunctions connecting nothing, to my surprise, everyone launched into their own repressed feelings about commercials. So, demonstrating my excellent journalistic professionalism, I politely yelled at them to “shut up” and let me set up my recorder. The resulting half-hour long recording, when transcribed, reads like bad debate practice. There’s yelling, frequent singing, gossip regarding an infamous group of hill-dwelling stoner kids, and of course, troves of profound discussion on commercials; past, present, and future. It begins simply, with me opening the discussion:
“Just talk about commercials, anybody jump in.”
Eloise Beauvais, a sophomore at Franklin, immediately took the opportunity to complain about candy commercials: “‘I know that you’re thinking about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups!’ But I’m not thinking about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; it does not make me want to go out and buy them.”
“But you have to admit that Will Arnett’s voice-overs are really good,” I argued.
Julia Dixon and an individual who will henceforth be referred to as “anonymous Taylor Swift enthusiast,” both Franklin sophomores, followed by offering advice for the angle of my article: “What if you made your article about how commercials trying to be relatable actually makes people click off of them faster?,” anonymous Taylor Swift enthusiast suggested.
Julia: You have no evidence to support that.
Me: I have personal evidence.
After I made a scathing comment on Mr. Clean’s promiscuous personal life, the conversation turned to our thoughts on commercial mascots:
Julia: I love the GEICO gecko, personally.
Anonymous Taylor Swift enthusiast: I don’t, he annoys me.
Julia: The GEICO gecko has thousands of followers on Instagram—
Taylor Swift: His voice annoys me.
Me: No? Not into the Australian thing?
Julia: 28 thousand—I think I’ve unfollowed him now.
Overall, it was a devastating blow to GEICO. This wasn’t the only instance of disagreement over the course of the discussion; but, as sensible young adults, different views were always respected:
Julia: Oreo commercials are normally really sweet—
Eloise: OREO COMMERCIALS SUCK.
However, things got heated fast when I inevitably brought up the personally-controversial subject of Jake from State Farm 2.0. The new Jake from State Farm is, in my vulnerable yet brave opinion, one of the grossest examples of how unaware commercial marketers can be of their viewers. State Farm’s classic 2011 commercial, featuring the famous line, “Uh…khakis?”, was simple and elegant in execution; flawlessly stupid; the magnum opus of State Farm’s commercial catalog. But like so many before it, the corporate big-wigs at Capitalist-Town, U.S.A have managed to contaminate yet another great piece of cinema with their materialistic Hollywood-izations:
Me: They come back with Jake from State Farm years later, and he’s hot! That, like, eliminates the whole thing!
Anonymous Taylor Swift enthusiast: Well, that’s not the point of the character anymore—
Me: THEN WHAT IS THE POINT?
I was fuming, but managed to keep my cool. Eloise defended my position: “You can’t market me something with a random guy who’s more attractive, and tell me [it’s Jake from State Farm.]”
Anonymous Taylor Swift enthusiast: What if he really is a Jake from State Farm?
Me: I mean, the guy in the original commercial actually was a Jake from State Farm.
Anonymous Taylor Swift: Really?
Julia: (singing) Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there—
Me: Yeah. And he’s still alive, so that is not the excuse.
Despite these differences, there were a few issues we could all agree on: A shared contempt for Airbnb and rental commercials (Eloise: Look, she’s smiling and fishing with her dad!!!), a mutual toleration of the Progressive Gang, and:
Julia: Pillow Pets—
Eloise: I had the unicorn—
Me: I had the ladybug!
It should be noted that the record of what respective species of Pillow Pet we all had is much longer than what I’ve sparingly listed here. Ultimately, even after nearly half an hour of impassioned discussion, we were unsuccessful in figuring out what it all means; or figuring out what we mean by “what it all means.” Basically, we know what everyone knows: commercials are inconvenient, obnoxious and only occasionally entertaining. The majority of them seem to be written by a team of Saturday Night Live rejects playing a game of Telephone: What’s Hip? Edition with their ten-year-old nephews. So we skip them, change the channel, or mute the volume. But there’s something, not much but something, to be said for the conversations and thoughtful-in-no-sense-of-the-word debates, such as this, that they inspire. And who knows, maybe someday we’ll all look back and say, “You know who I miss? Limu Emu & Doug.” And then the meteor will finally hit.