Unwelcome Guest

Of all the dumb statistics that are dragged out so often they become part of pop-culture folklore, none is dumber than the one about how many commercial messages Americans are exposed to every day.

First of all, everybody has a different number (kind of like account billing figures); it’s impossible to tell which to believe. And second, it’s impossible to measure anyway because it can’t be precisely defined.

What’s a commercial message? The spot I just saw on TV? The logo on the truck that just rumbled past? How about those ridiculous postcards they give away in restaurants with young Hollywood actor types pouting over a picture of an obscure Polish vodka? Does that count toward my daily ad intake or not?

And if it does, how the hell does anyone know I’ve seen it? Is there a shadow force of creepy losers out there, an army of marketing zombies hired by consulting firms, media shops and ad agencies to follow people around? Do they check off every time a consumer is exposed to what some account planner, media maven or marketing guru has defined as a “commercial message”?

I mean, if you count all the bits of information we get about products, services and opportunities to spend money, almost every waking moment contains some kind of commercial message.

And we ignore just about every goddamn one of them.

Most advertising is ineffective not because we take a bathroom break and miss the message or because the message itself isn’t entertaining enough. No, it’s because, though we might see it, we don’t really see it.

I think about this every time some pundit starts spouting off about advertising’s salvation du jour: in-programming advertising. Embedding a commercial message in programming content is neither the clutter-busting superweapon nor the TiVo-tricking triumph of commerce over technology that so many advertising and media executives claim it is.

Just because some dipstick on Fear Factor gets a brand-name prize tonight doesn’t mean stores will be swamped with shoppers looking for the same item tomorrow.

In fact, in-programming pitches can be dangerous. I didn’t eat Subway sandwiches for years after the company cut a deal to have its billboards suddenly show up in the middle of an Ace Ventura movie set in Africa. It was so ridiculous, it pissed me off.

And when some anorexic actress in Josie and the Pussycats makes a point about mentioning a certain fast-food chain? Trust me, people, nobody’s racing to their pickups and headin’ for the drive-through.

Putting ads into content not only isn’t necessarily good for your brand, it can cause backlash.

From birth, literally, Americans are bombarded by commercial messages. And we’ve learned to recognize them. We know they’re commercial messages, designed to persuade us, directly or otherwise, to buy something.

We know this even when it’s Jed Bartlet, not Mr. Whipple, who says it.