Debra Goldman’s Postscript: Ads Behaving Badly

Once upon a time, networks were in the business of advertising other corporations’ products. These days, however, it seems that not even Procter & Gamble gets flogged on network TV as much as television itself.
Ever since cable reduced the nets to another product on a crowded shelf, the magic words on Broadcast Row have been “marketing” and “branding.” A TV net doesn’t just need good shows to grab viewers. Like sneakers and soft drinks, it needs attitude.
That’s what ABC promised when it unveiled its splashy promotional campaign from that citadel of adland attitude, TBWA/Chiat Day.
Mission accomplished. In just a few weeks, the “TV is good” campaign has become a big yellow target for parodists and critics decrying the dead-end cynicism fostered by an ad-soaked culture. Its ironic celebration of TV as a killer of brain cells and alienator of affections was prominently trashed by The New York Times. Then, last week, TV Guide delivered a much more damaging blow.
It reported-and ABC vociferously denied-that the network, in the marketing equivalent of malpractice, had ignored focus-group research that showed viewers were “confused and alienated” by the ads. ABC characterized the attention as a pop-culture coup. Yet not since since Dick the copywriter has there been an ad campaign that so many want to see fail.
Why all the hostility? It can’t be the campaign’s irony. Irony is to contemporary ads what socialist realism was to Stalinist literature: the dully predictable Official Style. Is it the cynicism of celebrating TV, in spite of the social vices it inspires, that rankles? The marketplace is by nature unjudgmental. It has never cared how consumers behave. What counts is that they are made to feel swell about doing it.
The problem is that these feel-good spots don’t feel very good. ABC is now getting a reputation for attitude-and all of it bad.
In essence, ABC is spending $40 million to voice the complaints that elitist, lefty critics of pop culture have been leveling at TV for years: Television robs time from more fulfilling pursuits, estranges us from nature and the bonds of human affection and encompasses a vast wasteland.
If you need reasons to feel guilty about watching television, consider “TV is good.”
But what if we don’t feel guilty? Surely some people consider television an alienating waste of time. But those people don’t watch much. Not so for the average American with an eight-hour-a-day habit whom this campaign presumes to celebrate.
They suffer no more guilt about watching TV than about using a microwave. That’s why, until advertising became an ally, elitist, lefty critics got such a limited hearing. Television may be the same as doing nothing; but that’s just what stressed-out Americans want to do with themselves come prime time.
And then along came the ABC ads, intruding on the comforts of the electronic hearth. Instead of making viewers feel good about doing something “bad,” the spots remind them to feel bad about doing something that feels good. Which is why, despite agency and client claims, these ads just aren’t funny. As Sigmund Freud explained long ago, without guilt, there’s no tension, without tension, there’s no release, without release, there’s no joke.
It is, well, ironic that television, that great appliance of hucksterism we are trained to see through, resists the ironic treatment itself. Call it the irony of irony. We are jaded about what we watch, not why we watch it.
The cynicism that “TV is good” invites is too close to cynicism about ourselves. And the one thing in our culture that we consumers are completely sincere about is ourselves.