19 August 2010
Selling the Sizzle
Screen grab from Amazon Kindle commerical
I hate television commercials. And yet...I'm secretly fascinated by them. I can't remember the last time that I (consciously) purchased a product based on an advertisement, yet for years now, I have been paying much closer attention to them than might be considered healthy. Not so much to the products on offer or the slogans used to sell them, as to the settings and the mise-en-scene on display. It is for this reason, for example, that I have recognized the mean streets of Portland, Oregon (home to advertising giants Wieden+Kennedy) in an extraordinary number of car commercials over the past few years.
Like many people, I'm pretty much obsessed with Mad Men. I could go into a lengthy diatribe about what I think is going on, but I'll spare you. One of the things I think the show does really well is to illustrate how advertisers are able to tap into the mass psychology driving the zeitgeist (except for the times when they're hilariously out-of-touch, even for the time period). Even before I got sucked into Don Draper's world, I had been noticing something strange happening. Bicycles were everywhere in TV ads. These range from cutesy-schmootsey-ness to pointless mockery to downright irritation. But even more than these ads featuring (sorta) active cycling, there's loads out there where bikes are static props in the background. Small cars being marketed toward urbanites are especially prone to this, I've seen maybe a half dozen auto commercials in the past year where bikes are placed on the sidewalks like any other street furniture.
You're probably thinking, "So what?". Anybody who has ever taken a film class can tell you that nothing gets in the shot that isn't meant to be there. When sets are decorated, they don't just grab a bunch of stuff and throw it out there. Every frame is storyboarded over the course of weeks, if not months, and props are picked very carefully. This isn't to say the directors of any of these commercials is going to be the next Hitchcock (or even Ed Wood), but they do have budget constraints, and nobody goes out and buys a few bikes to stick in their ad "just because". They want their commercial to appeal to a certain demographic, and that demographic is increasingly viewing bicycles as a normal part of the street fabric.
So what if it boils down to little more than crass marketing? The marketing targets the money, and the attitudes of those who would spend that money has changed. Advertisers understand it already, even if politicians don't.