A look at some recent TV commercials
I took whatever was shown in the sequence they were broadcast so there would be no issue about whether I had some bias in which ones I selected. Of course sponsors pick shows that appeal to the audience they are trying to reach, so a children's cartoon show or a football game might have a very different mix of ads.
Prilosec OTC (30 seconds)A man an a woman are driving around in a large RV painted purple with many of the graphic features of a Prilosec box and the words "Zero Heartburn or Bust". They say they used to get heartburn but now that Prilosec is here they are going to spread the word. They are seen outside of the RV talking to a man who is complaining about heartburn. They tell him to start taking Prilosec "tomorrow and things can change". There is then a lot of repetition of the theme "one pill a day, twenty-four hours, zero heartburn", both by the actors and text on the screen (painted on the back of the RV).
It is amusing to imagine a retired couple traveling around the country in a specially painted RV just because they like a heartburn product, although the makers of the product might certainly pay people to do that. The couple and the bystander all appear middle-aged with the woman attractive and all of them friendly. Of course their age and mannerisms are chosen to match their likely customer base (chronic heartburn is most common in middle-aged and older people). They repeat the slogan and the product name frequently to make sure the message gets across. It actually provides some information - the name of the product and what it supposedly does - in addition to building an image.
Nyquil Cough(15 seconds)
A man and a woman are shown sleeping in a dark room. The woman is having a coughing spasm and partially sits up, waking the man because of the noise and her inadvertent placing of her hand on his shoulder and in his face. The narrator says "If your four hour cough medicine wears off, things can get ugly. Next time get all-night Nyquil Cough, the sleep-through-the-night cough medicine. From the makers of Nyquil."
They want us to think that Nyquil Cough lasts longer and use words to that effect while trying to dramatize (with a little humor) what they want you to think would happen if you used a competitor's product. The final "From the makers of Nyquil" is a bit unnecessary but is probably included to make sure you remember who made the ad.
Kentucky Fried Chicken (15 seconds)
A guy plops down on a sofa next to two other guys watching a football game. He's holding a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken and has sauce on his face. The guy next to him gives him a look and says "You're no longer the wing master." A fourth guy sitting in a chair has even more sauce on his face. The picture shows a KFC box and pictures of chicken pieces being wiped with a brush with sauce. A narrator says "Kentucky Fried Chicken Honey Barbequed Wings - the sauciest wings around. Seven for two ninety-nine, twenty for seven ninety-nine. To get the taste on your face, go KFC.
The idea is apparently to emphasize the sauce. They want to create the impression that people like it so much that they don't care how messy it is (of course they are just paid actors). They'd also like to plant the suggestion that this would be a good snack for watching sports on TV. Of course you can't tell from this if it actually tastes good.
Jumbone dog bone (15 seconds)There's a dog sitting on the grass. A whiney falsetto voice sings the following ditty to a tune similar to "Dry Bones". "Big dog doesn't wanna chew a SMALL bone any more than he wants to play a TROM-bone. In fact if he could use a TELE-phone he'd call up and order this JUM-bone." During the singing, a hand offers the dog a bone-shaped dog biscuit, a trombone, a cell phone, and a Jumbone at the appropriate points. A chorus then sings "It's a really really big really big big bone and that's why we call it Jumbone." The Jumbone is taken out of the package and the dog holds it in it's mouth.
The point of the ad is apparently to attract attention with the silly jingle and to emphasize that the Jumbone is big and to try to create the impression that dogs prefer really big (fake?) bones. I have no idea if dogs actually care.
L'Oreal Hair Color (15 seconds)Actress Andie McDowell is shown with small print showing her name.
The narrator says: "Three times beautiful. Excellence Cream Hair Color from L'Oreal Paris. One: The special pre-treatment prepares and repairs fragile areas. Two: Rich non-drip color. And three: Weeks of deep conditioning. Triple protective color. No grays. Excellence Cream form L'Oreal Paris."
Meanwhile, the pictures shows the box, putting a drop on a finger from the tube, slipping a few stands of hair between someone's fingers, some hair with goop on it, and, presumably, Andie shaking her head so her long hair flies around.
Not knowing much about women's hair coloring, I can't say for sure whether this is any better than anything else in terms of what the pre-treatment does or whether "weeks of deep conditioning" is actually meaningful. The main thrust is, I suppose, that your hair will look as good as Andie McDowell's, which, of course, looks great. There is no reason to assume that. She doesn't actually say she uses it or recommends it, so her presence may be even more meaningless than most celebrity endorsements.
Cingular cell phone (30 seconds)We see a teenage girl with her boyfriend in a picture booth, and are surprised to see a third head poke its way in - presumably the girl's father. Then the same girl gets on a motorcycle with the boy and the father climbs on behind her. Finally the girl is dancing and the father cuts in. The girl is shown alone and says "Dad, you know how you want to be everywhere I am? Now you can be." A narrator then says "Cingular family talk: at nine ninety-nine a line it's an affordable, easy, and, with lots of phones to choose from, cool way to keep track of your kids." The girl then says "I call it my 'This is so much better plan.'" The narrator finishes with "Nine ninety-nine a line. Another reason Cingular fits you best."
During parts of this we see Cingular's animated splat logo with printed messages "Listen to the girl" and "GREAT DEAL".
The scenes with the interfering father are no doubt intended to get your attention with humor and push the idea that getting this cell phone will solve your problem of keeping track of teens. It doesn't seem too likely this would work, although it might be a little useful for keeping track of your kids if they put up with you calling them frequently. What is entirely unclear to me is what you get for your "nine ninety-nine." You get a "line". I would guess this is the minimum monthly charge. Does the "family talk" plan name imply that it is restricted to use with certain numbers? Do you pay extra for the phone, setup charges, and other extras? What is the cost per minute for calls? While the ad said "GREAT DEAL", that isn't at all clear.
Nissan Titan (30 seconds)With intense guitar and drums playing in the background, we see a pickup truck driving on a highway through a wilderness area pulling trailers with a variety of big loads (perhaps one second showing each). There is a small caption "simulated demonstration". After a while huge lettering appears above the truck saying "5.6 LITER V8" and a fine-print caption appears below it saying "Max tow capacity w/ Big Tow Pkg and Nissan accessory hitch. See owner's manual and Nissan towing guide for details. Obey local regulations." The lettering above the truck is replaced by "379 LB-FT TORQUE" and then "9500 LB TOWING". Next the message "THE FULL SIZE NISSAN TITAN" fills the screen with a black background. More scenes are shown with the truck and trailer passing another truck and trailer, and fine print that says "Based on AMC-Certified test with comparably equipped Quad Cab Dodge Ram Standard V8. 6% grade. Max. tow capacity." After a very brief scene of the truck grill getting mud splattered on it, there is a black screen with the Nissan emblem with the word "SHIFT_" followed by the words (one at a time, changing faster and faster) "muscle", "confidence", "strength", "power", "scale", and "toughness". There is no voice in the entire commercial.
Most of what is here seems aimed at a instilling a macho image of power and toughness, including rugged outdoor scenery, big capitalized lettering, rhythmic music, mud, and cycled words at the end. Of course all this tells you nothing about the truck itself. There are (hopefully) factual statements about the engine size, towing capacity, and torque. The comparison to the Dodge may be accurate, but we can be assured that if the Dodge did better on a 3% grade, that wouldn't be shown, so it isn't safe to assume this tells the whole story. In fact, it is entirely possible that the Dodge has a higher "maximum tow capacity" and therefore is actually pulling a larger load.
Promo for CSI show (10 seconds)With brief clips from the show in the background, the narrator says "Get ready for a CSI event... with two of the most talked-about episodes. It all begins at 8, 7 P.M. Central."
The clips, like one showing a person in a blue bunny suit, seem to be calculated to arouse curiosity, while the words "event" and "most talked-about" are designed to exaggerate the importance of the shows. On the other hand, if you're a CSI fan, it tells you when they will be on.
Promo for "Super Bowl XXXVIII" and "Survivor All-Stars" (10 seconds)The narrator says "TV's two biggest events are on CBS Super Sunday." Clips of football are shown. "First the world will be watching when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots take on Jake Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl thirty-eight." The picture switches to half-dressed people doing things outdoors. "Then, after the game, the favorite castaways of all time will compete in the ultimate show-down. Survivor All-Stars. Who can outwit, out-play, and outlast the best of the best. It all begins Sunday on CBS."
While the Super Bowl qualifies as one of TV's two biggest events, I have my doubts about Survivor All-Stars. Perhaps it's one of the two biggest that night. As would be expected, the clips are designed to reflect exciting moments. Since most people know what these shows will be like, this serves mainly to remind you when they are on.
At this point there is a break for the TV show...
Beggin Strips Dog Food (15 seconds)A middle aged man sits on an easy chair facing us and at the bottom of the screen is a brown blob with a black spot (representing a dog's head and nose). The man and talking dog have interspersed comments, with the man very calm and the dog very excited:
Man: If I said feline...
The man shows the bag of Beggin Strips during the last line.
The ad attempts to convey the idea that dogs love bacon and that Beggin Strips taste like bacon. It doesn't make an actual claim that either is true. If dogs don't know Beggin Strips aren't bacon, I suspect it's because they don't know what bacon is.
Hot Pockets (15 seconds)The narrator says "Why do Hot Pockets brand breakfasts take only a minute to make? Because the average teen has only a minute and a half to get ready". During this we see a boy sleeping while his alarm beeps, a mother taking Hot Pockets out of the microwave, the teen scrambling to get dressed, stumbling down the stairs, and grabbing the food from the mother as he goes by. The narration continues "Hot Pockets Breakfasts, three delicious flavors, now with even more meat." A chorus sings "Hot Pockets!".
The main message here is that the breakfast can be made quickly, which is true if you don't compare it to things that aren't heated. It is a matter of opinion whether they are "delicious". The phrase "even more meat" makes it sound like it has a lot of meat, but all it really says is that some previous version of the product had less.
Universal Theme Parks and Toyota Sienna (30 seconds)"If kids ruled the world..." says a girl hanging upside-down by her knees.
"I'd bring all my toys everywhere." says a girl relaxing while people load her toys into a van.
"I'd watch movies whenever I wanted." says a boy watching a screen suspend from the ceiling of the van he is in.
"If kids ruled the world..." says a kid running with a small elephant on a leash.
"I would bring the Four Hombres to Show-and-Tell." says a boy in the back of a van surrounded by four professional wrestling type hulks.
"If kids ruled the world, I would go to Universal Studios..." says a girl hanging by her hands, and the picture switches to amusement park clips as she continues "...Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,...".
A narrator says "The Toyota Sienna has everything kids want and everything you need to make your drive to Universal Theme Parks comfortable, safe, and fun."
The ad closes with the Universal Studios logo over a picture of a van traveling down the highway.
Universal Studios and Toyota obviously teamed up for this commercial. It seems to be designed to give parents the idea that their kids would love both the Sienna and the theme park. Of course we don't know if kids that weren't reading from a script would necessarily feel the same way.
Tylenol Cold (30 seconds)
A variety of short quotes are made by a white woman, black man, black woman, and a white man, in a variety of settings. I won't bother to distinguish who is who:
"I hate colds."
Narrator: "It gives you the complete symptom relief you need when you need it. A non-drowsy formula for the day, and one that lets you rest at night."
"I can breathe."
Narrator: "Tylenol Cold Day and Night."
"It feels so good to be better."
All the people making comments are just creating an impression. They aren't telling you anything factual. The narrator says it gives you complete symptom relief, which I find hard to believe a cold medicine would do with any dependability, but it is something they claim. It is also claimed that it doesn't make you drowsy during the day but lets you sleep at night, which is easier to believe.
Saying no product works harder may not be a real claim since I don't know how you would determine how "hard" a chemical "works." Is this the same as saying no product is more effective? Are there other products that are equally effective? We don't know.
Promo for "Two and a half Men" (10 seconds)
As we see clips in the background, the narrator says "Critics call Charlie Sheen one of the funniest actors in sitcoms." After a little dialog from the clip, the narrator finishes with "Two and a half Men. CBS. Next."
By "critics" here, we have no idea how many or which ones, so this could be misleading. Obviously the clips chosen were the ones the advertisers thought would be most appealing.
Promo for Super Bowl pre-game (10 seconds)"Super Sunday takes off at 11 A.M. when Nickelodeon takes over the Super Bowl. At noon, P. Diddy and Jessica Simpson headline MTV's TRL. Then Phil Simms reveals his All-Iron Team. At two, the Super Bowl Today sets the stage for Carolina and New England in the ultimate battle. Sunday on CBS." Appropriate pictures flash in the background.
This is basically just telling you what's going to be on in hopes of getting more viewers. Of course the voice and video inject a lot of excitement to promote the idea that these shows are somehow unusually important.
Subaru Outback (30 seconds)
We see a van driving in the snow, with a small caption "Professional Driver, Closed Course." The narrator says "It's the Subaru All-Wheel Driveaway. Time to get your all-wheel drive Subaru Outback and head for the hills for as little as $235 a month." Print shows up on the screen saying "2004", "$235" in huge letters followed by "PER MONTH", "35 MONTH LEASE", "$2,281 DOWN PAYMENT", "235 FIRST MO. PAYMENT", "$2,496 DUE AT SIGNING", and, in tiny print, "(+BT) AWD Manual Transmission. Tax, title, and registration fees extra. Lease not available in Hawaii or New York."
The narration continues "Or fly through the curves with up to $1500 cash back." with the screen showing "UP TO $1500 CUSTOMER CASH REBATES".
Then we hear "Or get style and comfort with 1.9% financing for 60 months." Here the screen shows "60 MONTHS AT 1.9% APR", "Financing = $17.48 per month, per $1,000 financed." The numbers "60" and "1.9" are huge.
Narration continues "Get to the Subaru All-Wheel Driveaway by February second and get your Subaru Outback just the way you want it. Get the deal of you choice on the Outback of your choice at the Subaru All-Wheel Driveaway." The screen shows:
UP TO $1500 CUSTOMER CASH
$235 PER MONTH / 39-MONTH LEASE
With fine print saying "All offers subject to credit and insurance approval. Call 1-800-WANT AWD or see participating dealer for details. Must take delivery from dealer stock by 2/2/04. Incentives cannot be combined."
Interspersed with these text screens, which seem to have a spinning hubcap as background, are other views of the van, usually in motion.
While the main message is the three supposedly good choices for paying for the van, the narration also throws in meaningless but suggestive phrases like "head for the hills", "fly through curves", and "style and comfort". While we are told you get "the Outback of your choice", we are unlikely to notice in the fine print that the choice is limited to dealer stock. I am always concerned when I see the words "up to", as in "up to $1500 customer cash rebate". This suggests you usually will get less. The $1500 may only apply when you get the maximum number of options. Also, since Subaru can set any list price they want, $1500 less than that could still be overpriced.
The pressure tactic of "limited time only" is used by setting a February second ending date. There may be a better deal that starts on February third, but we don't know about that.
Jennie-O Turkey Store (30 seconds)We see a young guy preparing dinner in a small apartment for one guest - presumably a girl he wants to impress. The narrator says "Recipe for showing off. Start with Jennie-O Turkey Store lean ground turkey. Set mood to taste. Cover and ...". The guy says "Keep cool, of course." Narration continues "Prepare to impress... future in-laws." The guy says "In-laws?" as we see the girl arrive with her parents.
The narration continues to say "Enter the Jennie-O Turkey Store Lifestyle Challenge and you could win $25,000. Visit jennieoturkeystore.com for details" as we are shown the package and text on the screen. In large printing it says "$25,000 Lifestyle Challenge", and there are 85 words of print so small that I couldn't make most of it out. While it's possible that it's legible if you're looking at the original rather than a videotape, nobody would be able to read it fast enough to understand the whole thing.
The ad concludes with a bit of humor as the girl's mother accidentally gets hit on head by an ironing board that is mounted on the wall.
The vague claim that people will be impressed if you serve them this ground turkey cannot be taken seriously as reason to think it is good. The use of a contest generally appeals to people's overestimation of their chances of winning, so it is not something we should be enthusiastic about. Finally it is disconcerting that a message that is probably displayed because of a legal requirement is impossible to read even if you tape it and freeze the frame.
Promo for News at 10"Her invention may save your back when it's time to shovel the white stuff. At 10." The picture shows a person pulling a V-shaped plow like device over a snowy sidewalk. It looks like they want to arouse our curiosity so we'll watch the news later.
General Comments on the Commercials
In the second set of ads I decided to count the number of different scenes, since I had heard somewhere that advertisers like to bombard your visual system with frequent changes. I counted 120 scenes in three minutes, so the average length of time before what you see jumps to a different view is 1.5 seconds. I would guess that some sort of research found that this would make the ads more effective, but somehow I feel this can't be good for my brain.
While there are certainly some commercials that make specific claims about their products, this sampling suggests that the main strategy is just to create a positive impression of the product or perhaps only make the name of the product more familiar. Assuming that the people who pay for these ads are getting their money's worth, it means people are actually more likely to buy these products because of the ads. How many of us think that we can be manipulated this easily? Probably not many. How many of us actually are manipulated this way? Apparently quite a few. When we make the choice to purchase one brand instead of another, how often is it because of images created by advertisements that actually tell us almost nothing factual?