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A look at some recent TV commercials

The following commercials were broadcast during the "Two and a Half Men" network TV show on January 5, 2010. Since this was one of the top rated shows on television these may be fairly typical of commercials people see often. 

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 would have a very different mix of ads.

Mercedes-Benz (30 seconds)

The screen shows a red car tumbling sideways toward the camera.  The narrator is saying "When you buy a car, what are you really buying?  A shiny coat of paint, a list of features?  What about the strength of the steel, the integrity of its design, or how it responds in extreme situations.  The deeper you look, the more you see the real differences, and the more you understand what it means to own a Mercedes-Benz - the C Class."

By this time the camera is circling an undamaged car. Text on the screen says: The 2010 C300 Sport Sedan.  $379 for a 36 mo lease.  1.9% APR for 24 to 36 months.  Now through Feb 1, 2010. The narrator says "See your authorized Mercedes-Benz dealer for special offers through Mercedes-Benz Financial."  Further screens show the logo and say to visit your dealer today.

The main point here seems to be that you should buy a Mercedes because it will survive better in an accident.  They haven't actually provided any evidence that it'll do better than any other car in this respect, but they hope we'll assume it will since they brought it up.

Mastercard (15 seconds)

The narrator says, in the familiar pattern "Gym membership for February, March, and April: $68, paid automatically," as we watch a man struggling to open the top of a pickle jar.  Then we see an attractive woman take it from him and open it herself.  "Finally convincing your boyfriend to go with you: priceless."

"Pay gym, cable, and other monthly bills online with Mastercard."

The commercial is humorous.  Of course you can pay bills with other credit and debit cards as well.

Nicorette (15 seconds)

We hear a beep-beep sound repeating and see a man driving a car who's apparently trying to give up smoking.  "Man, quitting sucks!" he says.  He takes a Nicorette and smiles, saying "That's better."  We see a meter labeled "Suckometer" (which is apparently doing the beeping) with its needle dropping from the high position to low.

The narrator says "Quitting sucks.  Nicorette makes it suck less, doubling your chances of success."

There's fine print that says "Versus placebo.  Use as directed.  Support program increases chances of success.  Individual results may vary."

Since the chances of success are probably pretty small anyway, doubling is probably a long way from being a sure thing, and "sucking less" implies that even with Nicorette the process is unpleasant (I have my doubts that it would provide the dramatic relief shown by the actor in the commercial).  It's not clear whether the support program is necessary for their results - I would hope the placebo case would have had the same support program, or else it's an unscientific use of a placebo.  So presumably the stuff is at least somewhat helpful.

Milk-Bone (30 seconds)

A guy is shown playing with his dog outdoors, feeding him a Milk-Bone, and tossing something for him to catch.  A woman is sitting indoors with a dog next to her licking her face.  The narrator says, "Every time you give Milk-Bone, you give more than just twelve vitamins and minerals.  You give more than just cleaner teeth and fresher breath."

We now see a man, who turns out to be the narrator, moving through a public building in a wheelchair with a dog helping push open a large door.  He goes on, "Because every time you give a Milk-Bone, you help people like me receive dogs like Carly from the Canine Assistance Organization.  For twelve years and counting, a portion of every Milk-Bone purchased helps make that happen."  He feeds the dog a Milk-Bone and goes outside where a woman pets the dog.  "So give the treat that gives back.  It's good to give.  Milk-Bone."

A hand in the picture tosses a Milk-Bone which turns into the "I" in a Milk-Bone logo along side the words "It's good to give."

It's implied, but not actually stated, that there are twelve vitamins and minerals in Milk-Bone and that it gives the dog cleaner teeth and breath.  These may be the case, but there's no evidence to suggest any of this would actually make the dog healthier.  I'll accept their assertion that "a portion" of the price goes toward this charity, but since they don't say how big a portion, it's probably very small, trivial compared to their profit and advertising budget.  It's close to meaningless to say "a portion" without saying how big the portion is.  They try to make it sound like buying Milk-Bone is a charitible action, but that's pretty far-fetched.

Lipitor (60 seconds)

We see a black and white picture of a man with text saying: "Bob H., Snowmass, CO, started Lipitor 09/07" (the ad aired in 01/10).  He says, "I was active, eating healthy; I thought I was in good shape.  So I was surprised when my doctor told me I still had high cholesterol.  That really hit me.  Got me thinking about my health.  I knew I had to get my cholesterol under control.  But exercise and eating healthy weren't enough for me.  Now I trust my heart to Lipitor."

Now the scene has changed to color and shows an active couple on a boat and then in the water snorkeling. 

A different narrator starts the details: "When diet and exercise are not enough, adding Lipitor has been shown to lower bad cholesterol 39 to 60%.  Lipitor is backed by over 17 years of research.  Lipitor is not for everyone, including people with liver problems and women who are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant.  You need simple blood tests to check for liver problems.  Tell your doctor if you are taking other medications or if you have any muscle pain or weakness.  This may be a sign of a rare but serious side effect."

The black and white picture of the man reappears and the original voice says, "I thought I was doing enough to lower my cholesterol, but I needed more help.  What are you doing about yours?  Have a heart-to-heart with your doctor about your cholesterol and about Lipitor."

They try for the personal touch in having a very sincere guy talk about his individual case.  He mentions thinking he was in good shape and stresses an active lifestyle because the sellers don't want to be associated with sickly old people who take heart medicine, and of course they don't want to miss potential customers who think they're healthy and don't go for checkups.

Tests have apparently shown it to be effective, though 17 years of research doesn't tell us much since we don't know what that research involved.  The description of side effects is apparently a legal requirement.

Grammy Awards (15 seconds)

Music with a driving beat accompanies lots of flashy pictures of pop stars and audiences and fireworks.  The narrator says "You've seen the Grammies, but Not.  Like.  This.  Tune in this Sunday for a must see 3-D tribute to Michael Jackson...  Pick up your 3-D glasses, only at Target, and get ready to rock!" 

The picture shows glasses with red and blue cellophane, so it's pretty clear that the 3-D won't be very good - glasses like these can't really handle color pictures since they're using color to distinguish which image goes to each eye.  While this is a network commercial, clearly Target helped pay for the plug.  The ad gives the impression this show is going to be non-stop action, unlike most awards shows.  Of course we're likely to see hype like this for any show.  I did catch a couple of minutes of the Grammies, and it wasn't non-stop excitement.

Network Promo for "NCIS"  (30 seconds)

There are lots of clips from NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles.  Obviously they were selected to be teasers that will make you curious about what will happen.

Network Promo for "Undercover Boss" (20 seconds)

The narrator says, "Undercover Boss:  America's top CEO's are going undercover - in their own companies.

"I'm actually going to be that first time employee," say the boss.  Pictures show him entering the building and doing manual work.  Then we see coworkers expressing amazement when they find out who they were working with.

The narration goes on: "To discover the truth...  Undercover Boss, premieres after the Super Bowl.  Only CBS."

I like the concept for the show, since I've often felt top executives would do a much better job if they occasionally communicated with the rank and file of their companies, but it's probably too much to hope this show will change that much.  I wonder if the CEO of CBS will try it.

(There's a break here for the show)

MetLife (30 seconds)

All the visuals are in cartoon form.  It opens with Snoopy on the beach building a sand castle in the shape of the word IF.  The narration says, "There are many "ifs" in your family's life.  If your kids can go onward and upward," (we see kites flying) "if you get sidelined from work."  The screen shows an "IF" with bandages around the "I".  A whiteboard is shown with lots of mathematical expressions involving the word "if."

"Insuring your family's "ifs" can be hard to figure out.  So Met Life removes the guesswork."  An eraser wipes away some of the symbols.

The voice says "Combining the insurances families need most - term life and disability in one affordable package."  The screen shows two flags saying "Term life" and "Disability" and then shows an "I" and an "F" tied together with a ribbon.

"Find out just how affordable term life and disability insurance can be at" and start building your personal safety net.  Visit today."  There's a cartoon picture of a browser on the MetLife site, and then a net joining an "I" and an "F" which the word "if" drops on and bounces off.

Finally a screen says "Guarantees for the if in life" and "MetLife" and shows Snoopy carrying a sign saying ".COM ."  Fine print below says "Guarantees are subject to product terms, exclusions, and limitations and the insurer's claims paying ability and financial strength..."

There's a lot of cute cartoon stuff going on, and games played with the word "if."  This doesn't tell you whether the insurance they offer is worth the money, even if it's as "affordable" as they claim (a claim that's just a subjective judgement).  We also don't know whether it's better than buying term and disability separately or how it compares with other companies or how easy it is to collect on the disability.  The fine print (I assume it's necessary for legal reasons) is a little worrisome.

T-Mobile (30 seconds)

There's an R&B song playing and a picture of a cell phone-like device.  It rotates so we see a woodgrain pattern and the word "fender."  It's picked up by Eric Clapton.  There's a picture of guitar strings on the screen that Clapton strums in time with the sound of the song.  We seem him scroll through some icons on the screen and then the screen shows video of him and Buddy Guy performing together.  A call comes in with the caller identified as "Buddy Guy."  As Clapton answers, we see him standing surrounded by eight (presumably Fender) guitars.  He answers "Buddy", waits, and then says "Just hangin'."

The narrator says "The new mytouch 3G Fender limited edition.  Not just a phone - a collector's item.  Only from T-Mobile.  The final screen show the phone with animated wires connected to earpieces and the words "mytouch," "100% you," "T-Mobile," and "Stick together."

We can see it's a phone/internet device promoted by a celebrity and styled like a guitar.  I'd be very surprised if it has much value as a "collector's item."  I suppose your friends might think you're cool if you have one, at least for a few months until the next hot item comes out.  Celebrity and guitar associations don't provide any clue about how useful it will be.

Kenmore (30 seconds)

We see views of a dog looking at a front-loading washing machine.

A male narrator with a somewhat whispery voice says, "How do you turn a washer into a whole new way to custom clean and care for clothes?  By turning the drum five different ways."  We see the dog turning his head.  "The five motion Kenmore elite washer."

Now there's a woman waving a sheet-like cloth.  The narrator says, "How do power and quiet coexist?  As it turns out, very peacefully."  There's a closeup of something spinning, then we see the washer window.  The camera zooms out to show the woman walking toward a sofa where she lies down putting her head on her husband's lap. 

"Introducing powerful steam cleaning that whispers.  The Kenmore elite washer.  That's genius."

I don't know why five motions would make a washer better, or why it would be hard to keep steam from being noisy.  It seems this washer does things that others don't, but whether that results in clothes being cleaner isn't clear.

Denny's (15 seconds)

A brash looking young man is sitting at a restaurant table talking quickly.  "What's the deal with all these people rushing to work drinkin' their mochacinos, cappacinos, chocacinos... Take a look at this..."

A plate is placed in front of the speaker.  A closeup shows three breakfast platters and coffee in a Denny's mug.  A different announcer says, "The Denny's meat lovers trio."

The original speaker resumes, "It's one of three new dishes for breakfast lovers being served for a limited time.  I'd take one of these over a 'whatever-cino' any day."  The picture has gone back to his face and he raises a coffee mug to his mouth.

There's another view of the table with the different dishes and 3-D lettering behind them saying, "NEW BREAKFAST LOVER'S TRIO."  The tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has been playing in the background all along, and at this point it climaxes with the sound of fireworks.

The ad seems to want to score points with people who think the fancy coffee crowd is pretentious.  We do learn that they've added some items to their menu, but they probably removed something they were selling earlier.  I don't see any reason to think that Denny's menu will be overall more to people's liking now that these things are offered.  Like many restaurants, they change the menu from time to time.  I can only assume the patriotic music is a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Ensure (30 seconds)

There's a cartoon of an Ensure bottle on a refrigerator shelf talking to other food items, acting and sounding like a drill sergeant.

"OK, listen up!  I'm here to get the lady of the house back on her feet!"  We hear a gasp from the refridgerator items.

"OK, veggies, you're cool.  Mayo, corn dogs, you are SO outta here!"  They cry out.  "Cause I'm reworkin' the menu!  Keepin' her healthy, and you on your toes!"

A woman looks in the refrigerator and takes out the Ensure.  We see it being poured into a glass.  There's fine print concerning the ingredients (nothing scandalous caught my eye).

A womans voice says, "The complete balanced nutrition of Ensure.  With 24 vitamins and minerals, anti-oxidents, and omega-3's."

The picture reverts to the refrigerator shelf, and the voice is the sergeant's.  "I see you, cupcake!"  The feminine cupcake says "uh-oh" as she's chased out.  "Ensure.  Nutrition in charge."  The picture now shows three Ensure bottles.

Cute, but what do we find out about Ensure?  It obviously doesn't rid the 'frige of unhealthy food.  It has some healthy ingredients in it, as do various vitamin pills.  Lately the usefulness of vitamin pills has been questioned by some doctors and nutritionists.  Why should we expect Ensure to be better?  There's nothing here to show that Ensure actually improves health.

Discover (15 seconds)

We see a Discover card, then lots of short clips of people walking, pulling suitcases with wheels.

The voice says, "Right now, all over the country, Discover customers are getting 5% cash back bonuses on travel.  It pays to get more.  It pays to Discover.

We see Discover cards being put down on desks and tabletops, then text saying "5% Cashback Bonus," and then the words "It pays to DISCOVER."

Discover wants us to know they have a promotion involving travel.  What exactly is eligible and how this promotion compares to what we would get on other cards is something we'll need to find out elsewhere.  We also would want to compare fees and interest rates.

Promo for the Grammies show (20 seconds)

We hear fast, intense music and see a splattered pattern and the words "GRAMMY AWARDS."  Rapid fire pictures (music related, I think) flicker by, followed by scrolling pictures of singers, and brief clips of bands performing.

The narrator says "The Grammy Awards are coming to CBS.  What once in a lifetime opening duet will everyone be talking about the next day?  Find out, live on the Grammies.  Sunday.  Only CBS."

More screens show the phrases, "Find out live," "Grammy Awards Live,"  and "We're all fans."

This is the second ad for the Grammies in this half-hour, and like the earlier one, it tries to generate a sense of excitement well beyond what we could reasonable expect from the show.  No doubt I don't hang out with the right crowd, since as I write this the awards are over and nobody talked to me about who was in the once in a lifetime duet.

Acura (30 seconds)

We see the internal steel structure of a car.  There's the noise of whirring machinery and a winch device attached to a cable that propels the frame into a concrete wall.  The narration says, "Conventional automotive frames absorb energy.  But this one does more.  It collapses in some areas, while staying rigid in others.  To help redirect energy around the cabin, and away from you."

There's a slow motion picture of the frame crashing into the wall, with the front part, but not the passenger cabin, being squashed.  Then we go to a picture of a whole car.

"The Ace body structure in the Acura MDX.  The most innovative thinking you'll find, you'll find in an Acura."

It makes sense to design the frame so the front collapses more easily than the cabin.  I'd be a little surprised if after all these years, the other manufacturers hadn't thought of it.  Does Acura do it better?  We can't tell.  Does Acura have the most innovative thinking?  This is so subjective that it's a slogan anybody could use.

Carrabba's (30 seconds)

We see food being prepared in a restaurant kitchen, and pictures of sauces being poured over food while the narrator says, "What's the Carrabba's difference?  Maybe it's the way we hand prepare every meal.  Like our seafood cannelloni - just made pasta stuffed with lobster, shrimp, and sea scallops."  The words "Seafood cannelloni, here for a limited time," appear on the screen.  The voice continues,  "Or maybe it's the incredible value on each plate, like our new sirloin and spiedino, a center cut sirloin paired with wood grilled shrimp and scallops in our home made lemon butter sauce."  Text saying "sirloin & spiedino, here for a limited time," is on the screen while the picture shows shrimp cooking on a grill.  There are closeups of food items, lobster being put on a plate, and a fork with some food on it.

"Come in tonight and experience the Carrabba's difference.  It's the difference between so so and so good."

Of course all the food pictures are carefully photographed to look as tempting as possible.

The commercial starts out with the assumption that there is a Carrabba's difference, and goes on to say what might be the cause of that difference.  There's no reason to assume Carrabba's is particularly different from other restaurants.  I'm sure most other restaurants "hand prepare" every meal.  Is there actually an "incredible value on every plate" that's greater than other restaurants?  The ad agency would like us to think so, but that doesn't mean there is.  Noting that featured items are available "for a limited time" is a standard ploy to make them sound special and discourage people from postponing their visit.  If you wait a few months there will no doubt be some other tasty sounding features.

Local news promo (5 seconds)

A quick mention of a story and "news at 11."

(There's another break here for the actual show)

Pup-Peroni (30 seconds)

A young woman comes into her house with groceries, and a dog greets her with a sign in its mouth saying "I really, really missed you."

A man is reading a newspaper, scratching a dog next to him on a sofa.  The dog has a sign in its mouth saying, "A little to the left, please."

A woman holds up two dresses.  A dog is sitting on the bed nearby with a sign that says, "The red one, definitely."

A man wearing a football shirt is sitting on a couch eating Pup-Peroni himself.  The dog next to him has a sign saying, "I'm not gonna cry."  The man breaks a Pup-Peroni and gives half to the dog.

The narrator says, "Every tilt of the head, every tail wag, our pups know how to speak to us, and with a hearty real beef taste, and mouth watering aroma, only Pup-Peroni lets them know we're listening.  Pup-Peroni.  Dogs just know.

Words on the screen say "More real beef," with fine print saying, "than the leading soft and chewy dog snack competitor."

All we get out of this is that Pup-Peroni is a dog snack, and it has more real beef than something, although I'm not sure why we'd care.  While they imply dogs like it, it's pretty obvious they're not actually providing any evidence to that effect.  "Dogs just know" is not something they determined scientifically.

L'Oreal (15 seconds)

We see Andie MacDowell's face.  She's saying, "I fight deep set eye wrinkles 24 hours a day."

A narrator says "L'Oreal's new revitalift deep set wrinkle eye repair duo.  Expert AM plus PM treatments reduce deep crowsfeet and undereye craving."  The product (apparently two tubes attached end-to-end) is shown with the lengthy name "New REVITALIFT deep-set wrinkle repair 24HR eye repair duo." 

Then there's a closeup of Andie's eye and then one of her face.  She says, "Trust me, this really works."

The narrator repeats the name "New deep set wrinkle eye repair duo by L'Oreal" and there's another picture of the product and it's name.

An actress tells us that this eye-wrinkle remover really works.  She could be acting or she could think it works even if it doesn't or it might work a little bit or a lot.  Cosmetics makers have been successfully peddling products to make women's skin look better for centuries with dubious results.  It would be surprising if this is significantly better than other treatments.

Fiber Choice (15 seconds)

The ad opens with a picture of vegetables arranged to make a face.  Then the narrator is shown holding a jar of Fiber Choice.  "Most of us don't get enough fiber in our diet.  To get more of the fiber you need every day, try fiber choice, with the natural fiber found in fruits and vegetables, and 33% more fiber per serving than Benefiber."

The screen shows a hand holding some fruits and vegetables.  It closes and opens with two tablets of Fiber Choice, while the screen splits and the other half shows two teaspoons of Benefiber powder in front of a glass.  The words "33% more" are shown on the Fiber Choice side.

The picture changes to a pile of fruits and vegetables with four Fiber Choice jars on top.  Then a  bunch of fruits and vegetables go flying into a jar of Fiber Choice while the narrator  says, "Fiber Choice.  The smart choice for the most fiber."

The constant comparison to fruits and vegetables is misleading, because we don't just eat those for the fiber, but for nutritional components as well, which wouldn't be included in the Fiber Choice.  Does taking such a supplement actually improve health?  Do we chew these tablets and how unpleasant are they compared to eating better food?  Is the extra 33% actually necessary (after all, three spoons of Benefiber instead of two would be 12 1/2% more than two Fiber Choice tablets).  What does it cost compared to alternatives?

KIA (30 seconds)

We see a kid on a bicycle riding down a country road, passing a sign for the town of "West Point."  The narrator says, "Our story begins with a bicycle back in 1951.  From there we just challenged ourselves to keep coming up with better ways to help people get around."

The picture changes to the cyclist riding up to a big KIA plant, and then we see him riding inside the plant past robot arms, cars on an assembly line, and up to a finished car.

The narration continues, "Fifty years later, that philosophy has taken us a long way.  Introducing the all new Kia Sorento.  Proudly built in our new West Point, Georgia plant."

The boy looks into the window of the car, and then we're shown the interior.  Then we see a car driving on the road by the plant.  A final screen says "All-New 2011 Sorrento, Proudly built in the USA, KIA MOTORS, The Power to Surprise, starting at $19,995."  Fine print gives numerous other costs not included in the price, but states that the actual price is set by the dealer.  Since the dealer normally gives a discount, the final price might be above or below what's shown.

Clearly most of this ad is irrelevent.  Most of us don't care if the car is made in West Point, GA, or whether they used to make bicycles.  The suggested retail price might be of interest, but what we need to know about the quality and features, we're not going to learn here.  Saying that it was "proudly built" is just spin.

Schwab (30 seconds)

This ad uses graphics that start out as rectangular talk bubbles (like in comics with a pointer on the bottom to the person speaking).  They're reduced in size and become hundreds of confetti-like colored dots that then swirl into a picture of a man's face. 

The man says, "I thought investment firms were there to help with my investments.  So, where's that help when I need it?"  A text bubble says, "Talk to a professional anytime, 24/7."

Dots swirl into another face.  He says, "If I could just change one thing, we'd all get a ton of great advice just for being a client."  Now there's a bubble saying "Complimentary portfolio review" and another saying "Available to every client."

Another face says, "Shouldn't I be able to talk about my money without it costing me a fortune?"  It's followed by bubbles saying, "Free financial workshops," and "Open to everyone."

The next face says, "If I had my way, investment firms would be falling all over themselves to help you with your investments."

Finally a narrator says, "At Schwab, investors rule.  Are you ready to rule?"

A bubble says "Investors rule," and a last bubble says "Talk to Chuck," and text says "charles SCHWAB."

The ad is calculated to give you the impression that Schwab is unusual in offering free help and investment advice.  I expect most other companies do this as well.  The ad creates the impression that other companies are bad, but doesn't actually say so, so it doesn't have to worry about making false statements.

The fact that they give advice doesn't mean it is actually good.  The one time I took advice from an investment analyst it turn out to be bad.  Now I try to figure things out for myself.  Investment people usually have genuine knowledge of tax and risk issues, but nobody can tell you how to "beat the market."  Some will encourage you to frequently change investments since that makes them extra commissions.

Local news promo (15 seconds)

The weather man gives a brief teaser and the news anchor mentions a story.  News at 11.

Local news promo (15 seconds)

A no-nonsense male voice questions how a driver with DUI convictions is still on the road.  He tells us to see the investigative report tomorrow at six.  Hopefully we'll still be outraged and tune in.

General Comments on the Commercials

The total time for all these ads was ten minutes on the nose.  That left twenty minutes for the show we tuned in to watch.  This seems to get worse as the years go by.

While there are certainly some commercials that make specific claims about their products, it seems like the main strategy is just to create a positive impression of the product or perhaps only make the name of the product more familiar. They also are good at implying their own product is better than alternatives without making factual claims that could be shown false.

Assuming that the people who pay for these ads are getting their money's worth, it means viewers 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?

There isn't much to say about the frequent network and station promos.  Naturally they try to generate interest for their shows.  If they can get more viewers, they can charge more for the ads in those time slots.

Commercials from 2004