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Posted August 2012

American television - The best thing I can say about the American custom of having dinner early - at least, in the sticks, restaurants like to close at 8 pm for the night - is that it allows the itinerant visitor to the U.S. to watch a lot of television.

Usually, the couch potato in me hates having the programmes I watch interrupted by commercials. That's when I reach for the remote. However, in the U.S., I could not wait for them to begin. They had me transfixed. Not that I thought them funnier or wittier than our standard European fare. Far from it. Many of them were really dull and obviously targeted at a viewer whom the corporate marketers consider to be a brick short of a load.

So why watch them at all? Well, if anything, they can tell you a lot about the American state of mind.

My research may be flawed as it was limited to the TV channels made available by the hotel operators. But I can say with some certainty after three weeks spent in front of the telly: Americans seem to worry a lot.

Judging by the sheer overwhelming frequency of food, dating and pharmaceutical ads, Americans appear to fear nothing as much as starvation, singledom and libidinal dysfunction (which they coyly refer to as 'penile administration').

Those carrying the highest load of angst are mothers. Juggling absent-minded husbands and hyperactive children, moms across the U.S., by all accounts, still find time for 24/7 worry-mongering about feeding their family enough healthy foods. Given America's worrisome obesity levels, they probably should. But can some prefab pudding rich in E numbers really provide your loved ones with the kind of balanced nutrition promoted by health officials, I wonder?

What I found even more alarming was the way the food commercials were shot. Never have I seen food presented as off-putting and unappetising as on American television. Sauces and condiments poured over food looked as denaturalised as the sticky blob of gelatinous goo dripping from the fangs of an alien monster. Who would want to eat this?

When it comes to food, I think it's fair to say that Americans seem to get turned on by a different set of aesthetics than us Europeans. Which also applies to their sexual partners, by the way.

In recent years, internet dating agencies have begun to promote their services quite heavily on television. While over in Europe, millions of lonely hearts appear to be worried that they might end up with a spouse from below their social class - if I may use that old Marxist term - American singles give the impression that nothing scares them more than wasting their precious breeding time on dates who might turn out rather lukewarm on religion.

Ever the pragmatists, god-fearing Christians in the U.S. can now resort to the services of a dating agency called Christian Mingle, whose commercials - like the food commercials - became more frequent as the night wore on. Does this mean that only the gluttonous and lonely watch telly after midnight? Incidentally, there is a competing provider called Christian Crush that is much favoured by the Christian Dating Watchdog because of its greater religious compliance.

Oh dear. Watching these Christian couples blubbering into the camera how they finally found happiness in life thanks to these sites, the thought struck me: If matches are indeed made in heaven, since when does the Eternal need the help of machine-made algorithms?

Besides, with 60 percent of all Americans calling themselves religious according to a 2011 survey by WIN-Gallup International, wouldn't those unhitched find it easier to look for a partner at their local parish? As I toured the Bible Belt this month, I was amazed by the number of churches in villages whose parking lots often outsized that of the nearby shopping mall.

Given such large congregations, I would have thought that joining, say a church fundraising group an ideal opportunity for single Christians to discreetly check out all the eligible bachelors for their marriage-ability. Unless, of course, chapel talk down south is all about hell, fire and brimstone. One church in Kentucky, in fact, promoted itself with a sign outside saying: 'in hell you are barbeque'. I am not making this up.

So the commercial for Christian Mingle was right after all. If you want to pursue warm and cosy thoughts about love, go online.

Nonetheless, Americans tend to have little reason for warm and cosy thoughts if the frequent commercials for best deals are anything to go by. Some were really quite amusing to watch.

I particularly liked the series of commercials for prescription glasses, which promised "two for the price of one". One showed a woman in a nightgown, apparently short-sighted, standing by her patio door calling out 'Kitty, Kitty' while in toddles not her cat but a raccoon (I think it was a raccoon, as I did not have my glasses on).

Another one had a businesswoman, with briefcase and speaking into a mobile phone, getting into the back of a car, telling the driver to take her to an address and quickly as she was in a hurry. The driver of this vehicle turns out to be a rather surprised looking policeman.

Although these commercials were funny, they still had a disturbing underlying message. Whether it's car insurance, internet access or storage containers for your fridge - if you don't watch out and go for the deal offered, you will get ripped off by this company's competitor.

The commercial commercials - that is those for products and services - did not spell it out in so many words, but living in the land of the free and brave is not a license to enjoy easy and carefree living. Unless consumers stay watchful and alert, they will be taken to the cleaners.

The political commercials I watched knew no such inhibition. Luckily or unluckily, I happened to be travelling around the so-called battlefield states (where the final vote can go one way or another), which meant I was inundated with political commercials.

What can I report? The ads I saw were wearisomely blunt, antagonistic, accusative, ... and shonkily produced. I know these are the weeks of high noon political campaigning. As I write, the race for the White House is on and pollsters say that the outcome is far from clear.

President Obama and Mitt Romney are giving each other a run for their money. Speaking of which, at the end of August, U.S. media reported that 2012 will be the most expensive election ever, with both sides poised to spend a whopping USD 1 billion each on campaigning. In 2008, then-candidate Obama and Republican John McCain spent just over a billion dollars combined.

And what do they spend it on? Crass TV ads, seemingly hastily produced by a man with a video camera and no script whatsoever. Lots of concerned citizens blabbering on about hell, fire and brimstone should the other side win. A bit like the horror movie 'Blair Witch Project' (1998) but without the suspense.

Perhaps this is what political campaigning in the U.S. has turned into. Perhaps voters in the U.S. need this kind of bludgeoning about the head to get the message. I don't know. What I know for sure is that both parties' commercials are a far cry from Ronald Reagan's 1984 highly stylish and atmospheric campaign commercial "Morning in America", which won industry awards and praise from the political and advertising world. Or Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election commercial "Building a bridge to the next century", which refrained from a full frontal attack on his opponent.

As I said, American TV commercials had me glued to the box. Which is more than what I can say for American television, especially its so-called journalistic formats. They threw me into despair. More anon.

 

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