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
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
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
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
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
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.
· may10 ·