back to the Black Table

Every surface that could possibly have an ad slapped on it -- clothing, buses, taxis, myriad walls and billboards, even the snow you ski on -- now hawks something.

It's cool, you know. We're used to it. We don't mind super-saturation -- we seek it out. We hand out grades for Super Bowl commercials.

  Kids and dads and families proudly throw brand signs, with a bazillion logos on button ups, high tops, doo rags, wrist-watches, running jackets, and headbands. Especially scary people      

pay good money to get tattoos of copyrighted images from Disney, Nike, Warner Brothers, and Pixar. (Yes, guy with multiple Tazmanian Devil tattoos in the Fear This! T-shirt, I do mean you.)

We couldn't get away from this if we wanted to. In a recent stakes-raise, Pringles decided to sell synergistic cross-promotional ad space on the actual chips. Amazing. A product you've already bought and demonstrated your brand loyalty to is shilling other products while being metabolized in your stomach.

They even advertise when we're waiting. Ever sit through The 2wenty? The 2wenty, so named for the advertainment it provides in the 20 minutes before your movie starts (quasi-phonetic numerical substitution is, of course, sic), replaces the slide-show ads of yesteryear with "programming" that hypes a movie, TV show, or musician -- and interstitial "commercials" for hilariously "local" products. (The pert Tel-Aviv car service receptionist and DJ school started by Jam Master Jay, being excellent instantiations here.) As quaint as this all seems, this type of captive cinema advertising is a $315.1 million business. According to the Cinema Advertising Council, this kind of advertising before the advertising is the "the fastest-growing ad media in the U.S. right now."

And there's where you are right now -- the Internet -- a great unregulated wilderness where ads can run free and frolic in a natural habitat to do whatever the fuck they want. Pop-ups, pop-unders, market research cookies, banner ads, Amazon's plogs, and BlogAds barely scratch the surface. In fact, a recent study by BlogAds (and the first study to attempt to nail down bloggish demos) shows that blog readers are "older and wealthier than what's portrayed by their stereotype" and feeds the hope that blogs may be the advertorial pot of gold at the end of the ether theorized to exist by "cool hunters" since the mid-nineties.

So the point is, consumers, short of adopting a lifestyle that's massively and prohibitively off-the-grid, you're going to see this stuff everywhere. Advertisers are at once more insidious and more clueless than you ever imagined possible.

The All-Singing, All-Dancing Crap of the World.

Every time you see a product in a TV show or hear a brand mentioned by name in a movie, it is on purpose and for money. No one gives that shit away for free anymore, using-pop-references-to-create-a-recognizable-cultural-mileu-be-damned. On the other hand -- and I'm sure you've noticed this, too perceptive price points that you are -- much of the commercial programming available today is toe-crampingly insipid. And not like "funny" insipid or "meant-for-a-younger-demographic" insipid, we're talking "tin ear for pop culture and incorrect aesthetic values" insipid.

Take, for example, those hideous Immodium commercials wherein people with diarrhea who failed to properly treat it must waddle off camera to void themselves instead of continuing to take advantage of whatever fortuitous situation we found them in at the beginning of the ad (in a hot tub with two attractive ladies, for example.) Tagline: "Where will you be when your diarrhea returns?" Yick. And that trash ain't cheap, either. According to, the average production cost of a 60-second national advertising spot is $300,000.

So there's the question then. If we can't get away from advertising (we can't) and companies are willing to cough up embarrassing sums of money to make ads (indubitably they are) why can't we have decent ads to watch? If product placement is going to infiltrate our entertainment, why can't entertainment infiltrate the ads right back?

The reason is there is no reason. Advertisers have been co-opting the counter-culture to sell products for years (See: hip-hop culture, rock and roll, and punk, for starters), and it's time the counter-culture struck back with a campaign to make ads good. Artistically good. Not just as inoffensive as possible but actually, you know, good. Why not? If they're going to make us watch them, why not use our dollars and our impeccable aesthetic sense to make them play something interesting?

The Spec Spot.

Enter The Spec Spot, an online forum where prospective ad directors showcase commercials they've already made in the hopes of selling them or getting hired by a big-money agency. These kids make real ads with real products, for free, just hoping that some ad guy doofus will come along and have enough sense to realize: "Holy shit! Consumers with brand loyalty and computers might have some good ideas! Like for ads!"

Lots of the ads on The Spec Spot are great and made on the extreme cheap. If the marketing department at, for example, Coca-Cola doesn't jump on this right away while simultaneously thanking their lucky stars, well then that at least explains a lot about New Coke.

But the real story here is for us. Consumers. The marketed to. The Spec Spot is an acceptance of our fate as demographics, and a demand to at least be accorded the respect our buying power ought to afford us. Jerry Seinfeld gets it. His Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman, which, if you haven't seen them, are a series of long-form Amex ads originally only available online, are actually funny. I mean once you wipe the sneer of derision for doing something so commercial off of your face and get past your horror at his selling out and all that, you realize that you're actually being entertained.

Yes, Jerry's selling something, but he understands how comedy and narrative work and respects your intelligence, never smacking you over the head with the product. He creates an entertaining ministory replete with Seinfeldian banter and nerdwinkish Superman jokes and doesn't make any outlandish claims about the power of American Express to improve your life: his Amex card is just the punch line of the bit, the same as "Mulva" or "marble rye." Seinfeld proves that there are people watching TV with enough brain function left to appreciate quality, and that maybe, just maybe, treating people like they have basic motor function might be profitable.

And yes, we've all heard H.L. Mencken's assholified take on the fiduciary safety of underestimating the intelligence of the masses. That kind of thinking is why advertisements (and to be honest with ourselves, probably much of legitimate entertainment) are in the current state of intellectual disrepair. Tell Mencken to go fuck himself. Take charge of what you see. Believe that ads can be art. Or you are going to spend a lot of time wondering where they'll be when the diarrhea comes back.



Jeff Jarvis's Buzz Machine

Ad Rants

The Media Drop