Bryson's America: Commercials? Give me a break

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS an advert running on American television at the moment that says something like: "The new Dodge Backfire. Rated number one against the Chrysler Inert for handling. Rated number one against the Plymouth Repellent for mileage. Rated number one against the Ford Eczema for repair costs."

As you will notice, because luckily for you your brain has not been dented and dimmed by years of over-exposure to rapid-fire American advertising, in each category the Dodge is rated against only one other competitor, which makes comparisons a trifle hollow, if not suspect.

I mean to say, if the Dodge were rated top against 10 or 12 or 15 competitors in any of these categories, then presumably the ad would have said so. And because it doesn't say so, we must naturally conclude that the Dodge performed worse than all its competitors except the one cited in the advertisement. Ergo, it is effectively inviting you to think twice before buying a Dodge.

The flimsiness of commercial assertions here is something that often leaves me quietly boggled. Last year some other manufacturer proudly boasted that its vehicles had been rated "tops for reliability among cars manufactured or assembled in the United States", which seemed to me positively to invite the audience to go out and buy a foreign car. But clearly audiences don't see it that way.

Being carefully selective with the truth is a venerable tradition in American advertising. I retain a special fondness for a series of ads run by an insurance company in which "real people in real situations" discussed their personal finances. When a journalist asked the company who these "real people" were, a spokesman replied that in fact they were actors and that "in that sense they are not real people". That tells you about as much as you need to know about the American approach to advertising.

To be fair, not all American commercials are vacuous or misleading. Quite a lot of them - well, two of them - are droll and original. I am particularly taken at the moment with a commercial for pizza by the foot, in which a delivery man with an over-long pizza destroys everything he comes in contact with. (My least favourite, for the record, is one in which a gorgeous- and-don't-I-know-it young woman turns to the camera and says, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." To which I always reply, "Oh, I don't. I hate you because you give me gip.")

No, the problem with American commercials is that they are simply so constant. Most channels have a commercial break about every five or six minutes. CNN, as far as I can tell, has nothing but commercial breaks.

It occurred to me that this is rather a sweeping statement, so I have just taken a half-hour, at no extra cost to you, to monitor a typical CNN programme, and here are my findings. In a single 30-minute period, CNN interrupted its programme five times to show 20 commercials. Altogether it showed 10 minutes of commercials in a 30-minute slot. Apart from a seven-minute span at the start of the programme, the longest period without commercials was four minutes and 59 seconds. The shortest interval between commercials was two minutes. For the benefit of people who suffered a serious brain injury during the programme, three of the commercials were repeated.

This, I hasten to add, is completely typical. Last night, one of the networks showed the movie The Fugitive, and I did a similar exercise. In order to watch about 100 minutes of movie, it was necessary to sit through almost 50 minutes of commercials, spread over about 20 interruptions. (One every seven minutes, on average.)

According to Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the average American is exposed to 1,000 television commercials a week. By the time he is 18, the typical American child has sat goggle-eyed through no fewer than 350,000 television advertisements.

Increasingly nowadays, even when you are not watching commercials you are watching commercials, so to speak. For example, the ABC network recently aired a special on the making of the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. According to the The New York Times, several ABC stations also devoted a portion of their evening news broadcasts to "a gala celebration that Disney threw for the movie in New Orleans." It just so happens that ABC owns the Disney Company.

Meanwhile, the History Channel unveiled plans to run a series called The Spirit of Enterprise, the idea of which was celebrate the history and achievements of corporations such as Boeing, DuPont and General Motors. The programmes were to be made by - yup - the corporations themselves.

The History Channel cancelled the series when it was brought to its attention that the undertaking was just too, too tacky.

Less troubled by considerations of credibility and impartiality was CNBC, another cable network, which announced the launch of a weekly news magazine called Scan. This programme was to report on all the latest developments in technology - or, to be slightly more precise, on all the latest developments that happened to meet with the approval of its sponsor, IBM, to which it had handed editorial control.

"This is not hard news," a CNBC spokesman explained. "It is a feature programme." Oh, well, that makes it all right, then.

In short, commercials are inescapable here - and not just at home. I am appalled to report that many thousands of schools across America now rely, at least in part, on educational materials provided by corporations, so that pupils are learning about nutrition from McDonald's and conservation and the environment from Exxon, among others. Since 1989, a company called Channel One has been beaming educational programmes to schools via a closed- circuit system. The programmes are free, but they are interspersed with commercials aimed specifically at young audiences. Now, I would call that obviously, palpably unacceptable and exploitative, but this is evidently a minority view. Channel One has been a big hit; its sets are in 350,000 classrooms.

Even Sesame Street programmes - this is truly heartbreaking - have become, in the words of the Boston Globe, "uninterrupted 30-minute commercials". As the Globe points out, Sesame Street products generate more than $800m in retail sales every year, and its executives enjoy salaries of up to $200,000 a year. Yet because the programmes are aired on public television in the States, the company receives an annual government subsidy of $7m.

I was about to say, think what would happen if that $7m were spent instead on inner-city schools, but then it occurred to me that what would happen is that they would go out and buy more television sets to hook more classrooms into Channel One.

Inevitably, this has made my brain throb, so I'm off to take a Tylenol. I understand that in a survey it was preferred over other brands by two to one. Or maybe I'm thinking of Pepsi.

`Notes from a Big Country', Doubleday, pounds 16.99)