Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Another over-pumped, media-inflated Super Bowl will arrive on Feb. 6, inevitably generating as much buzz about the Fox telecast's mega-priced commercials as the game itself.
Actually, these are the ads within a larger ad, the Super Bowl having always been its own biggest commercial, its own sports steroid. The annual game is an incandescent Super Bowl of hype that, arguably more than any other single TV event, has come to symbolize the bulging biceps of promotion and salesmanship in our culture.
Unlike the World Series, the Super Bowl's popularity is rooted much less in history and tradition than in a visionary advertising strategy launched at its inception. This was highlighted when someone shrewdly attached Roman numerals to “Super Bowl,” as if chiseling spread formations and Hail Marys into ancient stone and granting Biblical rank to a football game whose outcome matters little to most Americans. Do you really care who wins? Of course you don't. But you've been sold a bill of goods saying you should.
Next month, for example, the Centurions will roll out Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., and one can almost hear a stereophonic voice commanding from the heavens: “THOU SHALT WATCH!” It is the voice of the Almighty—almighty Madison Avenue, that is.
I bring this up now because the Super Bowl, with all its macro flab, strikes me as a mere microcosm of television's propensity for nonstop selling—even when it appears not to. These days, the assault includes prescription-drug advertising aimed at consumers. Mind-boggling, isn't it? You're supposed to tell your doctor about these drugs. What kind of doctor has to learn about drugs from a patient?
My favorite TV spots are those pitching a pill for penile dysfunction. Cialis promises results but issues this disclaimer: “Although a rare occurrence, men who experience an erection for more than four hours should seek immediate medical attention.” Do they mean you should visit a doctor's office in that condition? Or maybe you should call 911: “Come quickly! I have an erection that won't go away!”
In this age of growing product placement, commercials are increasingly TiVo-proof. You can't fast-forward through commercials that are embedded in programs, much as they were in the early days of TV. In that regard, there is no better metaphor for our media culture and consumer-driven society than The Truman Show, Peter Weir's 1998 film; this movie immersed its hero in a commercial-laden universe akin to a giant theme park from which escape appeared impossible.
The ad bombardment in televised sports runs from the Super Bowl to commercials that are built right into titles (such as the Fed Ex Orange Bowl and Nokia Sugar Bowl) to individual self-promoters like college basketball's gasbag, Dick Vitale.
There has never been a more self-promotional medium than TV. It runs to awards shows that are, at their core, commercials for their respective industries. For example, take the Emmys, TV's annual thundering belch of self-praise that matters only to the dolled-up, high-fiving industry and the critics writing about it.
What are talk shows if not marketplaces for those selling books and movies? Anything beyond that is a bonus. Hucksterism in this genre is so endemic, so much taken for granted, that once, when Tom Selleck went on Rosie O'Donnell's talk show to plug a movie, he had a snit when she went further and quizzed him about a commercial he'd made for the National Rifle Association.
In TV news, moreover, what are local anchors if not gleaming hood ornaments who continually advertise themselves and pat their newscasts on the backs? A few years ago, KNBC Los Angeles anchor Kelly Lange delivered an exclusive report—about her own book party. Even more egregious was when KCBS Los Angeles interviewed the parents of a murdered child, during which the grieving mom and dad wore T-shirts emblazoned with the station logo.
Now rampant—and increasingly accepted—is cross-promotion typified by antics on The Early Show, the CBS morning news program that airs a regular Friday feature on the previous night's Survivor episode. And what of CNN, which boasts irrationally in scrawls across the bottom of the screen that it is “the most trusted name in news”?
This year, CNN again produced and heavily promoted a segment wondering who would be Time magazine's “Person of the Year.” Later came its lead headline proclaiming the pick was President Bush. Then came its viewer poll asking if Bush was a good choice. Then came its hour-long special, hosted by anchor Aaron Brown, detailing the process of choosing the person for the honorary title. Why would CNN squander so much time on such a trivial, even bogus, news event amounting to Time journalists' polling themselves as a way of advertising their own magazine? Well, maybe it's the fact that both CNN and Time are owned by Time Warner.
And if you're wondering about my credibility, don't sweat it. I'm not “the most trusted name in TV criticism” for nothing. (We agree!—The Editors)