Advertising, TV, and You (Us)

Want to read a fascinating investigation into how the very existence of advertising on television affects TV viewing? We at TVWriter™ think of the following article as the Quantum Theory of Creative Quality (but we could have it all wrong):

This image found at Hawaii Institute for Unified Physics
This image found at Hawaii Institute for Unified Physics

by Emily Nussbaum

Ever since the finale of “Mad Men,” I’ve been meditating on its audacious last image. Don Draper, sitting cross-legged and purring “Ommmm,” is achieving inner peace at an Esalen-like retreat. He’s as handsome as ever, in khakis and a crisp white shirt. A bell rings, and a grin widens across his face. Then, as if cutting to a sponsor, we move to the iconic Coke ad from 1971—a green hillside covered with a racially diverse chorus of young people, trilling, in harmony, “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” Don Draper, recently suicidal, has invented the world’s greatest ad. He’s back, baby.

The scene triggered a debate online. From one perspective, the image looked cynical: the viewer is tricked into thinking that Draper has achieved Nirvana, only to be slapped with the source of his smile. It’s the grin of an adman who has figured out how to use enlightenment to peddle sugar water, co-opting the counterculture as a brand. Yet, from another angle, the scene looked idealistic. Draper has indeed had a spiritual revelation, one that he’s expressing in a beautiful way—through advertising, his great gift. The night the episode aired, it struck me as a dark joke. But, at a discussion a couple of days later, at the New York Public Library, Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, told the novelist A. M. Homes that viewers should see the hilltop ad as “very pure,” the product of “an enlightened state.” To regard it otherwise, he warned, was itself the symptom of a poisonous mind-set.

The question of how television fits together with advertising—and whether we should resist that relationship or embrace it—has haunted the medium since its origins. Advertising is TV’s original sin. When people called TV shows garbage, which they did all the time, until recently, commercialism was at the heart of the complaint. Even great TV could never be good art, because it was tainted by definition. It was there to sell.

That was the argument made by George W. S. Trow in this magazine, in a feverish manifesto called “Within the Context of No Context.” * That essay, which ran in 1980, became a sensation, as coruscating denunciations of modernity so often do. In television, “the trivial is raised up to power,” Trow wrote. “The powerful is lowered toward the trivial.” Driven by “demography”—that is, by the corrupting force of money and ratings—television treats those who consume it like sales targets, encouraging them to view themselves that way. In one of several sections titled “Celebrities,” he writes, “The most successful celebrities are products. Consider the real role in American life of Coca-Cola. Is any man as well-loved as this soft drink is?”

Much of Trow’s essay, which runs to more than a hundred pages, makes little sense. It is written in the style of oracular poetry, full of elegant repetitions, elegant repetitions that induce a hypnotic effect, elegant repetitions that suggest authority through their wonderful numbing rhythms, but which contain few facts. It’s élitism in the guise of hipness. It is more nostalgic than “Mad Men” ever was for the era when Wasp men in hats ran New York. It’s a screed against TV written at the medium’s low point—after the energy of the sitcoms of the seventies had faded but before the innovations of the nineties—and it paints TV fans as brainwashed dummies.

And yet there’s something in Trow’s manifesto that I find myself craving these days: that rude resistance to being sold to, the insistence that there is, after all, such a thing as selling out. Those of us who love TV have won the war. The best scripted shows are regarded as significant art—debated, revered, denounced. TV showrunners are embraced as heroes and role models, even philosophers. At the same time, television’s business model is in chaos, splintered and re-forming itself, struggling with its own history. Making television has always meant bending to the money—and TV history has taught us to be cool with any compromise. But sometimes we’re knowing about things that we don’t know much about at all.

Once upon a time, TV made sense, economically and structurally: a few dominant network shows ran weekly, with ads breaking them up, like choruses between verses. Then came pay cable, the VCR, the DVD, the DVR, and the Internet. At this point, the model seems to morph every six months. Oceanic flat screens give way to palm-size iPhones. A cheap writer-dominated medium absorbs pricey Hollywood directors. You can steal TV; you can buy TV; you can get it free. Netflix, a distributor, becomes a producer. On Amazon, customers vote for which pilots will survive. Shows cancelled by NBC jump to Yahoo, which used to be a failing search engine. The two most ambitious and original début series this summer came not from HBO or AMC but from a pair of lightweight cable networks whose slogans might as well be “Please underestimate us”: Lifetime, with “UnREAL,” and USA Network, with “Mr. Robot.” That there is a summer season at all is a new phenomenon. This fall, as the networks launch a bland slate of pilots, we know there are better options.

 A couple of months ago, at a meeting of the Television Critics Association, the C.E.O. of FX, John Landgraf, delivered a speech about “peak TV,” in which he lamented the exponential rise in production: three hundred and seventy-one scripted shows last year, more than four hundred expected this year—a bubble, Landgraf said, that would surely deflate. He got some pushback: Why now, when the door had cracked open to more than white-guy antiheroes, was it “too much” for viewers? But just as worrisome was the second part of Landgraf’s speech, in which he wondered how the industry could fund so much TV. What was the model, now that the pie had been sliced into slivers? When Landgraf took his job, in 2005, ad buys made up more than fifty per cent of FX’s revenue, he said. Now that figure was thirty-two per cent. When ratings drop, ad rates drop, too, and when people fast-forward producers look for new forms of access: through apps, through data mining, through deals that shape the shows we see, both visibly and invisibly. Some of this involves the ancient art of product integration, by which sponsors buy the right to be part of the story: these are the ads that can’t be fast-forwarded….