Technology will be the religion of the '80s. The media are paving the way now. Enormously popular movies like "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" signal a sweeping reconcilation between human beings and science. If "Dr. Strangelove" taught us how to stop worrying and love the bomb," the new science-fiction fantasy tells us to stop worrying and love the computer.
In television, this new embrace of the technocratic millennium is less evident in programming than it is in commercials. TV commercials have long been more responsive to the immediated preoccupations of our culture anyway; they can be initiated more quickly and they are by nature and design incomparably more succinct.
The commercials of '77 say, among other things, that a giddy matrix of benign technologies - space exploration, cybernetics, electronic communication - is usher ing in a cool nirvana, a new age of media euphoria and light shows in the living room.What we may see in 1978 is the greatest wave in history of nostalgia for the future.
Except perhaps for those viciously distressing smoke-alarm ads - replete with body counts of barbecued families - all television comercials are messages positive in intent (do this, do that) and carriers of real or imagined Good News - of gums that go squirt of furniture polishes that cure "the blurs."
More and more of these optimistic extravaganzas are set in outer space or among futuristic trappings, and more and more large corporations are investing in image-boosting ads that herald marvels at hand and marvels yet to come. "ALCOA can't wait for tomorrow," says the announcer, and a viewer's response to all this insistently rosy romanticism may very well be, "Neither can I."
TV commercials have always been oases of spectacle in an arid medium; if not for them, there would be almost no special effects on TV, since most regularly scheduled programs have mundane themes and prosaic settings. The small budget for a series requiring special effects, like the short-lived "Logan's Run" on CBS, prohibits anything even remotely eye-boggling, but the budget for a single one-minute commercial can run as high as $250,000 and allows for all kinds of visual wonders.
Many of the commercials of '77 were embodiments of technological surge as well as endorsements of it. Several advertisers followed the lead of Levi's and 7-Up in using dazzling luminescent animation to impart commercial messages in phantasmagorical and non-linear ways. Youth-appealing record company commercials, like a current spot for MCA artists Elton John, Olivia Newton-John and Neil Sedaka, make the most elaborate use of these new techniques.
But thers's lots of other stuff incongruously though significantly floating through space in TV commercials - Orbit Gum "for a taste that's out of this world;" the Toyota Celica Liftback, "car of the '80s; and, of course, Ford's Futura, "a dramatic combination of styling and technology for 1978 . . . and beyond."
Revlon's Moisture Release takes us through a neon infinity tunnel ("as you move through time") decorated with "Star Wars"-like explosions. Glass Plus is demonstrated by a friendly robot a la R2-D2. Essense Rare by Houbigant sits smoldering in an eerie and unearthly landscape. Pioneer and Marantz stereo components pointedly and graphically promise trips to the moon on gossamer wings.
But the watershed commercial campaign, the one that verifies the trend, was actually introduced late in 1976 and will continue through 1978. In fact, it's an example of another major theme in TV commercials, today: nostalgia for the past. But this one is implicitly wistful about things to come as well.
The spots were produced for General Electric through the BBDO ad agency and star actor Pat Hingle as Thomas Alva Edison, who founded the company that became GE. Hingle's Edison appears in soliloquy, in these two-minute and one-minute spots, to extoll the virtues of experimentation, electricity, capitalism and competition with Biblical reverence and incredibly convincing, lo-key, semi-subliminal salesmanship.
They're so beautifully produced, so movingly acted by Hingle (almost unrecognizable under heavy makeup) and so suffused with love of technique that coming upon one on TV is a little like finding the Hope Dimaond in a pawn shop. The Edison series is the "Roots" of commercials; as a body of work, it's among the very, very few productions ever on television that you might reasonably call a masterpiece.
Indeed, Karl L. Koss, manager of corporate advertising for GE, says the viewer mail response has been "unprecendented" for the Edison series. "Nsually when we sponsor a show, 80 per cent of the mail praises the program and 20 per cent says, "The commercials were good, too.' But since we started with Hingle, it's been 80 per cent saying 'I like the commercials' and 20 per cent saying 'Oh, by the way, I like the show, too.'"
The ads, which will next be shown during a Feb. 1 GE Theater special on CBS - and which won Hingle a best-actor "Clio" award, the Madison Avenue Oscar - have been so effective that GE is producing a 30-minute live version which Hingle will perform for trade groups in 22 cities during 1978, the year of the company's centennial.
Among the other amazing things about the ads is that they were filmed with no cuts, no internal editing, so that Hingle had to deliver the Edisonian spiels in single continuous takes. Certainly this series of commercials has given him his most challenging TV role in years; one need only compare it with the cipher he was required to impersonate in the recent and idiotic CBS movie "Tarantulas - the Deadly Cargo" to see the point.
It may be, in fact, that 1977 will emerge as the year when, at last, the media quality of the television commercial substantially and dramatically bypassed the median quality of the television show. The best commercials tended to be better than the best shows and lousy commercials tended to be better than lousy shows. Television programming may never have been so simply and utterly barren; television commercials may never have been more spectacular, entertaining and jolly. It gets to be a matter of how you spell relief.
In an October interview for Videography magazine, media philosopher Marshall McLuhan declared, "The advertisement, because of its concern for effect and its understanding of the media for getting that effect, is the greatest art form there is. Years from now, the advertising of our century will be studied by all the great art experts. They will all be saying, 'Oh, boy, that artist was totally unknown, anonymous and ignored all his life. He was one of the greatest guys who ever lived.'"
Most television programs are produced to fill time. Production may be [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and loose because there is so much time to fill. Commercial production is just the opposite: a lot of production time to fill a small dot of temporal space on the air. "Advertising men know the effect they want before they start - they want sales," McLuhan says."That's why the art of advertising is the greatest art form in the world."
This hardly means that all TV commercials are works of art. Most continue to be terrible, some are intentionally grating. Tucker Inn, alas, has yet to be torched by vigilantes, rings are still found around collars, Parkay margarine still thinks it's butter, and men dismounting horses continue to make their first remake to companions, "Do you think I need a shower?"
And yet at many levels commercials in 1977 proved balm and salvation when considered in relation to the programs they interrupt. Even the smut was of more rarefield tone, as TV commercials exposed a bit more skin and dropped a few more innuendos. Generally, however, this was on a far more cheerful, less furtive, less guilt-ridden plane than the smut in shows like "Soap," where an actress recently got a big howl by describing another woman as being "in heat" after an apparent tryst in an airplane bathroom.
By contrast, who could repress a guileless, wily smile when confronted with the interlocking "Man" and "Woman" perfume bottles by Jovan? The flicking Bic's have ceased to be amusing, if indeed they ever were, but there's a wholesome sort of squeaky-clean sexuality to the assorted American types who sashay out from behind blue barrels to dance about in bath towels as they sing "take care of your birthday suit" for Nivea Skin Cream.
The double-entendre gets pretty thick on Tickle Deodorant commercials and Speidel's "Goes-all-the-Way" campaign, but it's still a sunny kind of smut, and not the morbid and dank carnal capers of "79 Park Avenue" or "Sharon: Portrait of A Mistress" or little miss nyphomaniac on the opening installment of "What Really Happened to the Class of '65."
As frequently noted in recent weeks, Nielsen ratings show a distinct decline in viewing levels as the televeision year ends, but it just can't be the commercials that are driving people away. Viewers may even have already learned how to stop worrying and love The Sponsor.
But while many of the new commercials radiate contagious technophilia and endorse the charmingly romantic notion that things in a general are going to get a whole lot better, that feeling of optimism may not extend to the very pulpit through which the commercials spread the gospel. What we soon may have, in other words, is a whole lot of great commercials and no programs to put them into - a message without a medium.