New evidence (as if we needed more) that business has taken over the American mind: Surfing the channels in these dog days of summer, it's hard not to conclude that the advertisements on TV are better than the shows.
Honestly, now: Who would really miss most of what's on TV? "Spin City?" "Dawson's Creek?" "Mad About You?" "Law and Order?" Will anyone remember anything about them five years from now? And those are the good shows -- the hits!
But who can forget the TV commercials that are woven around these insipid dramas and comedies? If the repo man took my 32-inch Sony, I'd sure miss seeing those Budweiser ads with Louie the lizard and the frogs. Or those cute Nike ads for the U.S. women's soccer team. Or even that obnoxious little Chihuahua who says, "Yo quiero Taco Bell."
The best thing on television in 1999 is the advertising. It's hip, it's funny, it's beautifully produced. And it doesn't make any pretenses. Who wants to channel click, just to watch another dopey show?
Give me those wonderfully disorienting "Imagine TV" ads for Mercury. Or the Gap khaki swing dancers. Or that Volkswagen Jetta ad where the couple are driving through the French quarter in the rain, and everything begins to move in sync, and they just say: "That was interesting."
It's hard for me to get nostalgic about old TV shows, too -- unless you go back to "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "I Love Lucy." Most of the '70s and '80s are lost in space when it comes to memorable shows. But the old advertisements define those years for me. The slogans and jingles bring memories rolling back. "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" "We make money the old-fashioned way . . . we earn it." "Roto-Rooter, that's the name . . . and away go troubles down the drain." "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." "GE -- We bring good things to life!"
I could go on: Tony the Tiger. Spuds MacKenzie. Elsie the Cow. Morris the Cat. The Energizer Bunny. These make-believe critters are more familiar to me than my own family pets.
Perhaps advertising is the true art form of our age. That's the theme of a delightful book published last month called "The 100 Best TV Commercials . . . and Why They Worked." Leafing through its pages is like wandering down the Main Street of America's collective unconscious.
The author, former New York magazine advertising columnist Bernice Kanner, is forthright about her preference for ads over the filler that comes in between: "Rather than seeing commercials . . . as insidious, I confess, I see them as artful -- a no-bones-about it reflection of our times," she writes. "I've never watched an episode of `ER' or `Seinfeld' all the way through, but I could probably describe the ads that ran on all of them."
It's the time-capsule aspect of these commercials that's intriguing. Is there a better emblem of the mind-set of 1962, for example, than John Cameron Swayze's ad for Timex watches. A diver named Raul Garcia jumps off a cliff in Acapulco and hits the water at 85 miles an hour with a Timex watch strapped to his wrist. "It took a licking and kept on ticking," Swayze proclaims.
And say what you like about the late '60s, for many Americans that decade was about Alka Seltzer. The decade started with the mascot, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, advising: "Relief is just . . . a swallow away." He was replaced by a talking stomach, which was replaced by a waiter pushing spicy food ("Try it -- you'll like it"), who was replaced by a fake ad in which the actor kept botching the line, "Mama Mia, that's a spicy meatball" and having to eat more spaghetti. I loved that last ad, but Kanner says it was a bomb. "People thought it was for spaghetti sauce and Alka-Seltzer sales slumped."
Or remember the ads for a wine cooler called Bartles & Jaymes, which captured the sensibility of the mid-1980s. They featured two imaginary country boys sitting on a dusty porch. "Frank Bartles" was the talkative one, while his partner, "Ed Jaymes," stared stone-faced at the camera.
"Hello," said Frank. "We were interested to learn from our most recent research that one of the groups that liked Bartles & Jaymes best are the yuppies. Well, if some of our customers have chosen to be yuppies as their calling, it is okay with Ed and me . . . And thank you for your support."
And we've all savored the cola wars, as Coke and Pepsi battled to increase market share. Kanner selects two ads that she says were the most popular commercials of their time: Coca-Cola's 1979 "Mean Joe Greene" ad ("Hey, kid . . . catch!" "Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe!") and Pepsi's 1990 "Uh huh" ad with Ray Charles ("You've got the right one, baby. Uh huh.").
And what politician can escape the famous 1983 Wendy's ad in which the little old lady, Clara Peller, screams: "Where's the beef?" That line will haunt presidential candidates for a generation.
Everyone will have his or her favorites from Kanner's top 100 list. And at the end of this crazy boom decade -- in which even the delirious enthusiasm of advertising doesn't capture the nation's romance with commerce -- it's hard not to agree with her conclusion:
"Selling is the language of our time and advertising is its boldest manifestation," she observes. "Like it or not, it's a pure expression of the world we live in today. If Michelangelo were alive today, he'd probably be working on Madison Avenue."