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Scene and Heard

Sean Sweany | Friday, September 1, 2006

It’s an awful feeling. You’re watching your favorite program or a big game and one of the commercial breaks features the utterly worst commercial you’ve ever seen. Whenever a commercial featuring Willie Nelson, Joan Cusack, old men fishing and promoting Flomax, Dr. Scholls or any South Bend car dealership pops on the screen, anger and disgust start to arise like bile.

I had this exact experience recently with a certain Dr. Scholls commercial. Part of the “Are you gellin’?” series, the commercial plays on the word “gellin” and rhymes it with as many words as possible in an attempt to be funny. I became painfully aware of the fact that the writers of the commercial were trying far too hard to be funny, and the end result was a total lack of humor.

“Why,” I wondered, “can’t all commercials be funny and enjoyable?”

I had in mind such commercials as the Geico caveman ads, Aflac commercials, anything featuring Red Stripe and even the Vonage commercials where a spokesman tries to promote cell phones while a lobster gets stuck in a revolving door.

There is, of course, a reason for the disparity in funniness between various commercials. This disparity can be connected to a similar inconsistency found among stand-up comedians. Some comedians, such as Dane Cook, Mitch Hedberg and Jerry Seinfeld, are extremely funny, while others, such as Sarah Silverman and Gilbert Gottfried, lack the capacity to humor intelligent audiences.

The difference lies in that the first three comedians do not overextend themselves in their approaches to humor whereas the latter two try excessively hard to woo audiences and fail in the process. Thus, the best humor is unforced, natural and produces unaffected and hearty laughter.

Humor in television commercials functions in a similar manner. An ad depicting a caveman asking for roast duck at a restaurant is funny because it is not trying overly hard to be humorous. However, Dr. Scholls commercials trying to rhyme and ESPN Mobile commercials trying to use humor so subtly or wittily causes them to fall flat on a majority of television watchers and fail miserably.

The source of many poor commercials is clearly the Super Bowl. While Super Bowl ad time has produced many outstanding commercials in past years such as the Office Linebacker and a prehistoric FedEx spot, just as many bad commercials have come from Super Bowl ad spots. Given large amounts of money and a large public forum, writers overextend themselves and turn out horrible advertisements that in turn make it all right for more ads like these to be produced at times other than the Super Bowl.

In the face of poor advertisements like the ones mentioned here and many others floating around the airwaves, it is necessary to ask what can be done to end the pain and bring about better commercial watching. Doing away with Super Bowl ads is not an option given that some of the best commercials originate here. Simply muting the television or changing the channel when a horrible commercial airs also serves no purpose. The offending ad will still play even if you try to stage a one-person revolt against the television powers that be.

I propose that a reality television show be developed in which commercial writers are subjected to a jury of “ordinary Americans” that has the power to sentence writers of bad commercials to punishments of watching their own commercials for hours on end. In one or two seasons, a show like this could weed through the entire population of commercial writers – for how many can there possibly be?

In this way, I believe we can rid America of bad, unfunny commercial advertisements forever. Until then, we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Contact Sean Sweany at ssweany@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.