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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About TV Commercials

Does McDonald’s really need to remind you it exists? Is everyone suckered by commercials except you? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: TV commercials! They’re all stupid and you’re too good for them, right? Probably not with the Super Bowl about to commence…

Lie #1: Ads Are All About Selling Shit

They’re not just about selling shit. Like, to pick an upcoming ad at random, Turkish Airlines is airing a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl directed by advertising and cinema supremo Ridley Scott. They’re not doing so in the hope that the 100 million or so people watching are going to immediately book expensive flights to Istanbul (Istanbul couldn’t handle 100 million people suddenly showing up — it’s a big-ass city, with 15 million people, but still. At the very least, there’s not enough toilets.)

Some ad campaigns may have the sole aim of selling products, but many have harder-to-define goals. “It really depends what the brief is,” says Doug (not his real name), a high-up, awards-laden creative director at an ad agency. “Sell stuff, raise awareness, raise brand love, bash the opposition [although not in countries like the U.K., where you’re not allowed to be mean like that], launch a new product, change behavior — there are so many different goals. There are loads of different measures of metrics for ads, like product recall, brand affinity, direct action, share of voice on social, etc. It’s all very, very dull.”

Also, ad agencies want to win awards (of which there are loads); marketing departments have budgets they need to use or lose; and everyone wants something sexy to show shareholders. In other words, there are dozens of ways for Turkish Airlines to feel like they got their money’s worth before a single ticket is sold.

Lie #2: Surely This Company Is So Big It Doesn’t Need To Advertise?

It’s kind of bonkers how much is spent on advertising by brands so enormous and unavoidable that they’ve pretty much become the default. Surely, you think, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s could save themselves some cash by cutting back on the ads a bit? Nobody’s turning on the TV, seeing an ad for Coke and going, “Whoa, what the fuck is that? It looks delicious!”

In April 2019, for instance, McDonald’s spent $50,611,793 on TV advertising. Fifty million bucks in 30 days, and everyone already knew they made burgers before that, and everyone knew they made burgers after that. What harm would a break do? Well, let’s look at it this way: In that month, McDonald’s made about $1.78 billion in revenue, making their TV ad spend for the month less than they make in a day — if spending less on advertising made even a tiny dent in that total, it wouldn’t be worth it. 

It’s also shocking how quickly a company can lose brand recognition. Between 2012 and 2017 or so, Virgin Atlantic felt they were well-enough known to reduce their TV ad spend, and ended up damaging their brand massively in terms of public familiarity — they’ve since started spending a fortune again, and made more money as a result. 

Finally, there’s the fact that, if McDonald’s stopped, their rivals would immediately fill that gap (weirdly, as of six months ago, McDonald’s and KFC are both handled by the same ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy), and they could lose that top spot. They’d still make loads of money, but what if they didn’t make quite as much? Heads would roll, shareholders would shit, Ronald McDonald would head into the woods with a length of rope… It’s not going to happen.

Lie #3: Actually, Ads Don’t Work on Me, Actually

They probably do, yo. We have a tendency to assume everyone else is vastly more easily led than us, something known as the third-person effect hypothesis. It’s basically the thought process of, “I can see how this advertisement / scary film / violent pornography could convince / terrify / warp ordinary people, but not someone like me.” Nobody thinks they were influenced by dodgy ads during an election, while everyone knows other people were.

Ads do work on you. Even if you don’t buy an advertised product, you know about it. That might make you a smidge more likely to buy it, be impressed when someone else does or perceive it as “acceptable” in some way. Information is getting into you, even if you aren’t conscious of it.

Decision-making is generally emotional rather than rational, even when it doesn’t feel it. Slumping, relaxed, on the couch, paying minimal attention during an ad break, is what’s been termed “low attention processing,” and can actually lead to stronger emotional connections to products, as messages bypass conscious learning and go straight into long-term memory. Pleasant, funny ads featuring attractive people build positive associations in your mind whether you want them to or not — a much more successful advertising technique than the “buy this, you peasant” hard sell you congratulate yourself for not falling for. 

Lie #4: Commerce Is the Enemy of Art

The idea that advertising is by its very nature terrible, and that nothing done with the purpose of making money is of any artistic merit, stands up to very little scrutiny, but has still been flung about by celebrated thinkers like Arthur Miller (“when a thing becomes commercial, it becomes the enemy of man”); Bill Hicks (who wished for everyone involved in marketing to commit suicide); and George Orwell (who called advertising “the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket”). It’s a dumb thing to say, said by dumbasses.

Sure, lots of ads are shitty. But what about what they lead to? A lot of huge stars got their first-ever paychecks for appearing in crappy ads, and the occasional lucrative day’s work shilling toothpaste was in all likelihood the difference between the acting dream being pursued and not.

Similarly, so, so many directors started out in ads. We wouldn’t have had Alien or Blade Runner without Ridley Scott honing his skills selling bread. As well as training filmmakers up and letting them try new techniques, chunky ad fees can free them to pursue more creative projects that might not necessarily make money — Ad Astra director James Gray has said that advertising is his day job, which allows him to pursue his passion of making films, while even Ken Loach made a McDonald’s ad in 1990 because he had a family to feed, and it was that or sell his house and get a day job.

And fuck it, commercials can be art. Honda’s 2003 ad Cog won every award going, is fairly undeniably a thing of beauty, sold a shitload of Accords and made Honda half a billion dollars. Sure, Nineteen Eighty-Four is good, but a really long Rube Goldberg machine made of car parts is better.

Lie #5: “Stay tuned after these messages for a classic episode of [insert beloved sitcom name here]”

They’re missing the word “ruined” here. For the last few years, cable networks have been speeding up older TV episodes and movies in order to fit more ads into the timeslot. The TV equivalent of watching YouTube on 1.25x speed allows them to fit as many as six extra commercials into a half-hour block allocated to a sitcom, at the mere cost of distorting beloved characters’ voices and comfortingly familiar theme tunes, and generally providing the least-desirable way of watching Seinfeld conceivable. 

It’s both a vicious and stupid spiral — hardly anybody watches traditional TV anymore, so in order to make up for their low ratings, TV stations butcher their output, making an unpleasant experience and ensuring even smaller audiences in the future. Sitcom writer Ken Levine, a veteran of Cheers, M*A*S*H and The Simpsons, says of the practice: “Is the mistrust of your brand and eventual audience exodus worth the revenue of those two extra minutes? My guess is the people in charge would say yes. They’re not going to be in those jobs in five years, so what do they give a shit?”