Monday, February 15, 2010

Commercials Are Fun

I like a good tv commercial. I like being spoken to, on my own level, by someone who might have chosen to talk to me like I was a 2-year old but who wised up and thought, ‘hmm, maybe the object of my intentions has some wit, some style, some intelligence.’ I like those commercials with the talking babies because they make gentle fun of the frat boy-golfer thing which is, in fact, their market. (The fact is that I can’t tell you now, without looking it up, what they’re advertising, because it’s not a product I’ll ever use so I haven’t paid attention to that aspect. But I’m not here to argue the success of commercials. I’m just telling you what I like.) (Hmmm, it occurs to me that I suddenly sound like Andy Rooney, for which I hope you’ll forgive me.)

There are some commercials I hate. Hardees commercials are disgusting. Please imagine that I’m pronouncing the word “disgusting”with a “z” sound for the first “s” in the word. That’s how I feel about them. I don’t know if Hardees Hamburgers, which I believe is the fruit of some NC’ers palate and pocketbook, is indeed a national chain or whether it’s still fairly local. All I know is that the commercials are sexist to such a degree that even men of my acquaintance shudder at them. I know that I will avoid the restaurant because of the commercials but I also know that the commercials must be successful—as in, they bring in the customers—because they keep making new ones in the same vein.

A current commercial is worth a second look. On as scale of 1-10, I give it about a 7 or 8 for originality. The actors don’t talk, there’s only a voiceover by a really nice (like, you’d really like him if you knew him) sounding guy. We see a handsome middle-aged black man standing in front of his small barbershop, looking dismayed at the ‘Cheap Cutz’ haircutting franchise going up across the street. We see the Cheap Cutz grand opening: cheering crowds, a guy dressed like a pair of scissors. We see the big sign that says, “Cheap Cutz: Home of the $6 Haircut!” We feel for the friendly barber: how can he compete with such a big chain?

We are told by the friendly voiceover, that the barber is no dummy. We watch as the barber goes to an office supply store and pantomimes (for us) that he wants a biiiiig sign. The friendly customer attendant understands. Next frame: the barber has hung a sign outside his shop that says, “We Fix $6 Haircuts.” We are told that, six months later, Cheap Cutz has gone out of business. We smile. Chalk one up for the little guy! Take that, Corporate America!

The office store the barber went to...Office Depot. Office Depot! Yep, the national chain, Office Depot, a corporate entity if there ever was one, is making an anti-corporate commercial. One can only assume that they thought we wouldn’t notice. I noticed. As the longtime manager of a non-chain bookstore, believe me: I noticed.

This brings me to the end of my spiel but stick with me: it’s a fascinating end. Last week our bookstore had a reading by Bryant Simon who wrote "Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks." He imbibed a lot of Starbucks coffee, all around the world, in pursuit of something to say sociologically speaking. And what he said was fascinating. But here’s what I remember best: Simon has noted that even Starbucks is hitching their coffee wagons to the current anti-corporate feeling that’s (veerrrryyyy slooowwwllly) making its way across the country. His evidence? Very recently, Starbucks opened two new coffee houses in their hometown of Seattle. Did they call their new shops “Starbucks?” No. They did not. They named their new stores after the streets on which the stores reside. One is called Tenth Street Coffee House and the other Pine Street Coffee House. (I just made those names up because I can’t remember exactly what they’re called, but you get the picture.) Simon told our audience that you have to look hard, but that on some piece of signage in the new stores, in teensy letters, it says, “inspired by Starbucks.” Apparenty, Starbucks was afraid of anti-corporate backlash enough to camoulflage their own name!

We’re all adults here, unlike, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States of America, who somehow wasn’t able to figure out that corporations are, in fact, different from actual, like, people. But we’re the ones with the wallets. We can decide when to open our wallets. We can still decide where to spend the contents. We can decide whether to buy from Office Depot and Starbucks or whether, every once in a while, whether we might want to Buy Local.