Secret Pop

Nov 10, 2004

Setting the Stage for Public Service Announcements

I don't think serious products with serious messages should purchase advertising time on networks like Comedy Central and Spike TV. I was watching Comedy Central tonight (an episode of Crossballs -- the one about sexual harassment, which is further proof that Jerry Minor is the funniest man I have ever stood next to while he was wearing a cape while it was raining outside), and at the commercial break a spot began airing, featuring a man and a woman in a car on their way to a show. The woman (I'm assuming she was the wife) was cooing over a pair of tickets to something and saying how she couldn't believe he'd gotten such good seats. She was holding them up and grinning and carrying on, and the dude (I'm assuming he was the husband) was concurring, and then the woman looks up and sees lights and cries out and suddenly they've been in an accident. And he asks if she's okay, and she says she thinks so. And she asks if he's okay, and he says yes. Then she opens the car door, with a crinkly sound from the airbag and perhaps from the crumpled metal, and she approaches the driver of the other car, and they begin asking one another if they're okay, all with expressions on their faces as if they've just had an alien encounter. And, here's the thing: because I had just been watching a funny show, I was expecting satire. I was just in that frame of mind. So when the accident happened, I was expecting that the woman was going to lose her shit because the tickets had flown out the window. Or maybe, when she asked her husband if he was okay and it turned out that his legs had been telescoped by the steering column, she would shrug apologetically and get out of the car and hitch a ride to the show to make use of her wicked awesome tickets. And when the other driver got out of his car, I thought he was going to bitch them out. Maybe with a comical foreign accent. But then the voiceover began to play, and it turned out it was an Allstate commercial, giving viewers advice on how to handle a car accident, including tips on what to keep in the car in case you have to document a collision. All of this, of course, assuming you haven't lost all your fingers and are able to dial a cell phone, wind a disposable camera, and assemble a portable road hazard indicator. Maybe some of these functions can be performed with the flesh from your face. I don't know. The human spirit is indomitable. Anyway. I wasn't looking up at the clock, so I didn't know if it might be the top or bottom of the hour. Maybe this was the lead-in to an episode of Mad TV (in which case, I would be angry that I hadn't been able to change the channel fast enough). Maybe the Energizer bunny would begin making its percussive way across the screen any second now. It just didn't seem possible that this serious, perhaps even important message was sharing a viewing wall with a man with a robot vagina in his pants.

Something similar happened the other night when I was being introduced to Lost by Steve and Chris. We had been watching funny things and laughing a lot, and I was just in that mode where everything seemed stupid or ridiculous to me. And Lost is one of those shows with high melodrama in play anyway. So I kept expecting something wacky to happen, but it kept being serious and sort of scary and desperate. This is probably also why you shouldn't go watch a slapstick comedy just before attending a funeral or a baptism. No one appreciates a case of the giggles when Jesus is in the room.

My point is just that -- much as your sobering words about cancer or violence against women or healthcare or venereal disease need to be heard -- you should try and time it so that people hear those words after watching something neutral and lacking in irony, like a news magazine or Yes, Dear or something featuring Cedric the Entertainer. That way they won't feel gypped when they realize that there is no punchline to wait for.

On the other hand, if your product or service is amusing and whimsical and your message is clever and wit-laden, don't buy advertising time during a show about dog euthanasia or fetal alcohol syndrome. It's possible you'll be disappointed in the return on your investment.

This has been a morsel of mass-media marketing wisdom from Mary Forrest, professional former professional marketing professional.

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