Saturday, January 30, 2010

TV Commercials: Take Only As Directed

I’m not much of a techie, but of all the new technological advances that have come along to enhance (or, depending on your perspective, clutter) our lives in recent years, one of my favorites is the Digital Video Recorder, or DVR.

I remember a time when, in order to see something on TV, you had to find out when it was going to be shown, clear your schedule so there would be no interruptions during the show, and make sure your butt was planted in front of the TV when the show aired. If you missed it ... well, you were screwed. This was waaay back in the days before VCRs.

(For my younger readers, VCR stands for Video Cassette Recorder. A VCR was a boxy, clunky piece of primitive technology into which you could insert boxy, clunky videotapes that would record television broadcasts, providing you were able to understand the instruction manual. These manuals were translated from Japanese into English by people who were familiar with neither, so sometimes you didn’t record the show you wanted to see, and when you did, it usually was an accident. The VCR came equipped with a small, mystifying digital display where the number 12:00 constantly blinked off and on, a feature no one quite understood.)

Today, there is no reason to plant your butt in front of the TV until you’re damned good and ready. By thumbing a few buttons on your remote, you can set the DVR to record and store all your favorite shows and movies so you can watch them at your leisure without having to deal with a poorly written manual, videotapes or a blinking 12:00. But the DVR has given us more than the convenience of watching TV shows whenever we want with great ease. It also has allowed us to rid our lives of something that has been disrupting TV viewing ever since the first time Uncle Milty strapped his prodigious member to his leg and put on a dress: The commercial.

Back in those grainy, antediluvian days before the VCR, the commercial was the bane of every TV viewer’s existence. We all complained about them, but nobody did anything about them –- there was nothing we could do. Commercial breaks were the time to go to the bathroom, head for the kitchen to get a snack, or –- in my case, anyway –- do your homework.

But sometimes we didn’t go to the kitchen or bathroom. Sometimes we just sat there and watched the dog chasing the little Purina covered wagon through the kitchen, or Mother Nature getting pissy because somebody switched her butter with margarine (“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”), or active women smiling and laughing as they went swimming, horseback riding and bicycling while wearing tampons, or Mr. Whipple secretly getting his jollies by squeezing the Charmin while no one was looking (the old perv), or Madge sneering at some airheaded housewife, “You’re soaking in it,” or Mikey actually liking the cereal, or Claire Peller asking, “Where’s the beef?” or Brooke Shields engorging penises across the country by whispering the words, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvin Kleins.” Sometimes, we just sat there and sang along with the jingles –- like “Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is,” or “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee,” or “My bologna has a first name,” or “Muncha buncha muncha buncha muncha buncha muncha buncha Fritos go with lunch,” or “Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” (sung by David Naughton a few years before he went to London to become an American werewolf).

My god, it just occurred to me that some of these commercials haven’t aired in thirty or forty years ... and I still remember them! But that’s a commercial’s job –- to stick in your mind the way a fishbone lodges in your throat. But unlike the fishbone, we too often swallow the commercials. Of course, as annoying as they were, many of the commercials back then were entertaining and iconic. Their slogans became part of our lexicon, their images part of our culture, and we found ourselves humming or singing their jingles when we least expected it. We still do. Commercials haven’t changed a whole lot. What’s changed is the technology, which allows us to avoid them. But in spite of that, they still manage to work their way into our brains, because sometimes, despite the available technology, we still sit and watch.

Most of the Geico commercials are pretty funny –- I like the gecko and the cavemen. But there’s one that says, “Accidents are bad. Geico is good.” Who is that commercial targeting? Two-year-olds? Glenn Beck fans? Maybe they figured that since it’s worked so well for talk radio –- “The left is bad. The right is good.” –- it would work to sell insurance, too.

For a few years now, I’ve been thinking I should become a Netflix subscriber because I watch a lot of movies and the video stores in my area have very limited selections. But I refuse to give them my business as long as they’re running commercials featuring the Wrightnow family. Have you seen these? I have nightmares about this family! I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react to this ad campaign, but I can tell you how I do react –- not well. Is this how Netflix sees it’s customers –- as grinning automatons who stiffly go through life with mindless enthusiasm and wide, empty eyes? Whatever the reasoning behind those ads, they scare me –- away from Netflix.

Like any other big business that wants to sell its product and make fat profits, religion hawks its wares in TV commercials. A series of commercials for Scientology offers you the opportunity to be as batshit crazy as Tom Cruise. They’re slick, attractive, and they say a whole lot of nothing –- which is perfectly in keeping with religion.

There have been commercials from the Assemblies of God and the Mormons and a number of other Christian or pseudo-Christian sects. But for my money, the most irritating -– and even infuriating –- commercials on TV at the moment are those for the Catholic church.

It seems the Catholic church has taken a break from its busy schedule of training, employing and actively protecting child rapists to create a series of commercials designed to remind lapsed Catholics how good it once felt to belong to the organization that brought you symbolic cannibalism, dark booths in which you ejaculate the contents of your guilty conscience all over a guy through a hole in the wall, and the Inquisition. These commercials seem to be asking the question, “Remember how easy life was back when we did all your thinking for you?” They are not only slick, they are brilliantly deceptive.

The narration by a soothing male voice is carefully worded to suggest that the Catholic church invented the hospital, the college, and the scientific method and laws of evidence. While there’s a little truth that last part, the church has not exactly been friendly toward the findings of the scientific method and laws of evidence. Galileo, anyone? Remember, in 1992, about 360 years after convicting him of heresy, the Catholic church agreed to agree with Galileo Galilei that the earth revolves around the sun. So much for scientific method and the laws of evidence. In these glossy commercials, people –- ostensibly everyday Catholics –- give testimonials as to why they returned to the church while accusatory phrases like “Didn’t go to mass,” “Drifted away from church,” and “Was divorced” float ghost-like on the screen. (I’d like to see some commercials featuring priests in which we see similar floating phrases like “Fingered little Mary’s bead,” and “Fucked a choirboy in the rectory.”) But I guess these commercials shouldn’t be too surprising. The money to pay off all those sexual molestation settlements has to come from somewhere.

But for deception that approaches criminal levels, nothing on television can compare with the endless barrage of commercials for prescription drugs, which now dominate –- by a very wide margin –- every commercial break on TV. Ever since Nancy Reagan told us to “Just say No,” America has been at war with drugs. At least, we’ve been at war with illegal drugs. While we’ve been doing that, pharmaceutical companies have infiltrated and seized control of the American medical establishment, the FDA and television air time and have turned this into a nation of unapologetic, hypocritical, pill-popping drug addicts. There’s a whole generation of young people right now who may not know that, once upon a time, we would go to our doctor, he would examine us and maybe he would tell us we needed to take a pill for something. Now we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our own homes. Now drug companies show us pretty pictures on TV while they instruct us to tell our doctors what pills we think we need.

There was a time when pharmaceutical companies marketed drugs to treat diseases. Now they market diseases to create a demand for their drugs. Having a bad day? YOU’RE DEPRESSED! Feeling nervous? YOU HAVE AN ANXIETY DISORDER! Do you have a penis that’s not as hard as a rock right now at this very moment? YOU NEED A BONER PILL! Do you have annoying gooey stuff in your nose? YOU NEED AN ALLERGY DRUG! Legs feeling twitchy? YOU HAVE RESTLESS LEG SYNDROME! There are a lot of reasons this has happened. Among them is the cozy relationship the government (meaning politicans whose pockets have been thickly lined by drug companies) has allowed to develop between the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry now virtually owns and operates the FDA. But mostly, this has happened for the same reason all the other bad things that have happened to this country have happened –- because we, you and I, have sat on our hands and allowed it to happen. And now it seems we’re too drugged up to do anything about it.

If you watch television for any length of time –- meaning long enough to see so much as one commercial break –- then you’ve seen these commercials. I’ve sat through commercial breaks in which every other commercial was for a prescription drug. They all employ the same techniques: Vivid, colorful images, charming music, and always a voice that speaks in a comfortable, pleasing tone that remains consistent and never wavers. First, the voice may ask you questions about your health and suggest that you could feel better in one way or another. It tells you that this drug –- the drug being advertised –- could be precisely what you need. It’s all very lulling and you get so relaxed and complacent while you watch that it kind of blurs together, so when the voice begins to list the possible side effects without so much as a hint of change in that pleasing tone, you hardly notice. Words like “stroke” and “heart failure” and “seizures” and “changes in mood” and “gambling and sexual urges” and “memory loss” and “serious skin conditions” and “long-term injury” and “loss of hearing or vision” and “partial paralysis” and “life-threatening” and “depression” and “suicide” and –- my personal favorite –- “death” are spoken in exactly the same smooth and creamy way the rest of the narration has been delivered and they seem to blend in with the pretty images and the nice music in a way that makes them hardly noticeable at all. And then the narrator tells you to be sure and ask your doctor if this drug is right for you. Sometimes that voice adds that if you cannot afford this drug, the manufacturer is more than happy to help you out. And even if you can afford it, you’ll find that the manufacturer has provided your doctor with oodles of free samples of the drug that he’s quite willing to share with you and his other patients.

Remember when drug pushers were depicted in movies and TV shows as slimy, scummy, despicable lowlifes who had no humanity and didn’t care at all that they were dishing out ultimate addiction, misery and self-destruction? All that is gone now. Well ... the “slimy, scummy, despicable lowlife” part is gone, anyway. The rest is still going strong.

My favorite drug commercials are the ones that try to, um ... arouse your interest in boner pills. Here’s what boner pill commercials say:

Do you have a penis? Does someone you love have a penis? Does that penis always work the way you want it to at precisely the moment you want it to every single time? Are you middle-aged or older and finding that your johnson isn’t working as ... hard as it used to? Now that you’re getting a little long in the tooth, are your stiffies getting a little short in duration? Are you not yet middle-aged but simply insecure about your dingus’s ability to perform? Have you never ever had a problem with your flesh flute but suffer from the gnawing anxiety that you might when you least expect it? Are you concerned that your crotchnoodle isn't a little more al dente? Do you worry that your dicktionary has lost some of its definition? Have you ever, at any time, had a single, solitary worrisome thought, no matter how brief or fleeting or irrational, about your wangdangler?

Of course, the commercials say all of that without actually saying any of it. And they don’t say any of it with brilliant and effective clarity. Actually, they say it all with two simple words made up of six tiny syllables: ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION. That phrase is not exactly specific. It’s fairly general and all-encompassing. That’s what makes “erectile dysfuntion” –- or ED for those desperate to give it a shorter, friendlier name –- sound so menacing. Those two words strike cold fear into every man’s pants. But now we have a pill for that. Actually, we have several pills for that. In fact, we have more pills for erectile dysfunction than we have for most real diseases that make you seriously ill. And if you don’t have any actual erectile dysfunction for these pills to treat, then maybe they can do something about that cold fear in your pants.

Doctors across the country are reporting that large numbers of male patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s –- men who are quite virile and healthy, with no real erectile dysfunction at all –- are coming in with complaints of a cold or back pain or headaches just so they can casually ask, as if it just happened to occur to them at that moment, “By the way, I’d like to try one of those erection pills like Viagra or Cialis because I’m having a little problem ... “ The real problem these men are having is unrealistic expectations of their gigglesticks or perhaps difficulties with their relationships that aren’t even associated with Admiral Winky’s ability to stand up and salute. Some have problems related to drug abuse, while others suffer from nothing more than a low self-image. The point is, these guys don’t need these drugs. And yet they are willing to risk diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, heartburn, a stuffy nose, nausea, a rash, hives, itching, difficulty breathing, swelling of the mouth, face, lips or tongue, fainting, chest pains, fast or irregular heartbeat, memory loss, numbness of an arm or leg, weakness on one side of the body, a painful or prolonged erection, ringing in the ears, seizures, severe or persistent dizziness, respiratory tract infection, back pain, flu symptoms, joint pain, anemia, rectal bleeding, lack of coordination, asthma, cataracts, temporary or permanent decrease or loss of vision and/or hearing (that’s blindness and deafness, folks), and –- my personal favorite –- sudden cardiac death, all so they can feel better about their perfectly healthy and normal lap lizards.

There’s a series of boner pill commercials that show middle-aged couples doing fun things together –- dancing, sunning on the beach, sailing in a boat. Of course, these couples never look like real middle-aged couples. They're perfectly coiffed, there's not an ounce of fat on them, they have great skin -- they look like people who model underwear and sleepwear for Sears or JC Penney catalogs. They’re not the kind of people you see at, say, Walmart. I’m not even sure these people would be allowed into Walmart. While these couples smilingly enjoying each other’s company –- instead of, say, glaring contemptuously at each other because the kids are gone and they have no more distractions from their loathsome, long-dead marriage –- that ever-present narrator asks if you’ll be ready when “the moment” comes. You know the moment, guys. The one where you’ll be expected to perform? Will you be ready? Because let’s face it, you don’t look like this guy. We can tell that this guy never gets zits on his ass, probably never farted in his life, and if you were running around on a beach or shaking your booty on the dance floor with your wife, you’d probably be too winded to perform, right? So ... will you be ready? Because if you're afraid you might not be ready –- hey, have we got a pill for you!

My favorite boner pill commercials are the ones in which a group of middle-aged guys do fun things together. There are no women here, just the guys, smiling and laughing and looking chummy. Apparently, they’re so happy with their shiny new drug-induced erections that they’re celebrating by riding around in convertibles and playing musical instruments together. Of course, there’s always the chance that these guys aren’t interested in women. Maybe this commercial is subtly aimed at middle-aged gay guys. Maybe when they’re not riding in convertibles together or playing old pop tunes from the ‘60s, they’re having Crisco parties or tap-dancing in men’s rooms. (Now there’s a commercial I’d like to see –- a guy is in a men’s room stall adjusting his stance when a foot in the next stall taps significantly and the narrator asks, “Will you be ready when the moment comes?”) But if they are straight, I wish the commercial would show the part when they get home and their wives ask where they’ve been. “Oh, I was out with the guys, honey. We were celebrating our beef missiles. What’s for dinner?”

Commercials for prescription drugs are some of the longest on television. Among the longest of these are the commercials for Chantix, the pill that helps you stop smoking. As we all know, smoking can kill you in the long run. But tobacco is a powerful addiction and quitting is next to impossible. Along comes Chantix, from our good friends at Pfizer, a drug that can remove your cravings for cigarettes ... and kill you in the long run. The newest series of Chantix commercials features warm, sincere-sounding testimonials from former smokers who were able to kick the habit thanks, they claim, to this drug. They tell us about their spouses, children and grandchildren and how much happier all of them are now that they no longer smoke. And somewhere in all of this, in that fuzzy, easy-to-ignore way, the narrator tells you about the possible side effects of Chantix, which include nausea and vomiting, sleep disruption such as vivid, unusual, or strange dreams, gas and constipation, serious skin reactions such as rash, swelling, redness and peeling of the skin, and changes in behavior such as hostility, agitation, depression and suicidal thoughts and actions. Now, if these were honest commercials, they would include one with a former smoker discussing her happy family, then she'd pause nervously, dart her eyes around for a moment, and add in a quiet voice, “Of course, I ... I hung my nephew in the shower a-a-and I nailed my husband’s cock to the bathroom counter with a nailgun." Big smile. "But, hey, I haven’t had a craving or a cigarette in months!”

For a brief time not too long ago, Chantix commercials also mentioned that this drug can cause the deadly disease of diabetes. No mention of diabetes is made in commercials for Chantix now. That doesn’t mean the risk no longer exists, it just means that Pfizer no longer mentions it in the commercials. And Pfizer’s close, personal, intimate friends at the FDA –- so many of whom are assured luxuriously cushy and high-paying jobs in the pharmaceutical industry when they leave the FDA –- are, for some reason I can’t possibly imagine, perfectly comfortable with that. No mention is made of any of the specific incidents of violence, suicide and death that have been associated with Chantix, nor is mention made of the fact that the serious mental problems –- such as hostility, violence, depression and suicidal urges –- sometimes occur while taking Chantix and sometimes after stopping Chantix, so stopping the drug won't necessarily help.

On April 1, 2008, the FDA released a video warning of the potentially deadly mental problems that can be caused by Chantix. On April 3, 2008, the FDA pulled the video. Here it is. And here's another video about Chantix that you might want to watch. Thanks to the advances made by pharmaceutical companies, now it's not only true that smoking is a risky habit, trying to stop can screw you up, too.

But the most common drug commercials are those for antidepressants. Maybe you’re old enough to remember that back in the 1980s, we had a sudden outbreak of depression. At least, that was the case according to the media. Everywhere you looked –- on the news, in magazines and newspapers, on TV and radio talk shows –- the big topic suddenly became depression, with occasional references to anxiety. It was everywhere, it seemed. It was afflicting young people, old people, and everyone in between. Even dead people! Some went so far as to say that, according to what we now know, it was very likely that this dead writer or that long-dead artist or that still-seriously-dead movie star probably suffered from –- you guessed it –- depression.

Then one day late in 1987, our heroic friends at Eli Lilly revealed that they’d saved the day by coming up with a pill that fixed depression! And just in time, too! Oh, happy day! Let there be dancing in the streets! We were all thrilled about this because Eli Lilly had, of course, neglected to tell us about all the people who’d died in the trials of this drug or about its many potential side effects –- some of which are appallingly serious –- and they also failed to reveal that the drug was hardly anymore effective than a placebo. But that wasn’t important, was it? No, what was important was –- we had a new drug!

Now we have more antidepressants than we know what to do with. There’s even an antidepressant meant to be taken with an antidepressant –- Abilify, which sounds like a word you’d hear from George W. Bush. “This will abilify me to presidenticate my decidification duties.” In the Abilify commercial, actors portraying non-actors say they are on an antidepressant, but want to know what they should do about the fact that the antidepressant just isn’t working for them. I’m always happy to answer their question: “Stop taking the damned thing, you fucking rocket scientist!” But they never listen to me. Instead, they listen to the narrator, who explains that if their antidepressant isn’t working, what they need to do is start taking a second antidepressant. Somehow, this just doesn’t make any sense to me. If you go to Joe’s Computer Shop and buy a Brand Z computer and find when you get it home that it doesn’t work in any way –- nothing about this thing works, nothing –- do you respond to this discovery by going to Joe’s Computer Shop and buying another Brand Z computer? Of course not. Not unless you are a hopeless idiot. But Abilify isn’t a computer, it’s a drug –- with serious side effects. They include seizures, fever, confusion, the urge to hurt yourself, stiff muscles, fast or uneven heartbeat, numbness or weakness, sores in the mouth and on the lips, and a real whopper –- something called akathisia.

Akathisia is a very disturbing disorder that makes you feel like you’re about to jump out of your skin with jittery restlessness and causes uncontrollable shaking and jerking motions. Akathisia has been known to drive people to violent acts against others and themselves if it becomes severe enough. In two recent trials, Abilify caused akathisia in 25% of the subjects. One quarter of the subjects! Did this cause great concern among the people at Bristol-Meyers Squibb or Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, the people behind Abilify? Did they halt production out of concern for the people currently taking Abilify or who might take Abilify in the future? No. How did they react? They said, Let’s try to hide it and keep selling the drug, anyway. And Abilify is still being sold, still being marketed to you and your friends and your loved ones with glossy TV commercials that run around the clock. Three cheers for the free market!

The FDA has stated that antidepressants are virtually without benefit. The FDA has stated antidepressants are loaded with risks to those who take them. And keep in mind, the FDA is a good buddy of the pharmaceutical industry, so if they’re saying this, something is really wrong and the FDA is covering it’s ass just in case the shit hits the fan. Don’t believe me about this? Read Medication Madness: A Psychiatrist Exposes the Dangers of Mood-Altering Drugs by Dr. Peter Breggin.

I’m certainly not trying to say that all drugs are bad. Drugs save and improve lives every day. There are a lot of drugs out there that are extremely effective and do exactly what they're supposed to do. But those aren’t the ones being advertised. The drugs featured in all those long commercials with the soothing narrators are the unnecessary drugs, the ineffective drugs. That’s why those commercials exist –- to convince you that those drugs are necessary and effective. And the companies that manufacture and sell them are making billions of dollars every year by putting millions of people at great risk due to the possible side effects of the ineffective drugs they don’t really need. Of course, the drug companies get self-righteous and blustery when this is pointed out and say they spend most of their time and money developing new drugs to save lives and heal sick people. And that would be great –- if it were true. The fact is, drug companies spend most of their time and money doing two things –- trying to extend the patents on their very profitable, unnecessary, ineffective, risky drugs, and trying to market their very profitable, unnecessary, ineffective, risky drugs. Don’t believe me? Read The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us And What To Do About It by Marcia Angell, M.D.

Commercials are more than the annoying breaks between plot points on Law & Order. They do more than make you wait for the decision of the judges on So You Think You Can Dance. All those smiling faces, all those catchy jingles, all those gentle, soothing narrators, all those stock-trading babies and animated blobs of talking mucus have a purpose. They are meant to get inside your head, find your confidence, and seize it. They will tell you anything they think you want to hear. And they spend an enormous amount of time and money trying to find out what it is you want to hear, what works best in gaining your confidence, how best to make you open your mind just enough so they can slip inside and find a comfortable place to settle down for awhile. Sometimes, the only result is that you find out the laundry detergent you bought doesn’t get your clothes as clean as you were told it would, or the spaghetti sauce you tried isn’t as thick and rich as you were led to believe. But sometimes what happens is that you douse yourself with gasoline and set yourself on fire. Sometimes what happens is that you become filled with inexplicable rage and beat or strangle your child. Sometimes what happens is that you begin bleeding out of your anus and drop to the floor dead of a heart attack.

So don’t believe everything you see on TV.