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Joe Lavin's Humor Column

From The Boston Herald

This commercial is brought to you by Friends

April 17, 1999

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I first felt like a freak when I heard those words, "Do you know that commercial, you know the one where. . . ." and had no idea what the person was talking about. Until then, avoiding television had not really affected me. Nobody seemed to care that I did not know the latest X Files conspiracy or had never seen an episode of Ally McBeal. But now at last I was an outcast. A commercial that everyone loved was completely foreign to me.

In the past, popular television shows would regularly attract gigantic audiences. Shows like M.A.S.H., I Love Lucy, and Dallas formed a common bond among all Americans. Now, it's the Taco Bell dog that brings us together as a society. Television has become such a splintered universe that commercials are one of the few things on it actually seen by over half the population.

It is common to watch the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards just for the commercials, but it is almost as if people are watching the rest of television for the same reason. Television executives are always talking about the so-called "water cooler shows," shows so good that people will gather around the water cooler at work to talk about them the next day. But lately about the only thing on television that I hear people talking about are the commercials themselves.

And with television shows so bland, who can blame them? Let's face it. The 117th time you see the Taco Bell dog still seems more exciting than an "All New!" episode of Suddenly Susan. There are VCRs on the market that will automatically edit out the commercials; perhaps what we really need are VCRs that will cut out the programs themselves.

We may not want to admit it, but we love commercials. Routine magazine ads are tacked onto walls instead of posters, while big corporate web sites that are nothing but high tech commercials are attracting millions of eyeballs. Long ago, we would buy a shirt despite the logo. Now, we buy it for the logo. Someday, I fear that Shaq will get the Pepsi logo tattooed on his bicep, and thousands of teenagers will feel compelled to do the same. Companies won't have to pay to get their message across because we will do the dirty work for them.

Okay, I am being a little too paranoid about this, but commercials really have become our new entertainment. Witness the spots for ESPN's Sportscenter. Recently, a friend showed me a video of their latest commercial that someone had e-mailed him. It was amusing, probably funnier than anything else on television, but at the same time part of me was horrified. Finally, we have reached the point where people are e-mailing commercials to each other.

If the people at ESPN were smart, they would turn the commercial into a chain letter. "Please e-mail this ESPN ad to ten friends for good luck!"

I enjoy a good commercial just as much as the next person, but it is disturbing when advertising starts to become a more vibrant art form than the programs it sponsors. Like it or not, commercials may be the real Must See TV. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld who now entertains us with American Express commercials rather than a sitcom.

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