By Marc Jampole
Television commercials collectively present an idealized version of the real world. It’s the real world as imagined by the collective minds of the companies that advertise. “Ad World” is primarily a suburban, middle-class world of two-car, two-parent families and affluent singles surrounded by great friends. The ads always make clear that buying products and services is the road to happiness. Even when depicting single-parent families as Wal-Mart sometimes does in holiday season advertising, the overtone is positive and happy in Ad World—if the family has any problems, they can all be solved in the usual manner: by buying something.
One big question for those who investigate the impact of advertising and other mass media on society in general is the degree to which the idealized version of advertising reflects the real world and how much advertising actually shapes the real world.
Whether descriptive of the real world or prescriptive of what advertisers want that world to be, the values depicted in Ad World can lead to some very disturbing conclusions about America and the American people.
For example, let’s take a look at dogs in current advertising. It’s almost impossible to find a TV commercial that features a family without a dog. Dogs also inhabit commercials that depict the lives of the singles crowd in Ad World. The broadcast of the most recent Super Bowl, for example, included television spots featuring dogs for Doritos, Cheerios, Budweiser, MetLife, Toyota and Audi.
The trend to feature dogs in TV commercials started about 20 years ago, and every year it seems to intensify. The past few years have produced a number of very disturbing spots in which dogs are equated to humans, as much a part of a family as children or as the most important loved one. There was the spot for Cinnamon Toast Crunch a few years ago in which a 30’s something single woman compared eating the sugary cereal to the sensual feeling her dog must get when its belly is scratched. Or Traveler’s Insurance longtime ad series in which a dog is not only part of the family, but a role model for how human beings should act.
Consider a current commercial for Budweiser that focuses on how important it is to come home for loved ones who depend on you after a night of boozing. The denouement of the narrative is when a sad dog perks up because its owner has come home after spending the night away. The owner explains that he stayed at a friend’s house because he had a little too much to drink and didn’t want to drive home. Like many dog owners, the young man acts as if he believes that the dog can really understand what he’s saying.
This commercial could have featured a girlfriend, parent, roommate, brother or teenaged child as the symbol of “those we love who depend on us,” but the writers and the corporation that hired them selected a dog.
Are any of my dear readers—dog lovers or not—exasperated with me and ready to cry out, “They’re just trying to be cute”? Of course they are, but they are also communicating that dogs are as important as people, an ancillary message of so much TV advertising nowadays.
Let’s look at two other ads, both for dog products. In one spot, by a company named Blue, a narrator talks to the audience while we see happy images of a mother doing housework and her son and dog at play. The narrator is directing his words at the mother and by implication to all mothers. The message of the narrator is that you (mothers) care about all the people you love and want them all to eat nutritious food. Then the narrator goes on to explain all the great nutritional advantages of Blue dog food in language that out of context we would assume applied to humans. While the spot for Budweiser uses a dog symbolize all loved ones, this spot for Blue avers that the dog is as much of the family and as loved as the child.
The same sentiment equating (and I would say conflating) dogs with children takes place in a Pet Smart ad which discusses and displays the various treats one can get for one’s dog at Pet Smart to celebrate Halloween. Dogs after all are part of the family. You wouldn’t want them to be without their treats. I wonder if the people who buy Halloween-themed food and costumes for their dogs also take them trick-or-treating?
We all know cat ladies, but in the idealized world of television commercials, only dogs attain the special place in people’s hearts of children or friends. The number of commercials for food and other products for dogs far outnumber the number for cats. More significantly, cats never appear in commercials for other products, whereas you can see dogs in TV commercials for everything from laundry soap to automobiles.
It’s easy to figure out why corporate America would want to put a pet every yard, to join two cars in every garage and five cell phones in every house. Whatever the pet, the more people bond with the animal, more likely they will purchase goods and services for the animal. The pet becomes another thing to spend money on, and better than a car or a wardrobe, the spending is for someone you love, creating a strong emotional dynamic to the commercial transaction.
But why dogs?
I would hate to think that Ad World reflects reality accurately. I would hate to think that large numbers of people actually do prefer dogs to humans, or treat their dogs better than they treat the people they know. I would like to think that Ad World is an unreal place that only describes the aspirations that corporate America has for all of us. To my mind in a world in which people have food insecurity and public high schools have to give their pupils obsolete text books, all pets are a frivolity. I would be happy to see a small tax placed on all purchases of pets and products for pets, with the funds earmarked for programs to help poor and disadvantaged children.
Such a tax would be impossible in Ad World, of course, because in Ad World there are no poor people and the only hungry people are those about to sit down to a fast-food meal, pizza and beer or a bowl of chips.