Advertising Agents Take It For Granted That Consumers are Ignoramuses

Created by longtime State Farm ad agency DDB Chicago, the campaign launched Thursday with a television spot during the first game of the NBA Finals. The commercial opens with ominous scenes that play out well. Tornadoes give way to rainbows, fires spontaneously extinguish and a boy on a bike miraculously weaves through traffic. A youthful voice ponders what a State Farm agent would do in a world where nothing went wrong.

The answer? Sell you assorted financial services. – from a Chicago Tribune article on State Farm’s newest ad campaign

There’s a reason that since its first introduction into the majority of households in the 1940s and 1950s, the television has been derisively dubbed “the idiot box”.  Of course, this colloquialism arose from the fact that passive viewing of the often insipid fare offered by the handful of networks at the time required far less imagination and brain power than previous forms of family entertainment: conversation, reading, storytelling, games, and even listening to serial stories on the radio.  In the latter example, at least the imagination was employed to create a visual scene in the listener’s mind to complement the narration.  There were, of course, a handful of early TV shows that had at least a moderate degree of quality: The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy come to mind as exceptions to the rule that comedy and even drama had to fit a formulaic pattern designed to hypnotize the viewing public into relying less and less on imagination and intellect.

But of course, things have only gotten worse since then.  As recently as the 1980s, popular shows that attracted massive viewership included such moronic fare as Diff’rent Strokes, Alice, The Facts of Life, Small Wonder, Macgyver, Manimal, Cop Rock and many others too numerous to list.

At some point in the 1990s, a Hollywood writer’s strike forced network executives to come up with an alternate plan.  Since writers were on hiatus, networks created a new form of programming dubbed “reality TV”.  These were (and are) allegedly unscripted shows that gave us a window into the “real lives” of ordinary people: MTV stopped playing music videos entirely and inundated its viewers with endless episodes of “The Real World”, the premise being that of young adults of disparate backgrounds and personalities being forced to live in a house together.  The “drama” centered around the almost certainly fabricated differences, arguments and conflicts between these unlikely housemates.  Upon discovering this show, I wondered to myself (as I still do), “Why would anyone want to watch a handful of annoying roommates argue and scream over such minutiae as whose turn it is to wash the dishes?  I never even enjoyed interacting with difficult roommates in my own life; what could possibly make it more appealing to watch the same thing involving complete strangers?”  Well, the public became inexplicably enthralled with the almost assuredly staged conflicts between these stereotypically annoying roommates and “reality TV” soon became the most popular form of entertainment, long after the writer’s strike ended.  All networks jumped on the bandwagon, offering such programs as Big Brother, American Idol, Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, countless shows about pawn shop proprietors, unpleasantly antagonistic motorcycle mechanics, Southern idiots who make a living creating duck calls, parents who cannot seem to stop reproducing, the lives and times of the Kardashians (as well as countless other “real housewives”), and perhaps most shameless of all, addicts being hoodwinked into family interventions after being told that they were just chosen as subjects for a documentary on addiction itself.  We now get far more enjoyment in viewing “real” but pedestrian conflict between formerly unknown people than we do from quality storytelling.

But I set up this premise to complain about one of the most idiotic and senseless commercials I’ve seen in years.  State Farm’s most recent ad campaign poses the question, “In a world where nothing goes wrong, what would a State Farm agent do?”  Their incomprehensible answer to this question is that they would be there for “when things go right”.  This is utter nonsense, of course.  Insurance is one of the world’s greatest scams, but it is meant to be a protection to cover accidents, disasters, illnesses requiring expensive treatment, liability for causing injury, and paying for damages to houses and cars that exceed the owner’s financial situation.  In a world “where nothing goes wrong”, the word insurance would be utterly meaningless.  If nothing ever went wrong, insurance would never have been invented. Therefore, State Farm’s new ad campaign relies on the most retarded “logic” imaginable.  But to my knowledge, I seem to be one of the first people to realize this; perhaps it’s so obvious that people can’t see it much as they cannot see their own face without the aid of a mirror.  But more likely, it is because the more complex our technology becomes, the dumber and less imaginative our populace becomes.  They would never think to analyze the oxymoron of this ad’s message.

I’m not proposing that we should all throw away our televisions (although I admire those who do), nor that we should only view quality programming.  However, there does seem to be a positive backlash to the ever declining quality of most television shows.  Much like punk, indie rock and hardcore was the silver lining to the insipid pop music of the 1980s, recent TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead, The Americans, Broad City, Bob’s Burgers, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Mad Men and others are the much-needed antidotes to the rest of the moronic fare being shoved down our collective throats.  What I’m really trying to say is that if you do enjoy mindless television (and admittedly, I sometimes do, too), understand that it is just that: mindless.  And watch some quality programming with frequency: even good and thought-provoking documentaries such as Explorer and Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.  Or better yet, eschew television altogether and read a book once in a while.  Nothing would please me more than to witness the return of imagination and intelligence to the masses through a simple shift in their entertainment choices.

Paul Loughman


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