Every day, talented writers, directors, and actors work hard to fill screens with television’s most important product: the commercials. But which ads are actually entertaining, or even effective, and which make viewers feel worse about the product? Why Is This Commercial? takes a closer look at the TV commercials that baffle and beguile us.
The product: DirecTV, specifically the service’s “Genie” DVR, which allows users to record up to five shows at the same time.
The pitch: A DVR warns its scrawny, scraggle-bearded bro owner that he’ll be unable to record Hit The Switches unless he cancels his recording of either Pencil Pushers or The Sorcerer’s Club. He and his more handsome buddy then propose some potentially terrible events that cable TV is actually worse than, including having a dentist sneeze into your mouth, or getting bitten by a giant tortoise at the zoo. The handsome buddy suggests that his scrawny bro get DirecTV and its new Genie DVR—repped by a sexy spokesmodel in fairy white—which prompts the bro to speculate that DirecTV is better than doing donuts on a dirtbike while a leather-clad babe fires flaming crossbow bolts into the air, forming a fiery tiger image in the sky.
Nagging questions: What is up with the DVR owner’s beard? Why does it look pasted-on? Why does the DirecTV DVR list all fake shows—Wallpaper Squad! Diva Dentists! Texas Talent Show! Inside The Mail Room! Magical Tales!—except for the real movie Taken 2? Can DirecTV guarantee that the Genie is better than the dirtbike/crossbow/flame-tiger thing?
How well does the ad sell the product? This ad is one of a series of “What’s Cable Worse Than?” spots, all of which are a step up from the previous DirecTV/Genie campaign, which aired briefly late last year. The previous campaign literalized the “conflict box” of the typical cable DVR by having a husband and father act snippy toward his family. There was no redemptive arc to those ads—no clear “This guy was a prick until he got DirecTV” message. Instead, the impression those commercials left wasn’t, “Look how cable makes you angry!” so much as, “Hey, this asshole is the new face of DirecTV!”
The message of the new commercials is a little clearer: Cable is awful. In that way, it’s similar to another recent multi-spot DirecTV campaign: the one in which a stentorian announcer recites a progression of terrible, If You Give A Mouse A Cookie-style mishaps that could befall those stuck with cable. But the “Don’t Sell Your Hair To A Wig Shop”/“Don’t Wake Up In A Roadside Ditch” ads were at least funny(ish). The litany of frustrations and humiliations in the “What’s Cable Worse Than?” series are more off-putting. And again, the protagonists are hard to cheer for. The hapless cable-owners in last year’s DirecTV campaign were somewhat sympathetic. These guys are just whiny. And kind of lazy. (Maybe they could skip this episode of Pencil Pushers and go meet one of those women they’re always fantasizing about? Or they could see if The Sorcerer’s Club is airing again later in the week, like a normal DVR user would?)
But exaggeration for comic effect is what commercials do. Also, for people who love TV, the Genie does solve a problem many people actually have. (Though many cable companies and DVR manufacturers do offer machines that can record more than two channels at once, so pinning this problem strictly on “cable” is specious.) And though everything about the “What’s Cable Worse Than?” spot is too over the top—from the gags to the implication that cable is literally ruining people’s lives—it is genuinely clever the way the dialogue leaves a blank that’s visually filled in, because that forces the people watching the ad to look at the screen. But the jokes are more grating than rewarding, which ultimately is a reminder of what all DVRs are good for: fast-forwarding.