Ad Man X weighs in on those execrable “real people, not actors” Chevy ads, an insurance-company dream sequence, and a liquor fairy
Ad Man X is an award-winning creative executive at a major national agency in Chicago. He has overseen TV ad campaigns, including Super Bowl commercials, for a variety of the major global brands that cheerfully control what we consume and think. He has agreed to share his expertise by commenting, under cover of anonymity, on ads that are in heavy rotation during NFL football. (Ad Man X does not comment on any TV commercials in which he is professionally involved—all participation in Block & Tackle is completely unprofessional.)
For this edition of Ad Man X, I asked our expert to assess an increasingly surreal State Farm campaign and a 15-second spot from a brand of fattening booze. But first, Mr. X tells us why Chevy keeps pumping out commercials with focus groups of “real people” even though an entire nation of football fans is desperate for these ads to stop.
A Chevy guy takes a bunch of people for a ride in a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck so they can make obsequious remarks about the over-engineered automobile’s needless features. The Chevy guy demonstrates the truck’s head-up display. “My truck doesn’t have that,” notes a bearded man in the back seat, evidently relishing the inferiority of his own motor vehicle. Later, we see trucks made by Chevrolet’s competitors in the rear view—“where they belong,” one woman remarks. She would murder Ford and Dodge with her bare hands if it meant she could be on television just one second longer. End of commercial.
Block & Tackle: I think the question on everyone’s mind when these commercials show up—aside from “Where’s the remote?”—is, how are these still on the air? They are the bane of an NFL viewer’s Sunday, universally despised. And yet Chevy persists. What do they know that we don’t?
Ad Man X: They know that there is never going to be a time when someone won’t want to be in these commercials. As much as we hate them, there’s a never-ending stream of these people who will at least pretend they don’t know what the entire setup is.
B&T: It has been reported in the past that some of the “not actors” are, as it turns out, actors, even if they weren’t technically hired as such. On the whole, how “real” are these people in your judgment?
AMX: I think they exist in our timeline. They’re humans. But there will never be a more realistic person than the gentleman in the back left seat, with the beard. I need to know his story. If Chevy is listening, please abandon your ad campaign and only focus on this man.
B&T: Oh, I agree. The old prospector. “Air-conditionin’? My truck don’t have that! Doors? My truck don’t have that!”
AMX: “This truck sure is roomy! It fits all my cans of beans!”
Anyway, these “real people” know the deal, and they desperately want to get in these commercials, so they lay it on thick. People know how they’re supposed to react. The fact that they’re real people is beside the point, because we know what they’re going to say.
B&T: There was an interview on The A.V. Club a few years back with one of the “real people,” in fact. You’ve spoken to the “how” of these commercials. My question is more to the “why”—since everyone hates these ads, why keep making them? Chevy must have some perspective that we don’t have, in terms of how these commercials actually work on the public.
AMX: It’s an extremely easy device for showing the junk in the car, or the truck. At the core, all they want to do is demonstrate this camera, or demonstrate the new styling, whatever. Rather than think of a concept that brings the new technology to light in an interesting or entertaining way, they can get that information across with just a modicum of a conceit. “These are real people, and they’re able to talk about our technology!” It’s delivering the message, and they can shoot a billion of these. They don’t have to have any ideas. “We can just toss some people in there, and they’ll talk about our product for 30 seconds.”
B&T: So it doesn’t really matter to Chevy if we like it or not—all that matters to them is that we remember the smarmy Chevy guy talking about the cameras? I mean, you and I are joking about Tin-Pan Rufus in the back seat there, saying, “I don’t have that camera on my truck!” But the fact that I remembered that at all—Chevy’s takeaway is, “Hey, it worked”?
AMX: Yeah. It works. As you can guess, there are differing opinions on what advertising should accomplish. There is a real school of thought that you just need to convey information, and whether or not the information is delivered in a pleasing way is not really important to some advertisers. They say, “Nope, I want the information delivered, and hopefully .01% of the population will remember it when they’re out car shopping.” They think information is more important than entertainment.
Some advertisers, thankfully, believe the opposite. They say, “I don’t care about making sure people remember the stats. I care that people have a pleasant association with the brand.” So we’ll try to do something that’s not offensive or, god forbid, entertaining.
B&T: I guess a company like Chevy is such a huge operation, they’re going to be advertising on different fronts. Chevy also has more brand-oriented, “We’re America, look at these horses” type commercials, too, right? They’re coming at it from different angles.
AMX: Yup. They’ll probably even assign these differently. “This effort is purely to make people feel good about the brand. And then this effort is, we need to convey these four talking points.” There’s science behind this that says, if they bombard you 4,000 times over the NFL season, then your pea-brain may retain some of that information.
A suited man with a Bluetooth earpiece—we know him as Gabe—finds himself on the sidelines at a football stadium that exists in a dimensional plane of its own. An army of anonymous State Farm insurance agents fills the otherworldly arena to capacity. A blood-red mist suffuses the air. Popular and talented quarterback Patrick Mahomes appears, yet he can utter only the words “State Farm,” again and again. An apparition of quarterback Aaron Rodgers speaks in a voice distorted almost beyond recognition. “Wake up,” Rodgers says. Finally, we see Gabe describe these disturbing visions to another man, who tries to sell Gabe insurance. The State Farm logo appears.
AMX: I have to admit, even though this is my job, I keep forgetting that Gabe is a sports agent and not a State Farm agent.
B&T: Exactly, and I guess he’s jealous because the athletes like their State Farm agents better than him. I watch a lot of football, and I see a lot of commercials. Still, even I can barely remember the premise of the Gabe world anymore. Because we are in real deep now. Most of this commercial takes place from within Gabe’s psyche!
AMX: They’re asking a lot of John Q. Public. They’re essentially asking us to pay as much attention to this as we do to, like, Succession.
B&T: That said, I have come around on this campaign. I like it now. It reminds me of The Office after Steve Carell left, and NBC just kept renewing the show, and it started to feel as if the creative team was like, “Uhh, is this show ever going to end?” And they started writing the scripts weirder and more cartoony, as if they had nothing to lose. Those are not the greatest episodes of the show, but I do like watching them with the giddy feeling of, “Woo-hoo! Nothing matters anymore!” because those late episodes can go so far off the deep end. That’s where the Gabe series is for me.
AMX: This is the exact opposite of Chevy Silverado. I know there’s a little information at the end, but it’s more about State Farm and their relationship to the NFL. They understand how you’re watching TV on an NFL Sunday. You’re four beers in, you’ve sat through six hours of football. Your brain is not functioning at a high level. So they’re like, “We’re not going to bombard you with a bunch of information. We want you to walk away from this commercial with a vaguely pleasant feeling about State Farm.” And maybe you get a couple yuks.
I like that. Let’s just have a little bit of fun, and then, if you’re looking for your home or auto insurance, you have this nice feeling when you look at the State Farm logo. That’s where advertising really works. It’s difficult, because—look, you’re not going to pick up the phone. You’re not pressing pause on your DVR—“I’ve got to call State Farm right now!” It’s more about, on Monday, when you have to think about insurance, you may have a feeling like, “Huh! I’m not angry at State Farm!” And then a normal human being will dig into the details.
Plus, the fact that this [campaign] has been going on forever means that the creatives have a little more license as to what they can do. We were talking about the “Flo Universe” [in Progressive insurance commercials] a few weeks ago—same thing. We know Flo, and her powers are now limitless in that universe. It’s the same thing with this Gabe guy. I kind of love that this commercial makes no sense. It’s like, “Fuck it! We can do whatever we want. It’s a dream.” And the brand, State Farm, is willing to portray themselves as the seventh ring of hell in this man’s mind. The red background, the fuzzy screaming, the strange smile from Aaron Rodgers—it’s amazingly creepy. I love it.
An upstanding citizen named Denise welcomes the RumChata Fairy, a brassy woman in a white-and-gold T.J. Maxx jumpsuit, into her home. A robotic vacuum toils at their feet. The RumChata Fairy suggests that, instead of just standing there looking at a vacuum, Denise should put a gold cylinder on her head and drink a glass of rum mixed with heavy cream and sugar. Denise accedes to this proposition.
B&T: Here’s a bit of a palate cleanser to bring us home. You don’t see too many RumChata ads, but this one just debuted on NFL broadcasts.
AMX: Before we proceed, I think we should note that our mutual friend and your fellow former editor of The A.V. Club, Josh Modell, is the only human being I’ve ever known who has not only tried RumChata but also enjoys RumChata. So this one goes out to you, Josh.
B&T: Yes, RumChata and Coke is Josh’s holiday drink. It’s super sweet, and the RumChata curdles when you pour it into the Coke. It’s all quite revolting.
AMX: Most liquor advertising is meant for 25-year-olds. But this takes place in a suburban mom environment—is the idea here, “This is the drink you should be sneaking in after you drop the kids off for school”?
B&T: The clear message is that with RumChata, you can find any excuse to get drunk in the middle of the day.
AMX: So, we were talking about the philosophies of marketing. There’s a growing trend based on this book called How Brands Grow. There’s a bit of a cult behind this. I’ve been seeing more and more advertising that embraces this philosophy. And the philosophy is this: Nobody gives a shit about you [the advertiser]. There’s no such thing as a loyal customer. I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially the idea is, you just need to figure out a way to have enough stickiness in somebody’s mind that you can worm your way in and reside in some little portion of their brain.
One of the big ideas on that is something called “distinctive brand assets.” A distinctive brand asset is like the Coca-Cola red with that white ribbon. That’s utterly recognizable. If you are on the other side of the world, and you see that red with the white swoosh, you immediately think “Coke.” There’s a lot of effort around the identification of these brand assets.
If you look at this RumChata spot, you can tell. Either the advertising agency or the [RumChata] marketing guys said, “Our brand asset is the top of this bottle.” So they thought, “We need to make a commercial that focuses on this gold cap.”
B&T: That’s fascinating. I do feel it’s effective in that respect because I watched this commercial, and I thought, “Oh, yeah. The RumChata bottle does have that shiny gold cap.”
AMX: They got you, John. They got their claws in you.
The Chicago Bears were defeated by the Philadelphia Eagles, 22-14, in Week 9, and in the first half of the Bears’ loss, their offense came close to gaining less than zero net yards. Chicago’s offensive performance was so dreadful, the DirecTV Red Zone channel kept a live view of the game on screen as the second quarter drew to a close, so a nationwide audience could witness Chicago’s historic fecklessness. (A late surge by the Bears offensive unit lifted the offense’s total to nine yards before intermission.)
In the second half, the Bears did manage to score somewhat more than nothing. Surely they will treasure their Most Improved Team Of The Game trophy for years to come. But the Eagles were, by rule, awarded the actual victory.
As a result, it’s time again to check in on the raging, capillary-exploding pulse of the Chicago Bears fanbase with another visit to Ed “O’B” O’Bradovich. As you may recall from last week’s column, ex-Bears defensive end O’Bradovich shares his high-decibel views on the WGN Radio 720 AM postgame show each week. This week, he spent his first three minutes discussing how much he hates Bears head coach Matt Nagy, and then he pivoted to his favorite topic, namely, how much he hates Bears head coach Matt Nagy:
And Nagy? You—I—I—I—you know, we talk about how bad [previous Bears head coach John] Fox was? Scared-to-death offense? Didn’t want to really do anything? This guy, Nagy, really takes the cake. REALLY takes the cake. […] And there’s more I could say, but I’m not—I’m abso—I’m FRIED, folks. I’m just SICK and tired. For 34 years, doing this business. For 34 years, and watching stupidity prevail. I’ll say it again: WATCHING STUPIDITY PREVAIL. That’s what you saw today, the week before, the week before, the year before, the year before. This is CHICAGO, for God’s sakes! THE FOOTING AND THE FOUNDATION OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE!
In O’Bradovich’s defense, if it took me 34 years to figure out that stupidity reigns supreme in the NFL, I would be angry, too.
During the Baltimore Ravens’ defeat of the New England Patriots in Week 9, Sunday Night Football featured a few shots of Don Martindale, the Ravens’ defensive coordinator. This is in part because the Ravens’ defense played well, but mostly we saw Don because his nickname is “Wink” Martindale, a name that Al Michaels likes to say out loud.
Such is his fondness for all things Martindale that Michaels even came prepared with trivia about Don’s nicknamesake, game show host Wink Martindale. “Do you know what the real Wink Martindale’s first name was—real first name?” Michaels asked his booth partner, Cris Collinsworth.
“Don,” Collinsworth guessed, with a lack of imagination matched only by his lack of interest.
“Winston,” Michaels said.
“Really. I had no idea,” Collinsworth said with a forced laugh.
“There you go,” Michaels said.
With 1:15 left on the game clock and the Ravens leading by 17, this exchange was Al and Cris’ way of telling the home audience that the game is over, so please turn off your television set.
In tribute to Al’s tribute to Wink, here is a video of the “real” Wink Martindale making jokes about housing lots and word processors while a Tic Tac Dough contestant feigns amusement, much as Collinsworth did for Michaels.
By the way, although Michaels referred to Wink in the past tense, Wink Martindale is still alive, and he has an excellent YouTube channel full of obscure game show clips.
One more item on Al Michaels before we leave the man in peace. In an earlier installment of Block & Tackle, I noted—with an assist from an astute reader—that Michaels described a long throwaway pass by Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield by saying, “And he’ll fling that one halfway to Elyria.” Elyria is a Cleveland suburb, so Michaels had painted the amusing picture of a football thrown so far that it ends up in an altogether different part of a major metro area. In an ensuing thread on Twitter, B&T readers wondered if Michaels has a mental list of suburbs that he uses for moments like this. Then, on Sunday night, this email from Conrad G. arrived in the B&T mailbox:
In this game, Tom Brady is at 2nd-and-goal and tosses a bomb out of the end zone. Michaels comments, “He threw it halfway to Bethesda on that one.” (FYI, Bethesda is a city in Maryland near Baltimore.)
Is Al Michaels an amateur cartographer? Or is he trying to one-up [NBC sideline reporter Michele] Tafoya in his research?
I’d say yes and yes, Conrad. But what about the teams that already play their games in the suburbs? The next time Michaels is calling a Jets game from the Meadowlands, and Sam Darnold hurls a pass down the field, is he going to say, “Darnold heaved that one halfway to New York”? Trick question: Al Michaels would not be caught dead calling a New York Jets game.
In another geography lesson, reader Alex S. reached out via Twitter in response to my recent examination of Monday Night Football’s deep-seated insecurity. In that column, I said that a Monday Night post-commercial-break bumper featured a crew of beatboxers performing the show’s theme song on the western banks of the Hudson River, in New Jersey. But Alex wrote me a kind message to explain that I had placed these musical geniuses on the wrong side of Manhattan—the camera was actually looking over the East River, from Brooklyn. Recognizing that he was correct, I asked Alex if he could explain his geographic detective work for his fellow readers, and he obliged:
I noticed the Empire State Building in the clip, which I use as a basic reference point for north/south/east/west, even when I’m just moving around the city. To the right of that, in the skyline, I can see the Citigroup Center—that’s the one with the angled roof. It’s near 53rd [Street] and Lex[ington Avenue]. Knowing that’s north of the Empire State Building, this orientation has us looking west towards Manhattan.
Alex also apologized for being such a “New York geography nerd.” No reader of this column should ever apologize for being a nerd. I won’t have it.
Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that evaluates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the true victor in each contest. Put simply, Block & Tackle picks are guaranteed to be correct. When a game’s outcome varies from this column’s prediction, the game is wrong.
In Week 9 NFL action, 11 games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, and three games were incorrect. “Callooh! Callay! The proper course of reality wins out! Three cheers for the QuantumPick Apparatus and its valiant sidekick, John Teti, who looks fantastic in his new jeans!” This is what I hear you cheering, with rapturous tears streaming down your face. Well, stop it. Everything but the jeans part, stop it right now. How many times must I reiterate: There is no acceptable level of divergence from the stable causality calculated by the Apparatus.
Look around you. Did you wake up Tuesday morning and say, “Gosh, reality sure feels normal and makes sense today”? No. You did not, because the timeline is still screwy, and it will remain screwy until the football games achieve total alignment with the QuantumPicks. At that moment, you will feel reality “pop” into place. It’s a sensation akin to clearing your ears on an airplane, although more existentially upsetting.
Is there another way, aside from correct football outcomes, to achieve the one true timeline and bring the course of events into proper harmony? I’m glad you asked. No, there is not. (Overall season record: 82-53.)
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS vs. Oakland Raiders (Fox) (timestamped pick)
There is no game in London this week, and the citizens are without joy.
Atlanta Falcons vs. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (Fox)
BUFFALO BILLS vs. Cleveland Browns (CBS): Many people think that the football team called the Cleveland Browns is named after the beloved Family Guy character Cleveland Brown, but actually it’s the other way around: The Brown Cleveland character Guy Family is named after the hated soccer team Brown Clevelands. Nobody knows why he is called Guy Family. As for the Cleveland Browns, they are 2-6.
BALTIMORE RAVENS vs. Cincinnati Bengals (CBS)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS vs. Tennessee Titans (CBS)
Detroit Lions vs. CHICAGO BEARS (CBS): Chicago head coach Matt Nagy’s weekly lotto numbers are 1-2-3-4-5-6. His blackjack strategy is “hit.” His favorite Dr. Seuss character is One Fish. Do not ask Matt Nagy to consider the options.
NEW YORK GIANTS vs. New York Jets (Fox)
ARIZONA CARDINALS vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Fox): The QuantumPick Apparatus predicts a final score of 5-2 in this contest.
Miami Dolphins vs. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (CBS): Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard is on a mission to prove that—contrary to widespread reports—the players who lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9 were not in fact the Indianapolis Colts. It’s a cynical descent into epistemic closure along the lines of “Ukraine has Hillary’s server”—but with a fun, family-friendly football spin, brought to you by Geico. Good luck on your quest to destroy truth, Darius Leonard! We all need a hobby in this modern America.
Carolina Panthers vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (Fox)
LOS ANGELES RAMS vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Fox)
Minnesota Vikings vs. DALLAS COWBOYS (NBC): In advance of their matchup against Dallas, the Minnesota Vikings posted a breakdown video that outlines some of their the Cowboys’ biggest strengths. For instance, the Cowboys have the ability to shoot yellow lasers from their eyes, and the Vikings will need to be ready with a counter-strategy. Just don’t try what the Eagles did, which was to return fire with a dark red laser. That doesn’t work, obviously.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS vs. San Francisco 49ers (ESPN)
The Houston Texans, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New England Patriots, the Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington have all declined to play football this week. But here’s the kicker—or, more to the point, here isn’t the kicker—the Denver Broncos are also refusing to take the field. That’s right, Denver too. Oh, the others, I can understand. But I never imagined that the Broncos would abandon us in our time of pigskin need. Is there no place for faith in this broken world? All six of the no-show teams, especially the Denver Broncos, will automatically forfeit, and their transgression will be reported to the commissioner’s office.
If you’d like to contact me with an item for Block & Tackle, or just to say hello, you can email me: my first name, at symbol, my full name, dot com. You can also reach me via Twitter. Thank you for reading, and for the funny and smart comments. As always, keep on long snappin’.