Exciting. Different. Right.

I saw this truck on the highway the other day. I don’t know what it was carrying — probably cameras and broadcasting equipment — but it was covered in ads for the local Fox afternoon show. It’s a blurry picture, taken with the camera balanced on my steering wheel in what was probably the safest move happening within 50 yards. So it’s a bit hard to read, but at the top it says “EXCITING. DIFFERENT. FRESH.”

None of those words mean anything. I mean, the dictionary gives definitions for them, but I’m left scratching my head wondering how any of them could possibly apply to a local Fox afternoon show. What is exciting about it? What in the world could possibly be different about it? Is it an hour or so of recycled headlines, celebrity trivia, animal-shelter stories, and vacuous banter? Oh, it is? How fresh!

Having worked in marketing for many years, I have a particular sore spot for ad copy that attempts to be arresting by simply stating adjectives without context. You might as well say “Good!” and just leave it at that. A smiling man in a suit and time-lapse photography of a street are hardly shattering the boundaries of “fresh,” I think we can all agree, but the saddest part about this ad is that someone looked at the creative brief for what the copy was supposed to be like — “exciting, different, fresh” — and then just used those words instead.

And why not? Who is watching a news show at five in the afternoon? People without jobs? Stay-at-home parents? Retired people? In the eyes of marketers, none of these audiences justify breaking any boundaries to court. So the safest approach is to create a veneer of excitement. A better word would be “activity.” In practice this means lots of graphics that swoop in and around and clang together with sound effects, and perhaps one of the female hosts wears a low-cut top. There is no reason at all to attempt anything fundamentally daring, such as ignoring a celebrity scandal. For outrage must be feigned at all costs! But certainly let’s all play-act at being renegades.

Then I saw the side of the truck.

“Expect the Unexpected.”

Okay. When I turn on the television at five in the afternoon, I will expect the hosts to stare blankly into the camera. Then, one by one, I will expect them to open their mouths and release an ink-black cloud of locusts. The locusts will swarm the studio and systematically devour the sets, the backdrops, the desk and the seat cushions, while the hosts begin to sing in an ancient language, a song from when the earth was still large and dark. It will be a song of growth, of transition, as the locusts continue to turn painted chipboard and thin wooden paneling into so much biological waste. When the locusts finally fall silent, the fading bars of the song having stilled their wings at last, the hosts will slough their loosening skin and become beings of pure light, gathering the locusts into a cyclone of energy and gravity, compressing their chitinous bodies into a perfect sphere of unimaginable mass. I will expect them to build a pyre for this sphere out of the ruins of their studio, and as it begins to smolder with a pale purple flame, I will expect these luminous creatures to shimmer, slowly and at a frequency difficult for the cameras to detect, into the fiftieth dimension. For the briefest of instants — barely a thirtieth of a second — we will glimpse past the horizon of human understanding, before we are all wrenched back to the present like being dropped heavily from a rope into a pit of warm pudding. For the perfect silence of a minute and a half, filtered evening sunlight will illuminate a miasma of dust motes slowly settling to the floor of the vacant studio. The purple sphere will darken as all humankind ponders the mysteries that have been revealed to them for an instant and then taken back forever. Then, and only then, will there be an extremely loud commercial for Tempur-Pedic mattresses.

28 thoughts on “Exciting. Different. Right.”

  1. Ah, yes. I see that you, too, are among the ranks of those who actually read what is written and listen to what they hear.

    Over the years, I’ve come to understand that ads aren’t necessarily pure, remorseless evil. They’re just terrifically insulting to anybody who actually pays them any attention.

  2. “Then, one by one, I will expect them to open their mouths and release an ink-black cloud of locusts…”

    omg, now i can’t wait till 5pm!!

  3. “Then, one by one, I will expect them to open their mouths and release an ink-black cloud of locusts…”

    Well, now it’s not unexpected anymore, is it?

  4. I’ll have whatever he’s having!

    Ever since they stopped showing The Daily Show over here in the UK, I’ve been starved of this kind of mental beauty …

    You are as a god, and your moustache is to be adored!

  5. Ads aren’t *pure* evil, but their entire purpose is to convey misleading information — disrupting the “perfect information” aspect of Adam Smith’s three pillars of a perfect market. Advertising is psychologically corrosive; even if the ad is for something you’d never buy, they always peddle the same idea: your problems can be solved via the simple action of spending a resource (time or money). It creates and reinforces a mindset.

    Try avoiding commercial television for a year. When we moved into our house, we didn’t resubscribe to cable TV (we were trying to save money and figured we didn’t watch much TV already anyway, so why not?). Well, it’s been almost five years now, and I see so few TV commercials that when I do accidentally watch one (e.g. at a business that has a TV up on the wall), I get physically angry, because I know exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

    I appreciate the distinction between effective and stupid advertising, as Malki! talks about above, but even stupid advertising is insidious. It’s just more obviously so because it doesn’t entertain you enough to keep you from remembering that it’s affecting you.

    The sad thing is that so many people say, “Oh, but advertising doesn’t affect *me*… now excuse me while I go to McDonald’s.”

  6. Tears. Real, salty tears. I’ll never again be able to endure the aural assault of a Tempur-Pedic ad without a little part of me mourning the loss of what might have been…

  7. Great observation. And that picture you took from the steering wheel? Nowhere near as dangerous as the one out the side window. Glad you made it through safely.

  8. OMG. This post made my website fall disgustingly and completely in love with your website. Is it ok if I write a story about your scenario actually happening, but maybe with a meerkat rampage through the studio when it’s all over?

  9. Have you ever read The Dumbing-down of America? While your observations are astute, your unexpected narrative is so much better than what they actually will run, that I lament having been exposed to any of the millions of seconds of advertising. Virtually all television ad copy is available in both flavours: Vapid a n d Insipid. The mattress commercial at 183 decibels merely hurls us across a threshold, to the Advertising Holy Grail of…vacuous.

  10. First I will mention that I greatly enjoyed reading this.

    However your last point, while presented in a highly amusing manner, was, I believe, based on a misunderstanding of the advertisement. While I would still not expect there to be any surprises on a show such as this, I believe the intent is for you to expect the general unexpected not knowing what that will be, rather than expecting any specific unexpected, such as transcendent hosts.

  11. wow, what the hell happend here? I’ve never seen so many commentators on Wondermark before. Did David become some sort of Internet celebrity while I was gone?

  12. Great post, but just out of curiosity, did you ever attempt to watch the show? Would have liked the post even more if there had been a line or two of followup on it.

  13. Perhaps you aren’t considering the context of what a Fox TV news program is and does:

    Isn’t it the xenophobia that is “fresh” and “unexpected”? I never expected TV people to be bullying the elderly and vulnerable but here it is in front of me on this Fox news afternoon show.

    Or is it the illiteracy that is “exciting”? I never though someone who used the words that Sarah Palin does to describe world events could be a news anchor?

    I never though we’d have to get into a nuclear war, that’s a surprise, but with all this jingoistic drumbeating on television I now think “different”?


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