Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Ad Spot: Saying stupid things about television (so you don't have to)

I find the current UK ADT advert fascinating. Yes, I really did say that. I want to be clear though - this advert is so dreadful it makes everything George Lucas has done in the past 30 odd years look like Tarkovsky.

If everything Lucas has done in 30 yrs was given life it would look like this
 Equally its premise - What means most to you? - is basically repellent, giving a number of irritating no-notes the chance to outline a mixture of the bleeding obvious and the tiresomely self-centred.

Nonetheless, the fascination of the ad derives not so much from its spectacular lack of poise, but the bewildering philosophical and intellectual puzzles it poses. (Yes, I may have drunk two bottles of jagermeister as I write this.)

Here is the puzzle: what we see is a bunch of people talking about 'what matters most to them'. Now we are all aware that we are watching them in an advert on television. We are - after all - not living in the 19th century.

'Moving pictures you say? Next you'll be saying every town will have its OWN telephone'
Nonetheless there is a question of trust. We are being invited to identify with these irritating people. We are being invited to think: 'Oh, he loves his surround sound more than his wife. He's just like me. He's a bum-wipe, but so am I. Therefore I must get a big yellow alarm box on the front of my house'. That sort of thing. But are we supposed to believe that these are real people rather than actors?

At one level this is an absurd question. Given that we know that this is a product of the mass media, we know that the ad is not real. It has been carefully edited to get its message across and so on. However, in an age when we expect so-called 'ordinary' people to appear in reality shows and such like, we have also come to expect a certain degree of verite in our ads. Why couldn't these people on screen be simply ordinary people talking about what really matters to them? In a post-modern age of complicity between producers (ad people, tv execs, etc) and punters (the human footballs like me who sit on the sofa, eating tacos and watching this bilge), things have got textually complex: actors or not-actors? That is the question.

However, I want to suggest that - in fact - the cunning people at ADT are playing with our simple minds at a whole new level. I want to suggest that this advert relies on a) us being invited to believe that the people yacking on about their businesses are real people but THEN b) our realization that they are actually minor actors pretending quite unconvincingly to be real people. In other words the advert want us to deliberately not suspend our disbelief...it wants us to recognise the actors as actors. And through doing so, it encourages us to trust the brand more than we might otherwise do.

Consider the woman who stands on the step of her house and, in a somewhat unconvincing British Indian accent, then tells us that what matters to her most is her independence and home security (and the occasional cameo in Holby City). There is something familiar about her face. Surely she was in a spate of shows in the 1970s & 1980s?  I'm not sure we're supposed to be more specific than that. But she has a distinctive face. And given that alarms are targeted at homeowners and the security minded - that is to an older audience - we are supposed to recognise her, even if we are not supposed to be too sure where we recognize her from. The recognition is actually meant to be reassure us in a way that a real person would not.

This is what happens when you give ordinary people the oxygen of publicity
The point is this: the advert makers want to expose the fact that this is 'make believe', in order (ironically) to encourage us to trust in the brand. For if these were simply unknown actors then we would be left unsure whether to trust them or not - for we would be left with the question as to whether they were actually merely ordinary people. But if they were simply ordinary people we would equally be unsure whether we can trust them  - for ordinary people are (by definition) unknown to us and would leave us wondering if they are offering glowing testimonies or talking about their lives simply to get on tv. But the actual situation provides the perfect solution: initially we're unsure whether these talking heads are actors or the public. We are intrigued.We are unsure. And then at the centre of the ad appears the lady who might have been in Mind Your Language or Eastenders or Ever Decreasing Circles or summat. Then we see a woman talking about her business who we're sure was in something like Casualty as 3rd bus-explosion victim and, in consequence, we are reassured. The advert is not real, but these are people we know from comforting tv shows so everything is ok. We can therefore trust the brand.

Trust me, I played '4th cadaver' in Waking the Dead

The bottom line is this: in order to trust this brand we want people who are like us, but not too like us or too different. We would be unhappy if the actors were too famous, because then the ad would be too unrealistic. Sean Connery or Bono talking about what matters to them would be too disconnected from our lives. But equally we don't want peope who are exactly like us - because that would be too realistic and annoying. Frankly, how we live our lives is too dull and frustrating and appalling to be shown on tv and it be appealing. So the semi-known actor is the perfect compromise. In a culture that is so readily mediated by screens and the visual we want people who are comfortable in that world, who are validated in that world and therefore are comfortable and real to us. But we don't want ourselves. That is why the ADT advert is simultaneously cheap, annoying and crap AND complete genius.

1 comment:

  1. Rachel, I couldn't agree more. I am working on a project, still in my head, on this very kind of subject. Amazing.