Watch This Space
Attention! Attention! A stronghold has been breached! I repeat, a stronghold has been breached! The other day, I received a W-2 form in the mail from an employer. (Yes, I work. What did you think, that I could make a living complaining about things? Would to God that I could.) As it is nearly tax season, I thought little of it . . . until I opened the envelope . . . and out fluttered the most horrifying thing I’d seen in days. There it was, perfectly sized to fit alongside the official document: an advertisement. Oh, the indecency!
There are few places these days where one can expect to be shielded from the constant barrage of sales pitches that have infiltrated nearly every spot upon which our eyes may chance to fall. Until now, I thought perhaps envelopes for official tax documents might be one of those locations. Alas, it seems even W-2 mailings have fallen prey to the powerful lure of filthy lucre. It wasn’t always this way. In my day, there was some order to such things. Ads appeared in newspapers and magazines, on buses, atop cabs, aboard subway cars, and, of course, during television and radio programs. And there were billboards. Other than that, much of the visual landscape remained unsullied by attempts to influence consumer spending.
True, there were some sneakier methods in play, such as “product placement,” in which advertisers paid to have characters on TV and in films use their specific brands. The idea was that if audiences saw their favorite star drinking a Pepsi-Cola, they’d be inclined to conclude that Pepsi-Cola must be a very fine product indeed. But in retrospect, this technique seems relatively nonintrusive when compared with the traffic jam of marketing that currently surrounds us.
Because as it is with so very many things in American culture, they just couldn’t leave it alone. Bottomless corporate greed has pushed advertisers to find more and more unconquered spaces for hawking wares. And now they’re sending ads with our W-2s. A stronghold has been breached.
I remember the first time I saw a commercial in a movie theatre. I don’t remember the movie or the product. I only remember that people in the audience laughed; it seemed ridiculous and desperate. Up until then, the only promotions we’d seen on movie screens were for other films, which made sense. Now, premovie commercials, incongruous though they may be, are de rigueur. And lest we take a moment’s break from considering purchasing something, ads are also appearing on much smaller screens—installed for that express purpose—everywhere we go: in New York taxicabs, on elevators in commercial buildings, at gas pumps, in waiting rooms, and even above the checkout counters in some of the larger chain grocery stores, where you’ll also find ads on the plastic dividers you use to keep your groceries separate, and on the shopping cart flaps. (They’ve named that “cartvertising," thereby committing not one but two unforgivable sins: 1) oversaturating customers with ads and then 2) making up a stupid word to describe the practice. It’s almost as if they do it deliberately to vex me.) I’ve even seen grocery stores use vinyl floor ads, assuring that even if you just keep your head down and shop, you can’t avoid being marketed at.
a floor ad
These are eggs—eggs with bad puns. Have they no decency?
It's an epidemic. Ads have turned up on airplane seatback dining tables, on register receipts, on the paper that covers doctors’ examination tables, inside TSA trays, stamped on foods . . . anywhere they can be placed. A while back, there were scattered stories of people being paid to sport temporary advertising tattoos (at least I hope they were temporary), in essence renting out their very skin. And one website offering fresh new ideas for ad placement suggests the following among their tips:
7: The Homeless
At first glance, that is a mercenary and heartless suggestion. But...take some
time to think about it. The homeless are in desperate need of clothing, food,
blankets, shoes, socks, water, and many other items. Some rely solely on
donations from passers-by. Others go to shelters in times of need. However, if
you have a natural tie to any of those necessities, why not do something good
with your advertising dollars, and get a little back in return? Provide blankets
and pillows that have your branding on them. Give out food packages, and
essentials for both the summer and the winter. The recipients will be glad of
the assistance, and you will benefit from some positive word of mouth.
This isn't made up. Someone actually suggested taking advantage of the needs of the homeless to stimulate sales. They’re right in saying that at first glance it sounds mercenary and heartless. Interestingly, it also sounds mercenary and heartless on the second, third, and fourth glances. Perhaps it’s just mercenary and heartless.
It all reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite films, Idiocracy (a futuristic comedy/cautionary tale about stupidity which you are required to watch if we're to be friends), in which a member of the president's cabinet tacks "brought to you by Carl's Jr." at the end of his spoken sentences, because the company pays him every time he does.
Today, many people suspect that marketers are even listening in on us through our various electronic devices. This started out as a conspiracy theory. But I’ve now heard myriad stories about people seeing unnervingly specific ads popping up on their computers for items they merely mentioned out loud in their living rooms. Considering how desperate these maniacs seem to not miss a single opportunity, I wouldn’t put it past them to violate our privacy in hopes of making a sale.
If they are listening in, I hope they’ll listen to this: Drowning consumers in advertising is destined for diminishing returns. I refuse to purchase anything that is advertised intrusively, and I’m sure many feel the same. Now I’m going to close my MacBook Pro—the official computer of The Weekly Curmudgeon—and relax with a steaming cup of Maxwell House coffee, the only coffee the Curmudgeon drinks. My, it’s tasty.