Back on December 31, 1988, I taped the year-end MTV countdown of their top 100 videos. (You may have heard that people used to watch music videos on MTV.) A couple of years ago, I discovered the long-forgotten videotapes of that event in my garage, and have been systematically working my way through every video and every commercial break.
What I want to talk about today is the "Words" promo. On the New Year's Eve broadcast, it came between an ad for The January Man (a bad cop movie starring Kevin Kline) and a spot for the very first WWF Royal Rumble. Circa 1988, MTV promo spots fell into a few broad categories: (1) Ads for specific shows on the network, like the game show Remote Control (2) random animation sliced up to a hip-hop beat (at a time when the channel played very little rap otherwise) (3) comic vignettes touting how MTV plays "your favorite music" all day long (4) "Ten Second Films," quirky little art-film narratives (5) gorgeous animated vignettes (employing the likes of Henry Selick), usually ending with a comic reveal of the MTV logo (6) cool random animation from foreign lands that could be repurposed for the greater glory of MTV.
The "Words" promo doesn't fall into any of those categories, instead critiquing the medium of television with a series of white capital letters on a black background: "THESE WORDS DON’T REALLY SAY ANYTHING / THEY COULD BUT THEY’RE NOT / THEY WANT TO BUT THEY CAN’T / SO, THEY WILL HANG OUT FOR FIFTEEN SECONDS / UNTIL IT’S TIME / FOR / ANOTHER / COMMERCIAL / THESE ARE WORDS / THAT COULD BE SAYING SOMETHING / FUNNY OR COOL OR INTERESTING / BUT THEY’RE NOT / THEY’RE JUST SITTING THERE / LIKE YOU / mtv."
With its languid pace and ethereal backing music, the spot was unlike anything else on MTV, and so gained the viewer's unwavering attention. And when the final words "LIKE YOU" came up, it felt like a punch to the gut--that close attention became the very object of criticism. So it was easy to overlook all the ways in which the ad just wasn't true. For example: generally speaking, people who make TV commercials prefer to communicate through images rather than printed words. It wasn't even accurate about its own length, running for a full minute.
Perhaps the most slippery transition: clearly, these words are saying something funny and cool and interesting. This softens the mockery of the audience. In giving viewers a flimsy critique of the channel and its ads, "Words" preempted more substantial criticism. And by being stylish and attitudinal, it burnished MTV's reputation for random provocation.