The Power of the Cliché in Televisionland

Curator's Note

“The Cliché Family in Television-land” posted to YouTube on February 8th 2008 is a commercial television industry satire of television commercial characters and common clichés used in advertising. Shot in the early 1960’s it presents both a unique historical perspective of TV commercial clichés, as well as a unique perspective, that of its creator, a TV commercial production company of the late 50’s and early 60’s. It is here that MPO productions internally parodies its own product and humorously introduces us to the Cliché Family, a device often used in advertising to quickly appeal to the public. In this parody the advertising company is in essence mocking itself in its complicity to manipulate the consuming public to buy laundry soap, cereal, toothpaste or shaving cream. In a business where buying airtime is a costly venture of 30 second intervals, the immediacy and descriptive power of the overused cliché proves still powerful in this industry. Although the film clip is fun to watch, more interesting is to compare how some of these clichés continue to be repeatedly regurgitated 40 years later, and to see how they are currently portrayed in contemporary television. At least two members of the cliché family remain virtually intact today through portrayals of Excedrin Pain Reliever and Pepto Bismol. In fact, many of the exemplified clichés are little changed in today’s commercials as these handful of commercial clichés are continually re-contextualized according to popular culture and serve to transform the clichés themselves into whatever fits the prevailing culture. For example, the depicted Doctor cliché has transformed through the years spanning from the 60’s version in the clip to a similarly fatherly Marcus Welby M.D. version in the 70’s, to today’s version of Dr. McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy, where the doctor is a handsome, sensitive, available, 30-something man. The persistent form of these cliché caricatures suggests they may eternally undergo a simulacral mutation in order to reinvent and adapt to the new and emerging clichés of popular culture, thereby retaining their descriptive power in Televisionland.


The entire concept of television-land as a place of cliches as easy metaphors for reducing reality to a short time slot is also interesting in an era of reality TV where the scripted and less scripted shows use real people and then reconfigures them into cliches (like the mean girl or the strong man on any of a number of competitive reality shows). The return of cliches also works on the genre level for commercials and these are all of the same sort of "problem, solution!" commercial model whereas so many advertisements are now using cliches of attitude and lifestyle, like the 1980's Coke commercial, now returned again in a contemporary Pepsi commercial where office workers drink soda and dance on their desks--freeing themselves from something by being cool and drinking carbonated beverages. The same is true for other seemingly "friendly" advertisements which sell materials by trying to place the product and company on the consumer's side like the new Weight Watchers ads that say how much everyone hates diets. The Internet has further popularized some of these styles by adding news and trust value to the idea of the grassroots-single artist/creator for social networking and other commercial services. "Televisionland" is also interesting as a satire produced by its own industry, although one that isn't identified by a quick Google search other than as "one of the largest producers of television commercials" in the Midwest. The opening lists it as "secured from the Minneapolis Public Library," which makes me wonder what other corporate, academic, and personal archives will unleash online as more materials get loaded, and how the search and finding mechanisms for dealing with the materials will be refined to deal with ever-increasing amounts of data.

Cliches work for a reason, that's why they're cliches. As Mr. Renner points out, television ad time is a premium and something that is not always benefited by over-thinking or narrative. Such concepts, especially if they are unsuccessful, are costly to a business. An advertiser must take a product, point out its strong points and the flaws of competing brands, and convince you that life without this product will be unbearable -- all within the space of 30 seconds. A massive (and wholly improbable) paradigm shift would need to occur in order for society to ignore cliches and not be fooled by them. Although "fooled" might be a bit harsh considering many products that are advertised well and actually make the daily life of of the consumer easier. In any case, these cliches are indispensable to businesses and their advertisers. If society demanded more from advertising, like honesty and narrative, then the practice of advertising might disappear altogether. But for the time being, we will be tickled by the dancing Sobe lizards and want to buy designer juice -- and we'll like it.

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