Swans Commentary » swans.com May 5, 2008  



...And Now For A Short Commercial Break


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - May 5, 2008)   Speaking of whores, the greatest convocation of harlots is to be found not in the red light district of Amsterdam, the alleys around Place Pigalle, or the shadowy streets of Soho, but in the commercial advertisements that harangue us mercilessly every time we turn on the TV. These trollops are drawn from the ranks of actors and actresses who, in return for sizeable paychecks, flock to the country's affluent advertisers in order to simulate being youngsters in love, happily-married elderly couples, resentful cavemen, cockney geckos, or 400-pound gorillas.

Prostituting the art of acting, these "performers" are sought out and then cast by advertising executives and their sharp-eyed studio pimps in order to perform 10-, 20-, or 30-second spots that promote the virtues of dating services, dietary transformations, real estate bonanzas, automobiles, hair-tonics, toothpaste, soap, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Make-believe doctors in white jackets extol the virtues of dubious drugs that are guaranteed to banish arthritis, eliminate chronic urination, regenerate your failing heart, enhance your sexual prowess (four-hour erections notwithstanding), and generally fulfill that untrammeled pursuit of fantasized happiness that keeps the American Dream alive.

The ancient art of acting was not created so that contented or troubled men, women, and children might use its power to promote the benefits of commercially-inflated products beamed directly into your home. These advertising pimps, harlots, and frauds, in appropriating the persuasive power of the performing arts to suggest they are average Americans -- "people like you and me" -- seeking romance or relief, popularity or weight loss -- are corrupting an art form that was created centuries ago in order to stimulate the imagination on subjects that affect the hearts and minds of people in all walks of life and through mimesis, produce enlightenment, enjoyment, wisdom, and truth. How despicable that the talents of actors and actresses, who presumably chose their profession in order to achieve the highest esthetic goals, should be diminished into stereotypical fakers pretending to undergo catharses which have been transcribed not by Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, Molière, Shaw, Beckett, or O'Neill, but the weasely, brain-dead talents of ad men who devise phony little playlets to boost the sale of products that, in most cases, are specious, exaggerated, or downright fraudulent.

I have known benighted actors, proud members of Actors' Equity and the Screen Actors Guild, who have proudly drawn attention to their "performances" in wretched little ads promoting soap, beer, laxatives, or erectile dysfunction remedies -- as if those superficial caricatures of real people deceive anyone watching TV ads or listening to radio commercials; as if those short blasts of transparent mendacity are legitimate samples of the actor's art and deserving of attention, awards, and popular approbation. "Did you catch my latest ad for 'Depends'? Wasn't it ginger-peachy? It netted me a shitfull of revenue with lots of repeats!" -- Terrific, touching and heart-rending; I am sure it will attract an Oscar or, at the very least, a nomination for a Golden Globe! Professional actors and actresses, and particularly the more established performers who already have some celebrity status, cannot seriously believe anyone with a modicum of sense or a smidgen of taste can behold such manufactured drivel with anything but overt or suppressed contempt.

Don't tell me about the great financial returns! That is irrelevant to the issue; if anything, it only cheapens the exploitation of actors and actresses even further that their 30-second "spot" should bring in more money than appearing in a repertory theatre or playing a challenging role in a low budget film. The immense rewards from whoring are well known. We've all read about the $5,000 fee that was paid to Spitzer's hooker. We know very well that prostituting oneself pays well. The rewards are not the point; demeaning an art form for the sake of revenue is where the shame resides. If it wasn't so demeaning the financial return would not be as great as it usually is.

The premise behind television commercials is that if an ad agency can persuade a large number of viewers that "ordinary people" -- like those simulated by members of the acting profession -- can reap benefits from drugs, booze, exotic vacations, flashy cars, or smarmy real estate brokers, profits will accrue and business will flourish. In short, we have a situation in which diverse members of the business community snap on their little red lights and proceed to whore their products to the nation.

How else can we promote our goods, they will ask. Why insult capitalism's attempt to promote goods and increase revenues? The answer is: they are doing so by simulating "ordinary people" ("people like you and me") in order to convey the fiction that their goods are salutary, or outstanding, or approved of by "people like you and me" -- whereas, in nine cases out of ten, they are faking these virtues by creating fictional situations and phony characters in order to make their arguments, and a legion of acting professionals are sucked into their deceptions because the compensation is irresistible.

In legitimate plays, films, and television appearances, professional actors assume fictional personae in order to recreate various characters who are involved in dramatic actions that try to reflect the dramas and dilemmas of everyday life. We accept that they are pretending to be people they are not and, when successful, they draw us into fictions that shed some light on our own personal circumstances. But an actor in a commercial is slotted into an abbreviated, formulaic sketch pretending they are "ordinary people" suffering from diverse ailments or psychological hang-ups that are capable of resolution thanks to drugs, drinks, vacations, therapies, colonics, and assorted purchases and acquisitions, which, in most cases, they have had no personal experience of whatsoever. They are the hired lackeys of affluent clients who wish to extol the virtues of their products for the sake of profit. This is sheer disingenuousness more than it is acting; they are pretending, for the sake of huckstering products, that they are "people like us." Simulation of "ordinary people" is the staple of those testimonials that are intended to persuade consumers to purchase goods that these "performers" (usually without direct experience) are recommending. It is because of this obvious mendacity that so many viewers instinctively despise commercials. No one likes to be lied to, but to be lied to on the pretext that the liars themselves are spouting lies only because they have been paid to do so, adds insult to injury.

And where in our Constitution or entrenched legal charters does it stipulate that, in return for tuning in dramas, comedies, series, and vintage movies, we must abide the constant interruptions of these transparent frauds? Where is it written that the breaks in continuity demanded by virtually every commercial network (PBS marginally excluded) are to be patiently endured for the sake of "sponsors"? How would we feel if we went to a Broadway play and every ten to fifteen minutes it was interrupted by hawkers promoting goods and services to relieve indigestion or remove unwanted hair? The refund queue at the box office would stretch from 42nd Street to the Jersey Turnpike. Why is it we demand unbroken continuity in the theatre and the cinema but regularly accept coitus interruptus on television? Could it be because the medium, since its inception, has been taken over by the moguls of Madison Avenue and handed over to the advertising mavens whose primary job is brainwashing the American people in every conceivable area of product consumption?

One could broaden out this topic to expose the insidious art of "product placements" in films and TV or rail against the almost total absorption of the radio airwaves by entrepreneurial nudnicks who refuse to allow any radio program the right to uninterrupted continuity; a state of grace that, as far as radio is concerned, almost never existed as, from the moment it first gained its voice, it was trying to sell us something or other. I don't intend to train my heavy armaments at all forms of advertising (in this day and age, that would be battling windmills), only to indict our, and the FCC's, tolerance for the rampant deterioration of a medium that, if it weren't caught in the jaws of commercialism might yet produce a wave of quality equal to the other performing arts.

For those who would respond: how could television possibly support itself without the aid of advertising revenue, I would answer: the model for tasteful and intelligent television service exists in England in the form of the BBC, which accepts no commercial advertising and is financed by national license fees paid by subscribers. So effective is the BBC that American television regularly steals its most successful inventions, ("All In The Family," "The Office," "American Idol," "Dancing With The Stars," etc.) and passes them off as their own. And I believe there is some correlation between a socially-monitored television industry maintained by governmental charter and the sales-obsessed, commercially-dominated TV that regularly insults our intelligence and subtly demeans our lives.

If this feels like the rant of some demented Luddite who refuses to "go with the flow," I accept in advance the condemnation these sentiments may inspire. But it is my belief that we here in America tend to accept complacently what a small minority of big time corporate hustlers believe best serves their commercial interests, no matter how invidious it may be for the art form that has fallen under their control. And yes, I do believe television is, and was originally intended to be, an art form and, as such, has the duty to protect itself from those ravenous marketeers who would turn it into a mobile kiosque.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/cmarow106.html
Published May 5, 2008