Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2012

The only time I watch advertisements is during the Super Bowl, and even then, I give scant attention to them unless they really annoy me. I thought the Teleflora advert, in particular, was disgusting: a beautiful girl saying provocatively into the camera essentially that if you give her something, she will give you something – about as close to a conspiracy to support prostitution as I have seen. The rest of the ads were harmless and passably interesting.

In fact, in these days of DVRs, I see virtually no adverts when watching television. Even if we want to view a current program, Jayme and I deliberately let it run for 20 minutes so that we can see it and speed through the ad breaks without wasting time. I assume you do the same. This behavior must drive the people who make and place these commercials pretty crazy. Technology has freed us from the old and annoying breaks in programs when someone tried to sell us something.

Now I know the economics: no ads, no programs. But, in this case, I do not grieve. Most advertisements insult our intelligence or are repeated so many times that they just become irksome. I don’t know what the Geico gecko is saying in his affected Cockney accent and, I am glad to say, I don’t care. At one time, the Cockney dialect seemed the preferred language of hucksters selling towels that drained entire lakes. Now, I don’t see the ads, and I don’t miss them.

The alternative counterstrike seems to be calling you up at home. Political parties have resorted to this. You are eating dinner and a phone call comes in. Let me re-emphasize that you are always eating dinner when this call comes because their market research has proven that is when you are most likely to be home. The request, “We want to get your opinion on behalf of Mr. X,” immediately strikes Mr. X off the list of people for whom I would vote. I have this rather antiquated idea that my home (and by extension my phone) is my castle. Leave me alone! Even when you register your number on the “Do Not Call” list, they still call, especially politicians because, of course, they have exempted themselves from all such rules, as they exempt themselves from every rule including those against “insider trading.”

With TV ad viewership declining, how can the ad people still make a buck? They have somehow persuaded the public that wearing their name on articles of clothing is a sign of success. Is carrying a Gucci shopping bag really such a status symbol or just a moving ad? I vote for the latter. I know, we put “York” on our dress-code shirts (in small letters), but that is the school uniform. I would be surprised if students wore handbags, sweaters and pants with our name largely printed on them. But the affluent happily do this all the time. And am I the ONLY person who finds the name “Juicy” really offensive when printed on the back of shorts?

Another of the ad industry’s responses has been to place their products in the television program or in the film story itself. So viewers (they hope) notice if characters on TV or in films use a Mac or a PC. Particular name brand cars (always so sparklingly clean) are driven, and clearly marked products are focused on so that the viewer can see what brand of camera the “policeman” uses or which breakfast cereal the hero is eating. I don’t mind this as much because it is usually over in the blink of an eye. I don’t lose four minutes out of my life for every fifteen minutes of a program. I have been told that there are only 40 minutes of content in an hour-long television show – not, I quite gleefully note, when you use a DVR.

If you go to the movies, you get 20 minutes of trailers. I am not talking about the regular movie ads. I am talking about 20 minutes starting at the very time the movie itself is supposed to start! And these trailers are always played far louder than the movie you are going to watch. Jayme and I have a new policy: we take earplugs.

I, for one, do not find billboards attractive. I always think of Ogden Nash. For those of you who need reminding:

I think that I will never see

A Billboard lovely as a tree

Indeed unless the Billboards fall

I’ll never see a tree at all.

I can give many other examples of this ad invasion.

I remember when Public Television thanked only “viewers like you” and “The Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” They may also have mentioned some fine charitable foundations. Now they literally have ads for Viking River Cruises and any other company that pays the freight. And when they keep stopping the program to go to their phone banks, with the accompanying repetitive begging and telephone number, even retrospectives of the work of Mel Brooks (my favorite comedian/writer) become unwatchable.

I think it takes away from the majesty of horseracing that jockeys wear ads for financial institutions on the sides of their breeches, although that is nothing compared to the explosion of ads on the outfits of race car drivers. They look like strange Boy Scouts with badges tacked all over them. In England, cricket and tennis were once considered sports where commercialism was kept out: no longer. The sponsors have stuck their names everywhere they can on what used to be elegant (and plain white) playing clothes.

And how did Citigroup keep the name Citi Field on the Stadium where the Mets play after it was bailed out by the taxpayers? We, the taxpayers, paid for that ad. Maybe I am the only one who finds that stadiums that carry the names of products sound tacky. How much more elegant and straightforward are the words “Giants Stadium?”

In New York, you get into a cab to go somewhere. The chances are that the top of the cab is gaudily advertising a strip club (maybe featuring the same girl as in the Teleflora ads), and once inside, the little television goes on where at least half the programming is spent trying to sell you things. It takes a minute or two to fumble around to turn the darn thing off…in which case you have to listen to the driver’s radio. The only good part about that is that they are selling whatever it is in a foreign language, and he (the cabdriver) is talking over the cacophony on his mobile phone in the same language. I want to have the same phone plan he has.

Even apps for the “iPad” come free with ads, or for a charge if you want the ads off. That at least acknowledges that the app makers realize the irritation we feel with this relentless bombardment.

I have been told to practice what I preach and so we do not rank parents according to how much money they contribute, nor do we advertise what they have given. We do not waste paper telling you who gave $10,000 and are, therefore, my (headmaster’s) “friends”; who gave $5,000 and are, therefore, my “circle”; and who gave $1,000 and are, therefore, my “associates” (or some such title). I once saw names listed as “headmaster’s supporter,” but maybe I was the only person who thought that was funny. What these intellectually pornographic pamphlets imply about those who do not give, is beyond contemplation. Giving is great, giving anonymously is much greater. Such pamphlets with their hierarchical lists, appeal to the showiest of givers and the guilting of non-givers. We just sent a girl to Smith College who was put through our school since 7th grade by an anonymous donor who trusted us to pick a worthy child. That is impressive!

Okay, I got all that off my chest. Now if I saw an ad for a device that would silence the alarm of the car that accidentally had been bumped outside the school from honking for five minutes, I would be first in line to buy it. And yes, I recognize that probably the only way I would find out about this wonderful new product is by advertising. I recognize all of my inconsistencies and prejudices. I recognize that I am bereaving a time that will never return, and maybe never really existed. If you really feel offended, you could always take out an ad and do something about it.


Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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