Sunday, April 08, 2007


I used to make most of my living from commercials. Theatre doesn't pay a lot, so most actors working that turf augment their salaries by pitching one product or another. Oddly, everybody remembers your 30 seconds shilling beer, cars or chocolate bars more than anything else you do. Your friends and neighbors may never buy a seat to see a show you've rehearsed for months; but they know by heart the catch phrase you uttered in an ad that took all of an hour to shoot -- and don't mind singing it every time they run into you for the next ten years.

I posted the story of my first commercial (working with John Candy) a few months back. He and I almost got fired that day. And I almost got fired from the second one I did as well. I was playing some kid in awe of dad's new Chevrolet because of its groundbreaking engineering innovations.

One of the "Ad Guys" (and there are dozens on any commercial shoot) asked me what I thought of the "copy" and if guys my age would be excited by it. He seemed honestly interested in my opinion, so I told him I thought anybody who'd buy a car based on what we were saying probably wouldn't have the brains to drive it.

That was it! He wanted me replaced. The director interceded. He was a German guy famous for winning a bunch of Golden Lions in Europe. They're like the Commercial version of the Oscars. "The Kid's right," he said in a thick accent. "The Volkswagen's had all of this shit for years."

What astonished me most about working on commercials was the incredible attention that was paid to every detail and verbal nuance. On a film set or stage rehearsal, you could do a ten minute take or an entire act before a director commented on your performance. And the only one who said anything was the director, not a whole gang of people in suits. But on a commercial set, that mob parsed every second, had conferences on which syllable should be emphasized or ordered take after take to decide just how far an eyebrow should be arched.

And that was nothing compared to what went on during the product "beauty shots".

Turkeys were painted with a coat of varnish to make them shine. Alka Seltzer was dropped into beer to give it exactly the right size bubbles and head of foam. I did an MG commercial in California, where a Hercules aircraft flew in a dozen sports cars from England that had been given coats of specially tinted paint that would reflect sunlight better for the cameras. They cost twice as much as a regular MG (not to mention what the shipping must've set them back) and our stunt guys lost one in the surf at Malibu and another over a cliff in Topanga Canyon.

None of that mattered, because all these junior Vance Packards insisted the audience was hanging on every detail of what they did and their excellence at executing their ad with perfection would guarantee increased sales.

I wonder if anybody's ever had the heart to tell Ad guys that when their commercials come on, most people actually start hitting the remote or wander off to have a pee.

This week a commercial for the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, starring their new Designated Hitter, Frank Thomas, ran afoul of the Television Bureau of Canada, the organization which approves all commercials that run in this country. "Telecaster" as they're known, having increased their cache by naming themselves after a legendary guitar, refused to allow the spot to run because it depicted violence against a child. Decide for yourself...

Um, okay.

Now, I'm sure we all see that as hyperbole, comic exaggeration, etc. Last year, for example, the Jays did a commercial where one of their pitchers sank a ship while skipping a stone across Lake Ontario. It's supposed to be funny. We get that, don't we?

But what "Telecaster" sees is the depiction of a child being potentially harmed. That's the pre-emptive, make it perfect (as in perfectly inoffensive) mentality of Ad guys.

You know what I find interesting though -- all the things that are dangerous to kids in this commercial that they didn't see....

1. Notice how much the banister wobbles when Frank comes up the stairs? Is that safe in a house full of rowdy kids?

2. Why are there Christmas lights strung tight against the curtains in the boys' room? Isn't that a fire hazard?

3. Feather pillows are a source of allergies and breathing problems in children (recent medical studies of Asthma indicate this is especially true in Afro-American children). Isn't the boys future health a concern?

4. And perhaps most glaring -- Frank Thomas earns $5 Million a year playing for the Blue Jays along with $2.6 Million in incentives and (as this commercial illustrates) additional endorsement income. If the man earns this kind of money, why are his children sleeping in an obvious attic room (note the roof slope) and forced to share a double bed? Clearly, Mr. Thomas is not spending his Major League fortune on caring properly for his offspring and is therefore not a fit parent and Social Workers should be removing his children from him immediately!!!

See how nuts you can get with this kind of drivel?

Maybe "Telecaster" were simply being over cautious, having been burned before. Apparently, they recently had to investigate a viewer complaint about another Jays commercial in which Outfielder Vernon Wells "did not look both ways before crossing a street".

What's really weird about all this, besides learning that you can actually earn a salary for this kind of non-job, is there's a very strict rule I didn't know about the presentation of commercials.

In a medium where the programming may contain any number of Sopranos beating strippers to death, CSI detectives mocking corpses and Cheerleader "Heroes" being torn limb from limb, no matter how many people might be repulsed -- the Television Bureau of Canada has to investigate every commercial for which they receive a single solitary complaint.

That's all it takes -- one complaint. And when they get that one complaint, they're required to have the advertiser concerned provide evidence to support the claims they are making or to justify the content of their message.

What say we actually give these people something worthwhile to do with their time?

If they're really dedicated to making sure we're not offended or lied to by advertisers, why don't we start filing complaints about the commercials that truly are harmful and disingenuous? I'm talking about the ones with politicians who make promises they don't keep, the ads for banks who insist they put our well being before their profits, the credit card companies who swear they protect our personal information, and the oil companies who assure us they only make a small 2% profit on every liter sold.

They want accountability in advertising? I'm phoning first thing in the morning.

1 comment:

wcdixon said...

Jim...this is a great post. I had to read it again 'with attention' after seeing another article about that Blue Jays commercial - yours was better.