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Attack ads and trusting Mike Rowe

Published: Sunday, November 18, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01


Now that the election dust is beginning to settle—Barack Obama/Mitt Romney, Donkey/Elephant pins have been thrown out (hopefully), picket signs have been trashed or converted into somewhat ironic wall decorations, realizations have been made that bumper stickers are harder to remove than initially thought—we, the voting populous and spectators of the whole hoopla, can begin to look at this election with some degree of objectivity and level-headed retrospection and start extracting important lessons about American society and culture, right? We can ask the big question: What did Election 2012 teach us?
One thing it taught us, among other equally important things, is that television attack ads suck. They really suck. 
In one type of these ads, some weird velvety voiceover flatly lists the reasons Obama/Romney has been or will be the spawn of the majority of governmental evil in the past or next four years. The voice is dubbed over what looks, on-screen, like a PowerPoint presentation in which all the graphics (displaying Obama/Romney making a face most likely described by multitudinous partisan focus groups as “frustration at his incompetency”) have been given the lame “float in” animation. The big blocky text (“Obama/Romney is incompetent”, to paraphrase), which is inevitably present (for all those who wisely try to block out the creepy voiceover), is almost certainly WordArt, and the over-saccharine voiceover and WordArt text ask simultaneously at the end of the ad, “Would you trust Obama/Romney with your [insert contested economic issue]?” The question is then followed by the stock endorsement of the ad by a candidate’s voiceover. Yes, they really suck.
And the ones with the pseudo-intimate, or just flat-out fake interview spots in which some “undecided” voter (who happens to be a member of the exact constituency Obama/Romney were then struggling to get votes from) explains to us (the characters are sitting in some ambiguous and placid park with a loving significant other or pet, typically) that the more they’ve thought about [insert contested issue], the more Obama’s/Romney’s plan “just makes sense for me in my [very] particular situation, and [insert one inane and vague sentence about how the opposing candidate’s failures to address that issue adequately are just plain insensitive and irresponsible].” Yes, they really suck, too. 
These are just two examples of sucky attack ads, but I don’t mean to spare the other types by not mentioning them here. They all suck. They’re egregiously sucky. Their suckiness is unanimous and ubiquitous and intense. 
And it’s not hard to pinpoint why. Each presents information in a way that is intentionally and obviously vague, and this sets our liberal arts-primed bulls—t sonars off. Because we recognize the commercial as bullshty, it loses its credibility and we thus reject the authority of the direct source of the information (the advertisement itself). Once it is rejected, the idea of the advertisement, and subsequently its informational content, is considered completely worthless. Yet, unlike many other forms of information (websites, books, magazines, newspapers), we, as its consumer, cannot choose to stop receiving the bulls—ty data once the source of the data has lost its credibility (you can close a webpage, shut a book, throw out a magazine, use your newspapers to start fires [in your fireplace guys, come on]) unless you change the channel (which is annoying for a whole host of reasons, not to mention that during the peak of Election 2012, every channel ran these ads, and going from one channel to another was not a legitimate way to avoid seeing the ads) or turn your TV off. But let’s say the newest Modern Family is on and you’re a huge fan. Or The Shining is on FX, and you don’t like it, but all your roommates do, so you’re going to have to watch it. Are you or they really going to turn off the tube for a bunch of stupid ads? Probably not. So what really irks us is not that they in themselves are so sucky— though they are—it’s that we are actually unable to choose to not watch them when we no longer want to watch them. 
It seems odd, then, that TV consumers do not think every single advertisement sucks just as much as attack ads do. Why do we not furiously detest the Ford commercial where Mike Rowe talks to “Ford factory workers” (as if this gives it some sort of nitty-gritty “realness”) about all the great things Ford service does for Ford cars? Interspersed with his various short interviews with “workers” are flashes of car-tech seeming things looking very clean and healthy and like-new, while Rowe (who is like a mid-life crisis Everyman Adonis) nods his head in a consumerly “yeah, I really get this” way. Except the “workers” have barely said anything that one could “really get.” In a final “informative” flourish, a bright and fancy-looking graphic tells us that the “The Works Fuel Saver Package” costs $29.95 or less (after a $10 rebate) and the package covers oil changes, tire rotations, brake-inspection, multi-point inspection, and more. We’re left with some serious questions here, like, how much does this thing actually cost? And how much more is “and more?” How is that okay?
We gloss over these ads (car commercials, beer commercials, tech commercials, etc.) and ignore their obvious flaws—the information is vague and bulls—ty, the only reason the voiceover isn’t creepy is because we think we can see Rowe talking, we can’t not watch them if we’re going to watch TV (which we’re going to do), etc.—while we vocally lambaste political attack ads for having the exact same obvious flaws. Why?
The not-so-groundbreaking answer is that we have been consuming TV for so long (since infancy, really), and with that, so many car, beer, tech, clothing, fragrance, and hygienic product commercials that we are numb to their flaws and outright deceptions. Put another way, because we see illegitimate and un-credible commercials every single day, and have for around two decades, their striking lack of untainted information has just slipped into the assumed framework of a commercial. It’s the “they’re just like that” effect. Political attack ads evoke outrage not because their information is presented in a particularly different way, but because we see the specific content of attack ads in such extreme abundance only once every four years, and amidst the monotonous stream of the usual sucky advertisements, the switch in frequency and type of content is a shock to our heavily-conditioned TV-consumer systems. The unfamiliarity of the content makes us think the shoddy quality of the content is abnormal—and it’s just not.
Perhaps the most serious implication of this numbness to sucky commercials is that we have been conditioned to passively take in bad or incorrect information and consider it acceptable or, even worse, complete. While this does not necessarily make us more stupid people (an entirely separate question for an entirely separate column), it most certainly makes us ignorant—and yes, stupid—consumers, and in our world, the quality of our consumerism counts.
In conclusion: Don’t trust Mike Rowe. 

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