Toward a Theory of the American TV Commercial of, Oh, Say, About 1990

If a Breakfast Cereal Could Speak, We Would Not Understand It

This is the first entry in a new recurring feature in which Believer Commercials Correspondent Ian Dreiblatt travels back in time via to review and examine the cultural phenomenon that was Television Commercials. Commercials featured here will mostly be old, and have, in many cases, already left an indelible mark on America and its culture. Watch this space for a new installment every month. 

Today, I put on a block of TV commercials that aired exactly twenty-five years ago. One of the first things I saw was a short movie singing the existential praises of cheese. The concept of cheese. America was being urged, presumably by an undescribed Cheese Cabal headquartered somewhere off-set, to take up the noble mantle of cheese-eating:

Give it the kick of a bluegrass fest,
Give it a chance to taste its best!
[Pandemonic over-enthusiasm ratchets cheesefully skyward]
Cheese adds life to the old recipes!
Give American food
A new attitude

This commercial expresses the human desire to be made new in a banal way. But its underlying cheesognomy is wild. For thirty seconds here, America sounds itself out through the resonant medium of Cheese, and, with a certain spooky pep, declares the stuff—and, implicitly, American life—both new and exciting. The fact that there was little new about cheese in 1993 notwithstanding, a number of questions arise: Who are we to understand is speaking in this paean to curds? Is there any rational way of responding to an affect of anthemic Cheese exhilaration? And who constitutes the imagined audience of TV watchers still on the fence about eating Cheese?

(Sidenote: is “bluegrass,” as a genre, indeed cheeselike? “Fest” provides cover for all kinds of cheesetivities. Why a “bluegrass” fest rather than, say, a “city” fest? A “chili” fest? For that matter, “fondue plate” b/w “to taste real great”? The mind reels that bluegrass should receive this honor. But I digress.)

Cheesemania ’93, as I’ve decided to call it, is a classic TV commercial. In a civilization organized primarily around the funneling of capital to corporations, commercials offer a space of transcendent communion with the objects of our dependence and desire. They take place in a realm understood to be ideational without quite being imaginary—existing not in any one person’s mind, but ambiently, on a level of reality we rarely think to question, encoded in the daily order of things as neatly as the peanut butter aisle of a suburban grocery store. (This bare proximity to capitalism’s exposed nerves, combined with a habitual callousness to human dignity, is I believe why, in the recent words of A.S. Hamrah, “TV commercials are the worst thing to see on hallucinogenic drugs.”) These commercials embody and transmit all kinds of cultural norms, declaiming on the career-destroying horror of “even one flake” of dandruff, the correct way to manage a labor force, how women should interpret cough syrup viscosity, and so on.

Commercials also encode and preserve basic aesthetic and narrative conventions. Musically, they’re a trove of low-rent original product psalms, in styles ranging from quietly sophisticated poultry rock to funky rugged simplicity jams that sound like a person in a boardroom frantically describing the inner life of a coalminer. They introduce stock characters from discomfiting gym teacher to comic book nerd. They offer an education in America’s throbbing corporate epiculture, whose dark world they echo in a thousand ways—through who gets represented and who not, portrayals of nations and cultures, depictions of idealized daily life, enshrinement of a particular commercial landscapestyle parodies, intimations of eternitymessages of warningmessages of beneficence, and more—all calligraphed into air and sent streaming through the walls of our homes by giant corporate antennas.

Given that our lives are organized around commercial interests, these messages issued directly by corporate entities can also take on the resonance of an ancient religion. The idealized athleticism of an old Snickers commercial offers as preening and triumphal an image of victory as a winged Nike carved into stone, if a less beautiful one. Chuck E. Cheese is a gurgling Moloch. A TheraFlu ad represents illness as a series of men’s bodies, suited and torqued in anguish, floating through undifferentiated space; later, after the mediation of the pharmaceutical sacrament, it becomes a bedridden man in pajamas, convalescing gratefully. Nothing here is hard to imagine on a funeral stele, magic scroll, or marble healing altar.

Some people, when I tell them I write about TV commercials, will immediately produce the indelible memory of a particular one. My friend and publishing colleague Taylor Sperry remembers that, in the throes of her early horrifying awareness of mortality, she soothed herself by mentally replaying this peppy Cheerios commercial, in which a blemishless family sits in a landscape that is somehow both domestic and infinite, cavorting with a cereal box, their aplomb downright Aryan. Behind them a white horizon dissolves into a bowl of milk. General Mills—a shapeless-but-real overbeing whose spokesdaemons include an absurd and horrendous dough gremlina bodiless hand who loves casseroles, and the off-puttingly sultry Annie Potts—thus offers its vision of transcendent dailiness, a world where no one dies because everyone has Cheerios. (GM has more recently made news by acquiring the company that “created a new snack category by incorporating meat into snack bars.” Goody, more immortality.)

The poet and scholar Anna Vitale immediately thought of this molten-windshield of a TV spot for a car dealership she saw growing up in Detroit. This commercial wears the grain of its regionality deeply—one of those local spots of which Sonia Saraiya has written, “in an odd way, they connect us.” The obvious highlight is the cowboy’s song, which… is not a song, but something better. This song is made special not by the norms it encodes but by those it trounces. We hear a sales jingle that seems to have been written by a Michigan car salesman with no ear for melody and a strained sense of medium. His tune, absolutely bonkers, bears the numinous innocence of unresisted creative impulse, offered with the shapelessness of an exploded hot dog. It does at least sort of make you feel like buying a car. This is all to say: it’s magic, a peculiar local magic that, presumably, worked as well as magic tends to.

From the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, the American TV commercial enjoyed a classic baroque: a jeans ad might take the form of a discursus on the nature of Arizonans, a soda spot could position itself as a brief meditation on the invisibility from youth of old age, and chewing gum could represent itself conceptually through a series of variations on a single musical and narrative theme, to grow so successfully enmeshed in mass consciousness that to hear a non-standard variation feels uncanny, like something peeled off a nightmare. (By the late nineties, that same chewing gum would succumb to an ongoing trend toward cutesy Cold War gloatinggrotesque in its triviality—subset of an older motif that models correct attitudes for the American imperial class, from square to yuppie.)

There are those, inevitably, who claim commercials haven’t changed much in the past thirty years, but consider that as recently as 1988, one could see a vacationer in Puerto Rico unjokingly portrayed plucking two sumptuous dinner lobsters right out of the sea. For that matter, think of the Cheese canticle with which we started: seen from today, its wholesome exhortations look practically Soviet. (Also interesting is the woozy cathexis on display in actual Soviet cheese commercials.)

The purpose of this recurring feature will be to look on the works of American Commercialry from its High Baroque period, with an eye toward liberating the ghosts that dwell within. The unironic chewing-gum boleros and breakfast-cereal raps that colonized huge swaths of my generation’s collective attention will be subjected to a mixture of nostalgia for various forsaken futures, contempt for the forces that shape our current society, critique, and bemusement. Negotiating the forgotten currents of their sugary urgency, I aim to bring this submerged, deeply American religion to surface. From a world of fragmenting media, overweaning capital, ratcheting chaos, and rampant financialization, I hope to look back to the endless hours of micro-programming that millions now living spent cumulatively months of their childhoods watching, and ask were they ever, and are they now, part of a complete breakfast?

Hold back the edges of your gowns, comrades, we are going through Froot Loop milk.

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