Why Are Bad Commercials So Good?
Good advertising cuts through the noise and makes a point. 99% of the time, bad advertising does that better. If the goal of advertising is to get people to remember your message, then it often seems like the best course of action is to either for your advertisement to be staggeringly great or absurdly terrible. The latter is much easier to pull off.
Think of all the terrible local commercials you’ve seen in your life. They’re usually for a car dealership or a lawyer. They pop up between glossy national commercials, immediately noticeable for their grainy images, bad acting and endless repetition of poorly sung jingles.
Chances are you remember at least a handful of these commercials. Past that, you’ve probably discussed them with friends, family and new acquaintances as a way to break the ice. These “bad” advertisements often become a part of our cultural fabric, remembered and referenced fondly and often, if only in mockery.
There’s something to be said for the staying power of these cultural artifacts. I asked the LUMINUS team to name some of their (least) favorites.
Dan’s Pick: Shenderovich, Shenderovich & Fishman
I’ll start with a commercial from my hometown. Shenderovich, Shenderovich & Fishman are injury lawyers in Pittsburgh. What they lack in the notoriety and agelessness of an Edgar Snyder they make up for in absurdity.
The whole thing feels like a half-baked SNL skit to me. A stock image of a car crash, followed by a shot of the team – wait, are they identical twins? Before you can really process what you’re seeing, the overly aggressive voiceover guy starts hitting you with totally irrelevant facts.
“You want smart? The twins have degrees in engineering.”
“You want smart? Craig Fishman attended college at 15.”
Neither of these facts has anything to do with their skill at practicing law, but the voiceover guy says it all with such a macho sneer in his voice that you aren’t about to argue.
Really, though, the thing I end up discussing most with people is the basic set up of the law firm. Two twins named Shenderovich and then a guy named Craig Fishman. It’s like Shenderovich and Shenderovich decided it felt too off-putting to deal with just the two of them so they added Fishman for some levity.
It’s all over so fast, though, that the first time I saw it I felt like I’d been run over. Too much weird information to process. No idea what I’d seen. Thank goodness we have YouTube so I could rediscover it.
Josh’s Pick: J.G. Wentworth
Josh chose the original J.G. Wentworth “It’s My Money & And I Need it Now” commercial. Like many of the commercials we’ll talk about, this one draws most of its abrasive qualities from repetition. The first thing we see is a dopey looking guy in an orange polo sitting on a couch in his living room. Presumably he’s the stand-in for the viewer – it’s his job to show us that the thing he’s about to do is a totally cool, normal thing to replicate.
“It’s my money and I need it now!” he shouts to no one, gesturing wildly and unnaturally, as if he’s on the cusp of failing his first improv class. This declaration, apparently, sets off a movement – for the rest of the 18 second spot, we see people shoving their heads out of windows, screaming the exact same thing. Again, they’re screaming it to no one, but it’s hard to notice that fact as their matching words, tones and cadences lull you into numbness.
The final scene is of an old man, presumably J.G. Wentworth himself, standing in front of a backdrop on which his own name slowly slides along. For everyone else’s fervor, Wentworth is calm and reassuring, but just in case we forgot, he reminds us that this is, in fact, our money, and we should use it when we need it.
There are longer versions of this commercial in which they explain what J.G. Wentworth is and how they help you (by getting you a lump payment out of a structured settlement), but I like the short version, which explains nothing. It’s just a celebration of repetition, entitlement and shouting.
Chelsea’s Pick: Airport Plaza Jewelers
Chelsea chose local favorite Airport Plaza Jewelers as her most hated. If you live in the area, chances are you’ve seen their low-budget schlock. They sing, they dance, they ride fake horses and most of all, they buy gold.
Specifically, Chelsea chose APJ’s “I Buy It” commercial. Again, this commercial thrives on repetition, but it isn’t as one-minded as J.G. Wentworth.
It opens with one of the shrillest, most annoying sounds on the face of the planet: a roll up party blower. It’s a good way to get the viewer’s attention, because for a few seconds, there’s not really much to see. A man seated in what looks to be a carved out entertainment center, decked out in foil balloons and non-religious Christmas decorations. Off camera, someone is half-heartedly throwing confetti at him. He’s celebrating something, but it’s hard to figure out what before he tells us that he has a million dollars to spend.
But spend on what? Leave it to the woman with the swinging blond hair to tell us.
An image pops up that looks like a gross strand of rope, but the voiceover guy tells us it’s old gold. From nowhere, to the left of the frame, a woman in a suit holding maybe $16 in one dollar bills leans in and shouts “I buy it!” Her blond hair, a little longer than shoulder length, keeps swinging even after she stops, like a hypnotist’s pocketwatch.
This exact image repeats itself, except she leans in from different sides of the frame, just to scare us. Here are the things that she buys, where she appears and what she says:
- Old gold (bottom left, “I buy it!”)
- Diamond rings (bottom right, “I buy it!”)
- Coins (top left, “That too!”)
- Antique jewelry (top right, “Yeah, baby!”)
- Pocketwatches (top left, but she leans almost all the way to the bottom, “I buy it!”)
- Gold (again) (bottom right, “I love broken gold!”)
- Diamond jewelry (again) (top of screen, as if gravity does not exist, “I buy it!”)
- Whatever has value (in this case, a Rolex) (bottom right, “I buy it all!”)
The commercial ends with her and the man from the beginning, both standing in the entertainment center, which is now void of any decoration. They’re both holding $16 now. They shout “we buy it all!” and it’s finally over.
Tracy’s Pick: Sears/Kenmore Air Conditioning
Tracy chose an oldie, but a goodie. I had no idea what she was talking about until I saw it, but once we found it on YouTube, I found out that I knew every word.
It’s a Sears Air Conditioner commercial from the early 90s, absolutely the highest budget, highest profile commercial on this list. But even the production values of a moderately successful hardware store can’t save this advertisement from communicating a laughable air of surrealism.
Let me start with the middle of the commercial just to get it out of the way. Most of the commercial is a straightforward sales pitch for a Kenmore central air conditioning unit. 0% financing, state-of-the-art engineering, emergency installation, a satisfaction guarantee: it’s all there, superimposed over a bunch of shots of the air conditioning unit itself (which is one of the most boring visuals of all time). It’s not particularly well done, but it’s pretty standard.
The bookends of the commercial are what make it so weird. It opens on a handsome, 30-something couple trying to enjoy a breakfast of what appears to be an untouched waffle, two glasses of milk and a vanilla scented candle. The scene is shot at a canted, tilted angle, a technique usually reserved for horror movies to signal psychological distress, often right before somebody dies. The camera pans across the kitchen and you do not see any doors; you get the distinct feeling that this couple cannot leave this room. The entire scene, they are sweating, bathed in a harsh yellow-orange light, as if the sun now lives right outside their window.
The wife stands in front of the refrigerator, fanning herself with the open door. Hand on her forehead, she looks miserable, and dresses a lot like my mom did in 1993.
Her husband, meanwhile, sits at the kitchen table reading the weather section of the newspaper (I told you this was dated). He too looks frazzled and sweaty but comparatively nonchalant.
“I can’t live another day without air conditioning,” the wife huffs.
“Says tomorrow’s gonna be hotter,” says the husband, presumably reading it in the paper despite the fact his eyes are closed. “Like yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” the wife responds, as if the memory that days pass is some sort of revelation. “Yesterday you said you’d call Sears.”
The husband finally looks up from his paper and shrugs, as if this terrible heat wave does not affect him personally. “I’ll call today.”
“You’ll call now,” says the wife, hypnotically.
“I’ll call now,” whispers the husband in the most mocking, smarmy way that he could. He smirks the most superior smirk possible. He looks down and we realize that he kind of looks like a real life version of Stu Pickles.
That’s the beginning. Go ahead and watch it and see if you can stop yourself from imitating the husband’s condescending demeanor. If you don’t mumble “I’ll call now” to yourself at least once, you’re stronger than most.
Then the middle part, in which Sears pitches the AC unit to us personally. Taken with the intro, we can assume that yes, the couple got their air conditioner installed, and that’s where the ending comes in.
It’s just a few seconds long and wholly unnecessary to the commercial, though it does give us some closure on the husband and wife. Again, we’re in their kitchen and again, it’s shot at a horror-movie-canted angle. This time, though, instead of the intense yellows and oranges of the intro, we’re faced with cool whites and blues.
The wife forks a small, red, circular food and raises it in front of her face. She is beaming, healthy, a new woman. She is wearing a jean vest.
“So, what’s the paper say about tomorrow?” she asks her husband.
The husband, clad in yellow polo, looks up from his paper at her. You see a flicker of rage in his eyes for just a second before he calms himself.
“Another scorcher!” he proclaims.
His wife nods her head like it’s on a spring. She looks out to no one, between the vantage point of the camera and where her husband is sitting. One can assume she is offering a word of thanks to Sears as she says, hard enough to make her head shake: “Cool.”
We never find out if the couple ever makes it out of the kitchen, if the man ever stops reading the paper or anything else that might give us a real sense of closure. We’re left with a sense of unease and a pronounced distaste for the husband. It’s hard, really, to think about air conditioning at all. Any recollection of the commercial is dominated by mental images of the couple’s rubbery faces doing their best trying to imitate human emotion.
My point isn’t to make fun of these commercials, at least not totally. It’s actually to hold them up as weird examples of what works.
Everybody wants to make a great advertisement, one that inspires people and eventually gets them to buy what you’re selling.
The primary goal for an advertisement, though, usually isn’t immediate sales. It’s ensuring that people remember your name so that when they eventually decide to convert, you’re in the running.
Often, it’s these types of commercials that end up stuck in our memories. They’re different and fun to talk about, even if they’re being mocked. The ads that ran before and after them were probably more put together and less weird – and we’ve totally forgotten about them.
The lesson, of course, isn’t that you should try to make weird, laughable advertisements. It’s that if you settle for something that’s normal, expected and “good enough,” it won’t matter – nobody’s going to remember your name.