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I Now Interrupt this Broadcast for an Unpopular Opinion on Television Commercials

Someday, when my now-infant son is old enough to ask rambling questions that require similarly rambling answers, he’ll sit for a fireside chat with his dear old dad wherein all matter of recent history will be explained. “Papa,” he’ll begin, because kids always call their dads “Papa” when they’re about to get a taste of the real stuff, “Tell me about when you were my age.”


“My child,” I’ll say, probably while sharpening knives or smoking a pipe for reasons unknown, “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.” And then I’ll paint a portrait of a mall-cluttered Narnia where Blockbuster Video stores were as numerous as the Sears in the sky, where you made plans by placing rotary-phone calls that dads like myself could (and would) constantly interrupt. “Those were the days,” I’ll probably sigh.


And then I’ll queue up a TV show from this bygone era, ignoring the fact that we’re simultaneously witnessing the biggest historical shift of all, which not only came on my watch, but was implicitly due to the impatience of people just like myself: “Oh, TV used to have commercials as well. But everyone was pretty content to get rid of those.” And then I’ll probably sigh again, just a little bit louder than the first time.



To be certain, the TV commercial isn’t necessarily dead, as our recent and interminable political cycle would reflect. Yet, the medium has been altered beyond recognition by streaming services and DVRs and the overall death of monoculture, to the point where we can and do avoid them altogether. Or do we?


When the first American television commercial aired just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was only a continuation of a centuries-long advertising arc. (The spot in question was for Bulova Watches, and it’s worth looking up, if only because it’s essentially the visual proxy of hearing wax recordings of Thomas Edison’s voice.) Ever since our noble breed of scheisters have had wares to shill, we’ve been creative about how to get the word out -- town criers, printed handbills, scripted radio programs, etc. The song’s the same, as they say, and only the instrument has changed; commercials had, until recently, been the pinnacle of the form.


But with the end of standard commercials seemingly on the horizon, it really feels like an entire era is ending with it. I won’t miss commercials, exactly, but I will miss the purity of knowing when I was being sold. Even if commercial breaks are something that all of us hate, at least we knew what it was that we were hating. For centuries, there has been a line of demarcation between what was and wasn’t an advertisement, and as commercials have become less prominent, that line has become increasingly blurred.


So the advertisements we’re left with instead -- where, oh where, are the genius but obvious slogans like “Where’s the Beef?,” which my dad still shouts whenever someone brings him a steak -- are subtle to the point of camouflage. Product placement. Celebrity cutaways during live sporting events. Dasani water bottles in all hotel rooms, like some hydrating, 21st-century Gideon bible. We haven’t lost commercials, actually; they’ve just become woven into the common fabric of our lives.


And so, someday, the hypothetical conversation with my curious son will end when I finally turn him on to one of my all-time favorites, Mad Men, which centers around clever and sinister ad salesmen in the 1960s.


“What kind of show is it, Papa? History? Fantasy? Sci-Fi?”


“It’s all of those, my child.”


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