What TV Commercials Say About Americans — Is There A Trend?

I’d love to have some feedback about what I’m writing here. I’d like to know whether others are noticing the same thing I am. When I watch TV and pay attention not to the content of the commercials, but the needs they are addressing, I can’t help but think that there are a ton of Americans in really tough situations.

Fair Disclosure: When I was in college, I had the unbeatable good fortune to take every class Dr. Thelma Z. Levine gave. She was a truly great lecturer with a mind that you just had to envy.   She was a philosophy professor; I was a philosophy major. She was the type of professor that actually read your papers and wrote fairly extensive notes. Generally, I was proud of what she wrote, but the comment that I read more than any other was that she thought I tried to find synergies where they really don’t exist. This may be one of those times. Let me know.

Here’s what I’m seeing in commercials. People need help because they are behind on their mortgage and they are going to be foreclosed on. For others, the IRS is on their case, and might seize their property or garnish their wages. Others have to worry about monitoring their insulin level. Some have to deal with erectile dysfunction; for others, it’s the need for adult diapers. Some need help to quit cigarettes. Others need to pick a cancer treatment facility or an addiction rehabilitation center. Many need lawyers for civil or criminal court cases. Others are worried about insurance to take care of “final expenses.” We’d expect to see certain ads like this in a local neighborhood ad tabloid. But, I’m seeing this on TV: local, cable and national. These deliver big audiences and thus they aren’t cheap. The very presence of the ads shows that there is a real market out there for these products and services, and the abundance of them indicate that those markets must be huge. Are that many people really worried about losing their house or in trouble with the IRS?

I’m thinking of the time generally considered the Golden Age of television. Then, rather than helping you deal with the most recent right to your jaw, the commercials catered to making your pleasant life even more pleasant. Think of it: even cigarettes were pitched with benefits that made your life more enjoyable. Today, you’re being sold patches to help you quit the habit. Cars were pitched as being inextricably tied to great experiences: “See the USA in your Chevrolet; America’s the greatest land of all.” There was something aspirational about that. There’s nothing aspirational about defending yourself from a DUI charge. There was something hopeful and wonderful about the messaging that came across in the ads that barraged us non-stop. Today, it’s coping, not hope, that’s the value benefit the advertisers are promoting.

Of course, ads still push how a new car can make your life better. Or why buying a new home can help you build a happy family. It’s hardly the case that all ads address dire situations. But I’m wondering if we are seeing a real trend. Do the ads indicate that there is a huge market of Americans besieged with major challenges of an almost existential nature? Has the market been evolving in that direction, and, if so, is that evolution going to continue? How big will the market for services and products for the distressed become? What would that say about our nation, where we might be going, and how far it will go in that direction? And then what?

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