Songwriter John Prine has a tune about the simple fact that, despite denials by the industry, the audio on TV commercials is always louder than the volume of the programming content… assuming you can find some content. The song’s chorus is virtually a mantra for 21st century consumers trapped in a firestorm of ad messages: “Whoa, whoa, sweet serenity… quit hollerin’ at me.”
Prine’s song echoed briefly during a recent drive west down Pico Boulevard. There’s a Radio Shack store at Pico and Robertson that has wrapped its entire second story in a plastic sheath advertisement for the film Bottle Shock. The film is a witty observation on wine snobs and wine tasting contests. You know, one a’ them sophisticated movies. So it’s ironic that an element of the advertising campaign, a gaudy ribbon of plastic suffocating a bright yellow building, is anything but.
Okay, maybe that’s just one mildly offensive thing getting up in your “grill.” But minutes later, at Pico and Overland, I see what appears to be a six story-high photograph of Ellen DeGeneres puckering up her lips. No, really… like, six stories of that. Closer up, it becomes clear that the ad envelopes an entire bank building. There are multiple cutie-pie poses of Ellen, and text to remind us that she has an afternoon talk show. And so we don’t forget, the message is literally the size of a building.
I’m musing on some new trends in humongous advertising when I next come upon one of those electronic billboards at Gateway and Pico, the ones that change every five seconds so that you keep watching as you rear-end a parked UPS truck. I admit that I did take in the billboard messages, since it becomes impossible not to look at it. And of course, that’s the point.
I can understand a bank being so strapped for extra income these days that they agree to have their institution wrapped like a baby shower gift, and not caring what it says to customers (“Bring your precious life savings here, to Big Carnival Bank and Billboard!”). But, citizens of Santa Monica, I am warning you: If the armies of colossal obnoxious advertising are as close as Pico at Gateway, then they’re looking at Santa Monica next. I mean in addition to those airplanes that fly over our beaches towing banners reminding children that drinking alcohol is the most fun anyone can have.
As a writer, I’m never without some cognizance of advertising. For one thing, there’s always the chance those guys might hire me. (“Coca Cola: It tastes swell!” Come on, that’s edgy copy!) But what is this trend in L.A. of taking the biggest thing in the neighborhood and making a billboard out of it? Where were the zoning people during that meeting? Outside maybe, enjoying the menthol richness of a Kool Filter King in the new flip-top box. Or admiring a Budweiser banner pulled by a small plane.
Intrusive advertising has the quality of feeling so glued to our lives that we come to believe we can do nothing but let it step all over us. But people have stopped it, including several events of neighborhood groups banishing liquor and cigarette billboards both from where they live and where their kids walk to school. And parents have removed school soft drink machines that delivered not only needless sugar but sales messages.
Building owners are going to make deals for ad wraps, and commerce is always going to believe that bigger is, well, at least it’s more. That doesn’t mean we must allow for the blatant reshaping of the world we occupy into a Candyland of advertising. I wish Obama had said something about invasive advertising in Denver, at either the Pepsi Center or Invesco Field.
Unfortunately, our relationship to advertising causes all of us to become enablers. The minute we cash a coupon or show up for a “Grand Opening” or sit passively on an airliner and take in a car commercial touted as a “short feature,” we’re part of the call/response synergy that makes corporations think a giant billboard of Ellen is something we’d enjoy in our neighborhood. Hey, come on, it’s Ellen! She’s cute… even when her face is bigger than a Winnebago! It’s not like the thing glows in the dark–wait a minute. That’s good… I love that. “Ellen: Making daytime so bright, she shines at night!” And what if this huge billboard could talk… I mean, seriously. Who wouldn’t love giant Ellen hollerin’ at them as they drive past?