The American Culture Defined by Television Commercials

In an age of multi-media entertainment, digital storage, and ever-advancing technology, it is possible that the idyllic American culture has been forever lost to photo albums and sporadic home web pages. In some instances though, critics might defend the traditional American culture in their renouncement of these modern approaches; they may go so far as to say that these mediums do not rightly represent the “real America”. Therefore, let us closely examine a singular medium: the American television commercial. Does it, in fact, represent the “real America”?

The “commercial break” is a veritable American institution in and of itself wherein television viewers stretch, get some chips, refill their soda, check on the kids, make a quick call, and in the special case of the Super Bowl, spend time with their friends and families rating and commenting about the commercials themselves. Current television commercials, however, represent at least three primary functions of society: the desires of a culture, the lifestyles of a culture, and, more often than not, the particular influences, both religious and secular, of a culture. If a genuine approach to cultural understanding is to be undertaken, the television commercial must certainly be included.

Again, the argument may be put forth that someone, in particular a non-American, may not fully comprehend the American society by viewing television commercials. In fact, the opposite is more likely true: that Americans fail to see how much television commercials rightly represent the modern American culture. A single household may feel that they are not accurately depicted, and so it may be. Each household, working as it does, may feel similarly. Yet, taking two steps back, it is easy to see that even on a single neighborhood block, the characters and lifestyles of Americans are, in fact, represented fairly by television commercials, certainly more so than the shows that fall in between the commercials. In this, the non-American might be all the more informed about American culture than Americans might like, or care for him to be.

First, the desires of American culture can quickly and readily be seen by even a scant and infrequent viewing of commercials. What is that a culture wants? What aspirations and goals does it have? If we rely solely on commercials, we find that Americans want cars and trucks and sport-utility vehicles, and they want them to be safe, tough, and sporty. We find they want to feel beautiful, be beautiful, act sexy, be sexy, look handsome, sharp, or savvy, and most importantly, to know that they are all those things without doubt. Only certain products can provide that assurance - a certain blush, the right handbag, the classiest shoes, the perfect cologne, and the business suit. In fact, commercials, by their tone, pictures, and music tell Americans, more often than not, what not to purchase. The only losers in commercial advertising are those that don’t play the game - their products are left to the bargain bins. What about the goals of a society? Commercials tell us that Americans want to be rich, affluent, powerful, and smart. Can there be any argument against these things? Has there ever been a commercial promoting lack of education, drug use, poverty, or servitude?

Second, television commercials also demonstrate the various lifestyles of a culture. In America, probably the chief message resulting from commercials is foremost a lifestyle of convenience. If the product or service doesn’t make our life easier, faster, or more efficient, than no matter what the cost, or how exciting the technology, it will likely fail in the marketplace. Commercials promote and frequently use key phrases such as “so easy to use”, “in half the time”, and “a better way”. They represent a core belief in America that has existed for over 200 years - that there is “a better way” and Americans will fight, defend, die, invent, and explore their way to those better ways. Not all cultures think this way, so here again the television commercials show a glimpse into American culture that would benefit those seeking to understand it.

Third, the commercials seen today represent what type of influences the American culture has been, and is being, driven by. This perhaps is where some may charge that the commercials do not rightly represent America. Unfortunately, and sometimes to America’s shame, the commercials do indeed show the true heart and direction the country has taken, and continues to take. Most notably, the promotion of women as sex objects steers the vast majority of commercial advertising. In a country that outwardly projects “equality” to its neighbors and enemies, our commercials unveil the true soul of America - that women are not equal. Few advertisers today will remove a scantily-clad woman from a commercial if they are shown the dollar net loss to such an idea. And therein lies the secondary direction of American culture: the love of money above morality. While no American would deny that we are a money-driven culture, America has often placed its capitalist heritage above its moral heritage and commercials depict those often more clearly than other mediums. Such are seen, for example, in commercials that advertise 1-900 lines, utilize “super-models” especially in selling alcohol, and openly promote condom use without mention of alternatives. Are we to believe that these don’t represent American influences and its current direction?

In conclusion, television commercials are perhaps a more piercing eye into the hearts and minds of Americans and their culture than most Americans might at first grasp. Commercial advertisers are not spending millions of dollars per year to pitch products and sell services that nobody buys. The hard truth is that Americans are consuming these cultural icons, almost recklessly. While some of these products are not in and of themselves problematic - the electric razor for instance - the way in which it is being sold is revealing. For those Americans who wish for a brighter picture to be painted of life in America, they need to consider more seriously where and what they purchase. When that happens, commercials will begin to reflect the greater side of America that the world should indeed know more about.

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[…] 2. Get a DVR: If you have digital cable, you can buy a digital video recorder. These things are great. Of course, you can get a TIVO if your budget allows (after you’ve gotten rid of the other television). My local cable company here in Brevard will rent you one for $6/month. This thing will automatically record shows you like. If you want it to record Home Improvement, it will just start doing it. No need to buy video tapes - and once you’ve seen the episode, you can just click delete. You can also record old movies that come on late at night to watch with older children for special treats. It saves time going to video rental stores and after a few weeks there is usually enough material to sit down and watch something together. A DVR gives you control over your own time. Additionally, you’ll be able to skip the commercials, which as I’ve stated before, can be more harmful than the show. […]


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