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The Rise and Fall of Commercials

June 17th, 2024 | 3 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This post is part of a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter by chapter. You need not read the book or previous points to appreciate this one. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here, part 7 here, part 8 here, and part 9 here. In this essay, I will respond to Chapter 9: Reach Out and Elect Someone.

“An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime,” wrote Neil Postman in 1985, “and has close to another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives.”

I haven’t yet reached 40, but I am quite confident that when I do, I will have watched far fewer than one million commercials. Of course, that’s not because I don’t watch TV. It’s just because I stream everything, and I’m willing to pay a bit extra on all my streaming services to avoid commercials altogether. 

The only time I see commercials is during a live football game. Surely I’m not alone? The strange thing is that when I do see commercials on a streaming service, they’re quite different from the TV commercials of Postman’s day. They tend to run 45 to 60 seconds, versus the 15- to 30-second length Postman said was common in the ’80s. That’s not to say there are no commercials, nor is it to suggest that our attention spans have grown. 

The 60-second streaming commercial strikes me as an advertiser’s way to brute-force its way into my psyche—something it must do, because otherwise I’d simply stare at my phone while the commercial runs. It’s strangely unnerving to look up and down from my handheld screen to discover that my TV screen is still playing the same commercial for antidepressants.

But our ability to avoid commercials doesn’t mean the media format has evaporated. Instead, it has metamorphosed into something far more potent. Here’s a summary of Postman’s description of commercials. As you read through it, consider what it might describe today:

  1. Persuades through emotion more than reason
  2. Excels at brevity of expression
  3. Driven by the image (physical attractiveness and social strata) of the star
  4. Creates false intimacy with the viewer
  5. Emphasizes lifestyle over exposition
  6. Prefers simple messages to complex messages
  7. Offers simple solutions to complex problems

If I restated all of those descriptions aspirationally, I would have described precisely the advice you’ll find influencers giving other influencers on video platforms like TikTok, IG Reels, and YouTube Shorts. See:

  1. Be authentic and tell people how you feel.
  2. Videos under 30 seconds do best with the algorithms!
  3. Make sure to look good and shoot in a beautiful location.
  4. Keep the camera close so people feel like you’re talking to them.
  5. Let people into your life. Let them see your family, house, and lifestyle.
  6. Don’t use complicated words or ideas that make people feel dumb.
  7. Say your truth!

Of course, advertisers realize this, and that’s why more money is being poured into influencer marketing. Some influencers even pretend to have advertising deals with companies because it’s now a sign of prestige. The advertising gods saw my majesty and transfigured me into an advertising demi-god.

Influencer marketing is the holy grail that advertisers dreamt of in 1985: put your product into the hands of a person who will sell it in a video people want to watch. Of course, we all know it’s an ad, but it still tricks us. Somehow it feels different than an ad.

But I want to press beyond advertising ethics to point out the strange truth that, as teenagers, most of us hated commercials. They were distractions. Unnecessary interludes between the reason we turned the TV on: to watch a show. But now we’ve somehow reached a place where the distractions are no less distracting, and yet are now the main attraction. 

So while it may be true that I’m watching fewer commercials today than ever before, the other truth is that I’m consuming the ultimate commercial medium every time I click a YouTube Short. Built into that click is the assumption that something worthwhile can be attained, learned, or consumed in a 30- to 60-second chunk of time, completely decontextualized from everything that came before it or after it.

That is, I fear, a stupid assumption. And that assumption has consequences for my own thinking. If I click the video enough times, I will normalize the brevity of speech, the emotive pleas, the emphasis on lifestyle, the false authenticity, the false intimacy, and the simple vernacular of the internet. It will, I fear, spill out of me in places I do not mean to let it spill.

This was Postman’s fear in the 1980s. He saw politicians adjusting themselves and their message to the commercial medium and feared that the medium itself was picking politicians based on their suitability to its limits. 

For example, Postman is correct in pointing out that Abraham Lincoln rarely smiled, battled depression all his life, and had an insane wife. I think he is also correct that such a person wouldn’t have fared well in 1980s presidential politics. Lincoln would absolutely fail in 2024. Joe Biden’s biggest Achilles heel is the glut of short-form videos (fairly or not) making him look like a dementia patient. 

If the short-form commercial format is king (it is), then the king will make a kingdom in his own image. The question is whether we will quietly obey or resist his rule.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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