Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Watch More! Do Less!

When last I watched something on Hulu, I was treated to an advertisement for Hulu Plus, which almost seemed like a thematic sequel to the commercial with Will Arnett that ran during the Super Bowl. I didn’t mention that one in my post reviewing the Super Bowl ads, but I remember now just how puzzled I was by the message that it presented. Arnett played a space alien who presented himself as a member of a vast conspiracy among people in entertainment and broadcasting, observing with malicious glee all of the people around him who remained glued to television programs on their mobile devices while they sat in cafes or just walked down the street.
Obviously, the ad was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but to simply watch it, it’s hard to see any acknowledgement of the joke. I would expect that an absurdist portrayal of the would-be criticisms of a brand would show the salutary kernel of truth under the surface, but I don’t see that in the Will Arnett Super Bowl ad. Instead, it presents the criticisms of television viewing habits in an over-the-top way, but it also presents those actual habits in an over-the-top and markedly negative way. Arnett explains the evil plot that is modern television, and everyone around him sits in utter obliviousness, staring obsessively, vacantly into their screens. There is no point of contrast; there’s nothing that encourages viewers to both laugh at the absurdity and recognize the appeal of the product.
With the new commercial that I’ve seen run on Hulu itself, the company seems to have stripped the joke out of the equation altogether, leaving only a negative portrayal of their own product. I’m not sure what’s going on here. Either Hulu is engaged in some bizarre campaign of parodying itself, or my values are so hugely out of step with those of much of the culture that these advertisers see certain images as edifying while I see instead as disturbing.
That dichotomy is seen in the images of the new commercial alone, but it’s really driven home by Hulu Plus’ latest tagline: “Make the most of everything.” The ad shows a man on what I presume to be a Stair Master at a gym. I can only guess at the machine he’s using, because we don’t see it. The shot remains tight on this face and upper body, perhaps deliberately restricting our visual awareness of the fact that he is even doing anything. The man holds the handle of the machine with one hand while holding a mobile device in front of his face with the other. And as the camera lingers on the image of his distracted, staring expression, the voiceover says, “Make the most of your workout.”
How? I assume he means by doing the exact opposite of what this man is doing, seeing as he doesn’t appear to be aware of the fact that he’s working out at all. Now, I’m no fitness expert, but I’m pretty sure that if you don’t feel anything and you don’t have to concentrate on your exercise in any measure, you’re doing something wrong. The visual presentation really doesn’t give me the impression that he’s making the most out of his workout by adding television to it. It gives me the impression that he’s not getting much out of either activity.
“Make the most out of your lunch break,” the voiceover says next, at the same time that the scene changes to an image of a woman in business attire sitting on a bench outside and staring at an iPad on which she is watching an episode of Lost. The expression on the actresses face is marvelously discomforting, and it can’t be unintentional on the part of the advertisers. I wonder what the director said to her. Perhaps, “Try to look as if you’ve just dropped acid and you’re watching a dragon tenderly make love to a unicorn on a bed of rainbows.” They even have her raise a fast food beverage cup into frame and clumsily place the straw in her mouth without so much as moving her eyes. It’s an exceptionally unsophisticated image.
Nobody should look as rapturously mindless while watching television as Hulu has the subjects of its ads look. This is doubly true if the person is outside at the time. With the professional woman as with the man at the gym, the camera stays pretty close, but by all appearances it is a nice day outside. And yet Hulu’s concept of making the most of a lunch break on that day is to focus completely on an escapist fantasy and to never, ever glance for a moment at the sun. There’s no joke behind this as with the alien conspiracy ad; they’re actually saying that.
When I started to notice the popularity of watching television on DVD, I thought that there was something very positive about the changes to the way we consume media. At the same time that I miss the unifying experience of knowing that the rest of the country is watching the same thing at the same time, I considered it a worthy trade off, knowing that programs themselves were coming to be seen more as things to be sold directly, rather than just as means of delivering advertisements, and thus as things to be controlled by them. I liked the idea that Mad Men could make money because it was appreciated by its audience, and not just because it sold products. I realize, though, that that idea isn’t entirely accurate; the advertising is still primary, and it still affects the progress and direction of shows.
Now, not only does secondary advertising still hold sway over good media, the idea of entertainment as a product unto itself has proven to have a dark side. With companies now profiting not just from the consumption of their media but from the consumption of media in general, there are advertisers whose jobs have come to be to sell us on the very idea of watching television and movies, and to try to convince us that it’s better for us if we consume more, even as much as possible.
It’s only natural that a company tries to present its product as eminently beneficial to the consumer, especially in contrast to its competitors. It’s just less familiar, and quite unfortunate that in the cases of products like Hulu Plus, the major competitor is the entire outside world. Consequently the vision of such products’ ultimate benefit to your life is a situation in which you no longer have a life at all. “Make the most of everything” is a powerfully, and dangerously disingenuous slogan. With the haunting images of media addiction presented by such products as Hulu Plus and Digital Copy, about which I’ve written before, a far more fitting tagline would be, “You may as well not leave the couch.”

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