Run

I am haunted by the vision of a dystopian future. This particular vision will be familiar to anyone who saw the film Minority Report over the summer. The year is 2054; the setting, Washington, D.C. City residents are under constant surveillance--subjected to retinal scans every time they get on or off public transportation, enter or leave office buildings or apartments, even walk down city streets. The government knows where they are virtually every minute of every day. Minority Report, with its tagline "Everybody runs," received a good deal of attention for its vision of a coming police state, which many found particularly relevant in light of the ongoing war on terrorism. Not me. What terrified me about life in this future Washington, D.C. wasn't the Big Brother government; it was the ads.

Everywhere Tom Cruise's character goes, he is accosted by talking billboards and badgered by holographic vendors. A Lexus sign calls him by name to announce, "The road you're on ... is the road less traveled"; a bathing beauty beckons from an American Express ad, "Need to escape? Blue can take you." But there is no escape, not even in Cruise's own apartment: The mere act of opening a box of breakfast cereal causes it to belt out an inane, squeaky jingle as animated figures race across the cardboard. When, in an effort to elude a law enforcement dragnet, Cruise surgically exchanges his eyes for someone else's, he succeeds in escaping the government--but not the retail sector: "Hello, Mr. Yakamoto," a virtual Gap employee cheerfully addresses him, "How did that set of assorted tank tops work out for you?" This, to my mind, is the most convincing portrayal of hell yet committed to celluloid. Since seeing the film, I've had nightmares in which I'm waylaid in front of my local pharmacy by a chirpy, digitized apparition who asks whether the hemorrhoid cream I purchased the previous week has done the trick--and if not, would I care to purchase an inflatable rubber doughnut to sit on?

There is good advertising and there is bad advertising. OK, that's a lie: It's all pretty awful. But some forms are more intolerable than others. I've made my peace with print ads, which just sit there, quiet and inert, waiting patiently for me to ignore them. And television's advertising seems to be the price we must pay for television: I was disappointed, but hardly surprised, to discover that TiVo--the fast-growing digital TV recording system--had early on knuckled under to broadcasters and removed a "commercial skip" feature that enabled viewers to pass over ads with the touch of a button. But when it comes to more intrusive forms of commercial outreach, I am less forgiving. For several months now I have been engaged in an ongoing war--acknowledged only by me but no less real for that-- with an ever-expanding and ever-more-aggressive cadre of local telemarketers. There was a time when both sides adhered to scrupulous codes of conduct: They wouldn't call the house at unreasonable hours, and I wouldn't greet them with profane invective and threats against their elderly relatives and pets. But lately the enemy seems to have redefined the rules of engagement. It is now not uncommon for telemarketers to call before nine in the morning or after nine at night--what my wife and I think of as the nobody-better-call-unless- they've-just-hurt-themselves hours. Worse still, the vast majority of these calls are now prerecorded; there's not even a hapless flunky on the other end of the line for me to terrorize. So, recently I decided to enter the technological arms race myself by purchasing something called the TeleZapper. The product packaging promises that it "keeps telemarketers out!" Inside, it explains that it does this by emitting a brief tone whenever we pick up the phone, which--in addition to irritating friends, family, and other legitimate callers--should persuade the autodialing machines used by telemarketers that our line has been disconnected. I confess I was rather disappointed that the TeleZapper does not, as its name implies, actually deliver a powerful electrical charge to the telemarketer foolish enough to autodial my home. But then, what did I expect for $50?

Even as I gain ground on one front of the war, however, I find I am losing ground elsewhere. My latest nemesis is Orbitz.com. This online discount travel agency will be familiar to anyone who's spent much time looking for cheap plane tickets or hotel reservations on the Web. But then, it will be familiar to anyone who's spent much time doing anything on the Web, for it is one of the most aggressive employers of the dreaded pop-up ads that effloresce across one's video screen like a sudden and unpleasant rash, conveniently using up all the memory that your computer might otherwise have devoted to opening the Web page you had intended to visit--in my case, typically CNN.com, ESPN online, or www.learnyourcoworkerssalaries.com. Orbitz is a pioneer in online annoyance not only because of the ubiquity of its pop-up ads but because they contain enough color and motion to induce seizures in unsuspecting Web surfers. In one--if you own a computer you have almost certainly seen it--multicolored butterflies flap upward against a background of flowers and what appears to be an origami Eiffel Tower. Another, sporting the dubious headline "click the cabana boy," features a swarm of dark-skinned young men in black pants and colorful jackets scurrying across the screen with trays in their hands; it's almost Old Empire enough to make you want to go out and see the spectacularly unnecessary sixth remake of The Four Feathers currently clogging your local multiplex. Almost.

It is a constant amazement to me that Orbitz's ad strategy--call it outreach by infinite annoyance--works at all. I now loathe the company so utterly that I can't imagine ever using its services, regardless of the merits. (Note to Orbitz execs: Just try to prove me wrong by offering a three-week Italian vacation for 200 bucks.) What kind of people respond to this barrage of negative stimuli by giving Orbitz their business? I previously imagined that they must be either a) inhumanly slow to anger, or b) utterly fascinated by bright colors. Recently, though, I discovered that a friend and colleague to whom--as far as I know--neither of these conditions applies, used Orbitz to book his flights and hotel for a work-related trip. He pointed out to me that he had gotten a decent hotel room in a major city for $75. I pointed out to him that Orbitz would spend perhaps $60 of that total visiting plagues of butterflies and cabana boys upon my computer. He pointed out to me that nonetheless he was saving a good deal of money. I pointed out to him that nonetheless if he ever used Orbitz again I would notify everyone in the office of his recent purchase of hemorrhoid cream. He seemed to take the hint. Everybody runs.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.
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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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