When TV Commercials Ruled American Culture

The pandemic has accelerated the death of a once-crucial medium: the TV ad, which had the surreal job of heroizing a product in 60 seconds or less.


We open on a Chihuahua. Salsa music blares in the background. Where are we? Juárez, Havana, or Fort Worth, it doesn’t matter—this is a land of yearning and appetite. The dog sees something in the distance: a pink collar. A potential mate. We keep pace as he runs, risking it all for love.

But when he finally reaches her, he blows right past, barely registering her presence. He parks himself in front of a taco-wielding teen as the music trails off uncertainly. Then the dog speaks. “Yo quiero Taco Bell.”

According to corporate canon, the slogan is exclamatory, but that does the line reading a disservice. The actor Carlos Alazraqui, who voiced the Chihuahua, reportedly drew inspiration from the morose Hungarian film star Peter Lorre and from Ren, Stimpy’s psychotic other half. You can tell: The dog states his desire for Taco Bell with more than a tinge of menace.

Whatever your opinion of it, Taco Bell’s first commercial starring Gidget, the real-life Chihuahua, became an honest phenomenon in the late ’90s. People walked around saying “Yo quiero [Fill in the blank.]” Gidget attended movie premieres and appeared on Access Hollywood. The talking dog rocked America, and all it took was 30 seconds.

Back when Americans digested the same media diet of a few dozen TV channels and the occasional blockbuster film, commercials could do that. Snippets from the highlight reel still jangle in our heads: “I’m a Mac”; “Wassup?”; “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” For decades, broadcast TV commercials (also known as TVCs) often held the same pop-cultural legitimacy as the programming they ran against. “In the ’80s, there were a hundred things of note that happened in culture in a year,” Karl Lieberman, a co-creator of Dos Equis’s “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign and an executive creative director at the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, told me. “There was a chance that ‘Where’s the beef?’ could be one of them.” Now, he said, the media landscape is so saturated that “advertising oftentimes isn’t in the top 100 things that happened in a day.”

The profusion of novel ways to waste one’s time has put the venerable TV commercial on life support, kept stable by the dregs of the medium: pharmaceutical ads, political attacks, and dealership promos. The TVC’s decline was a fait accompli from the moment Google launched its online ad platform, AdWords, in 2000. Media buys, like consumer eyeballs, are finite: Corporations spend, on average, about 8 percent of their revenues on marketing, allocating a fixed budget to whichever spaces can best deliver a given audience.

Network and cable TV now vie for views with all sorts of channels, most of which didn’t exist 20 years ago. More streaming services such as Netflix are becoming subscription-based, not commercial-based. Clients have cottoned to the assurances of digital metrics, even as some of those metrics have been found to be inflated. Last year the total digital-advertising spend in the United States was predicted to rise 19.1 percent as “traditional” advertising, encompassing print, TV, and radio, fell 19 percent.

If the TVC was struggling pre-COVID-19, the pandemic has dealt it a death blow. Not only have TV tentpoles such as the Olympics been canceled (or severely curtailed), but social-distancing rules have also made the actual production of live-action commercials much more difficult, and financially crimped clients are slashing their marketing budgets anyway. It’s perhaps little surprise, then, that TV ad revenue dropped nearly 27 percent in April.

So what, right? Maybe it’s been years since a commercial charmed you. Most of them are justifiably maligned. But even the crassest executions adhere to a basic covenant: They are built, on some level, to entertain. Where social-media influencers exist to inspire envy, and targeted banners—those eerily pertinent display ads that follow you around the internet—merely knock on your door at an opportune time, commercials put in the work. As much as they ape TV and film, they also constitute a wholly sui generis storytelling format. Tasked with the surreal job of heroizing a product in 30 or 60 seconds, the best of them spin elegant arguments out of puffery.

“The curtains open and a little play happens,” says Will O’Barr, a professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at Duke University who has written extensively on postwar advertising. “[The commercial is] kind of like a morality play, because it has a moral to it, but the moral is the selling message.” So a creative team, handed the message “We have the freshest salmon,” conjectures a fisherman kicking a grizzly in the ’nads; an invitation to replace aging furniture becomes an impromptu lesson in ontology.

For products that were more abstract or attenuated from the human experience, commercials could prove surprisingly supple. The first 50 seconds of “Cat Herders,” a Super Bowl spot from 2000, is revealed in the final 10 to be an extended metaphor for a business-to-business suite of data services. With such big-budget TV buys, profligacy was often the point. “The waste of it, the fact that not everyone is going to be in your target market but everyone’s going to see it, is costly signaling in a way that says ‘We are a substantial brand,’” Greg Hahn, the copywriter on “Cat Herders” and a co-founder of the ad agency Mischief, told me.

Commercials signaled other things as well: bits of context and period ephemera that bottled the zeitgeist in unexpected—and sometimes prescient—ways. The deftest campaigns tended to strum chords of cultural tension, poking at viewers’ preoccupations for light comic relief. GEICO’s long-running “Cavemen” campaign, in which a series of civilized Neanderthals encounter an offensive GEICO tagline, hinted at the swelling importance of identity politics to a wide swath of Americans. “So easy a caveman can do it” drives the Neanderthals to anger and shame, but eventually to therapy and advocacy. Meanwhile, viewers are being hit with the insurer’s admirably simple benefit over and over.

Brands with long catalogs of well-known and well-received commercials could afford to tweak their formulae for subversive effect, like a popular franchise making a gritty reboot. Nike made its reputation on canny deals with emerging superstars such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, but its most powerful ad may well be a slow, single-take tracking shot of an overweight preteen jogging down a rural road. It’s not kinetic or climactic, but it is audacious, at least for an industry that typically celebrates only one kind of aspiration.

Of course, Nike is Nike. But even more mundane or mediocre commercials, which comprise the majority of broadcast ads, can offer rich texts for cultural study. GQ published an oral history about how a bland 2009 Folgers spot celebrating the material comforts of white-flight suburbia became a viral joke for its incestuous undertones. Twitter recently resurrected this Sears ad from the ’90s, in which a woman who is inexplicably unable to use the phone must instead use her wiles.

And that’s just the fun stuff. Sober social issues frequently played out over commercial campaigns. Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial, one of the most notorious flops in adland, darkly presaged the creeping fascism and corporate hypocrisy of the Trump era. Once-lovable (or once-palatable) tropes and icons suffered short shelf lives as micro-generations of consumers pushed for more progressive lenses. Taco Bell drew criticism for its Chihuahua mascot, which adopted crude stereotypes from a hodgepodge of Latin American countries—just like the Frito Bandito, a late-’60s mascot who spoke with a cartoonish Mexican accent and vowed to, in his own words, “never touch a Frito that does not belong to me,” even though “I love Fritos mucho.”

Commercials took big, expensive, well-publicized swings, and companies were occasionally punished for it; bad press didn’t necessarily affect sales, but it always required cleanup. So marketers grew more cautious. Consumers evolved, too: They got savvier, or at least more guarded. As audiences became familiar with the poetics of the commercial—its rhythms and anatomy—they tumbled from suggestibility into cynicism. “Advertising was always about artifice, and that artifice has gone away,” Lieberman said. “That semi-entertaining wrapper around a 2-for-$10 pizza deal just doesn’t fly anymore.” The TVC performed a magic trick that people had seen one too many times. Born from the contingencies of the 20th century, it can no longer keep up with the 21st.

This isn’t an Old Yeller situation; commercials aren’t a beloved or essential feature of daily life. Nor does the medium have a monopoly on creative marketing. “The brief is the same: You want to engage people,” Hahn said. “In TV, you did that through the tools of TV, which were dialogue, visuals, sound. But the goal [of advertising] is to engage people”—whether by print, radio, TikTok, or, one day, gamma rays beamed directly to your cortex.

Still, the broadcast TVC tried harder than most formats. If you have any affinity for a commercial message, the odds are good that it originated with a commercial. So when a C-list reality star pops up in your social feed to sell you flat-tummy tea; when your favorite podcast host breaks her rhythm to read from a tired sponsor script; when you discover that the world’s Alexas were, in fact, always listening: Pour out some of your low-carb, low-cal American pilsner in memory of the television commercial, one of capitalism’s last concessions.