Commercials Desperately Want You to Know They Know What They Are

What happens when advertising goes postmodern?

A television screen showing a television screen showing a television screen
The Atlantic

If you’ve watched enough TV over the past few years (and I certainly have), you may have noticed the emergence of a strange new type of commercial: the meta-commercial. As in, an advertisement about advertisements, a commercial that refers explicitly to the fact that it’s a commercial. Characters in these ads say things like “Are we in a Wayfair commercial?” and “This must be a State Farm commercial” and “You riffin’, or is this part of the commercial?” (It is.) They refer to their script. They refer to how much they’re being paid. “Oh, I forgot,” they realize with mock surprise. “We’re rolling.”

Once you notice these ads, you’ll see them everywhere. Without having done anything close to a systematic analysis, I can think of more than 30 by more than a dozen different companies over the past five years. I’m surely missing many more. There’s the Subway campaign in which celebrity spokespeople keep running out of time to finish their lines. There are the Progressive commercials in which Flo the Progressive Lady leads focus groups offering feedback on other Progressive commercials. There’s the Mountain Dew ad in which the Chicago Bulls star Zach Lavine and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia lead Charlie Day, both decked out head to toe in radioactive-looking Mountain Dew gear, discuss “how obvious product placement is.” There’s the Liberty Mutual campaign in which a company spokesperson says, “Research shows that people remember ads with young people having a good time, so … here’s a pool party”—then a cut to a deliberately absurd, insurance-themed pool party, complete with a fiendishly catchy jingle, which, if you haven’t heard it, I strongly caution you against listening to.

If the point of an advertisement is to sell you something, these meta-ads can sometimes be hard to parse in terms of how exactly they work. They’re not persuasive in any simple, recognizable way. But they do work, or at least the companies that keep making them seem to think so. Eschewing persuasion, it turns out, can be just as persuasive as persuasion itself.

Traditional advertisements—think mid-century magazine pages and infomercials—make a fairly straightforward appeal. Here is our product. These are its qualities. You can use it for this and this and this. And it can be yours today for the low price of just $29.99! The trouble was that people started to catch on. As viewers picked up on the tropes, advertisers adapted in response. They moved beyond their basic formula and started deploying a far subtler and more sophisticated arsenal of psychological tactics. This shift is what Cait Lamberton, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, calls advertising’s modernist turn: modernist in the sense that these commercials reject advertising’s traditional formal assumptions. There’s no outright salesmanship. The appeal is all implicit, all about vibes. Consider modern car commercials. Consider modern liquor commercials. Consider modern fragrance commercials. Look at these hot, cool people having a great time. Buy this perfume, and you too can be this hot and this cool and have this great a time. It sounds ridiculous when you spell it out, but it works.

Over time, though, people caught on to the tropes of these ads, too. “If you ask anyone in the United States to sketch out a storyboard for a product that cleans the glass in your house, they could do it, frame for frame,” Lamberton told me. Oh no, the kids are getting their sticky fingers all over the glass coffee table! Not to worry: Here comes Mom or Dad to wipe things up. It’s good as new! Cut to smiling family and catchy slogan. “The advertising industry, just like literature, has a set of very traditional story arcs,” Lamberton said. “No matter how creative advertisers try to be, there’s often a reversion back to those same stories.”

Advertising researchers refer to people’s awareness of these tropes and tactics as persuasion knowledge. “When people recognize that an ad is trying to influence them or manipulate them, their defenses kind of go up,” Jake Teeny, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, told me. “Oh, I don’t want to be tricked into doing this thing.” They get wary, and wary people are harder to sell to.

And so, like philosophers and literary critics before them, advertisements went postmodern, adopting a more irreverent tone and an ironic stance toward their modernist predecessors. The goal of meta-commercials is to avoid—or at least try to avoid—activating people’s persuasion knowledge. They tiptoe around our skeptical trip wires by subverting the tropes that set them off. Meta-commercials begin with the premise that modern audiences (or the ones they’re targeting at least) are too jaded and savvy to fall for traditional advertising appeals. They wink at the viewer, as if to say: We know that you know what we’re doing, so we’re just gonna cut the crap and be straight with you. When done well, this has the dual benefit of buttering up the viewer and building trust in the brand.

Meta-commercials don’t dispense entirely with the trappings of modernist advertising—far from it. Instead, they rely on those trappings even as they mock them. Making you feel smart is a postmodern move. But leveraging that feeling into sales? That’s a plain-old-modernist move, the same as marketing a car with scenes of hot people on a sweet road trip. However ironic they get, meta-ads almost invariably feature warm, likable spokespeople—Flo the Progressive Lady, Jake From State Farm, the Geico Gecko, assorted celebrities. They poke fun at vibes-based appeals, but they’re careful to make sure the vibes never sour. They present a highly calculated brand of authenticity, one that pantomimes our generational ethos of honesty—of being realbut they do so, obviously, to advance the companies’ interests. Want the genuine, unfiltered truth? these commercials implicitly ask. Well, the truth is that we’re trying to sell you this product. So why don’t you go ahead and buy it?

Meta-ads still account for a small minority of TV commercials. More traditional approaches continue to work in plenty of cases. Car ads have remained almost uniformly modernist, which makes sense: When you’ve got a cool, aesthetically differentiable product, why not show it off? Insurance ads, by contrast, have leaned hard into the meta approach, which also makes sense: When you’re working with a boring, unsexy product—a product people can’t even see or touch—you need to get creative. Not all companies can go meta, though. “If you’re BP,” Lamberton said, “you can’t make ironic ads about oil spills.”

Eventually, the tropes of postmodern commercials, meta-ads included, will become familiar—even more familiar than they already are. They’ll trigger our skeptical instincts in the same way modernist ads do, and advertisers will devise new means of persuasion. (A still wilder, even less formally constricted brand of marketing? A hard swing back toward sincerity? Who knows!) The parodies will themselves be parodied, and we’ll more readily recognize them for what they are: attempts to sell us things. Because in the end, no matter how subversive or ironic or meta they get, that’s what ads are. In the context of a commercial, even ostentatious non-manipulation becomes its own form of manipulation. So when, at the end of a Subway ad, Tom Brady turns to Stephen Curry and reminds him, “Steph, it’s a commercial,” you’d be wise to take him at his word.